Why call it the Learning Skills curriculum?

By |2020-11-15T11:14:46+00:00November 15th, 2020|Dr James Mannion|0 Comments

This is an extract from ‘Fear is the Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time – and how to make it work for your pupils’.

The book is about the Learning Skills curriculum, a whole-school approach to teaching and learning that we developed at a disadvantaged school in the UK. An 8-year evaluation with the University of Cambridge found that Learning Skills led to significant gains in subject learning across the curriculum, with accelerated gains among students from disadvantaged backgrounds: the Pupil Premium gap at GCSE reduced by over 65% from one cohort to the next (Mannion, McAllister & Mercer, 2018). [1]

The feedback we have received on the book so far has been pretty phenomenal. You can read all the very kind things people have said about it hereAnd you can buy it here.

In this short extract, we will address a minor but important question…

Why call it the Learning Skills curriculum?

In recent years, the word ‘skills’ has undergone a spectacular fall from grace – in the UK, at least. Just twelve short years ago, it could be found perched at the very top of the education system, on the sign outside the door of the Department for Education and Skills. Later, the department was renamed to become the Department for Children, Schools and Families, before shapeshifting once again into its current incarnation, the Department for Education. Similarly, in 2016, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills was renamed the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, presumably following a brainstorming meeting about how to make it sound much more rigorous.

To be fair, the word ‘skills’ never seemed quite at home in the name of the government department. So it probably did need bringing down a peg or two, although perhaps not quite to the Orwellian depths to which it has plunged: at the time of writing, there are reports that Nick Gibb, the current Minister for School Standards, has ‘banned civil servants from using the word “skills” in his correspondence because “he doesn’t believe they exist”’. [2]

We didn’t set out to reclaim the word ‘skills’, however. In the first two years we ran the programme at Sea View, we called it Learning to Learn. We were never particularly happy with it, but we needed a name and this seemed like the least bad option at the time. In third year of the programme, the Learning to Learn department merged with the PSHE department, and we decided to rebrand the whole thing Learning for Life in an attempt to make clear that these lessons were at least partly concerned with preparing students for the world beyond the school gates.

Around this time, we started to notice that regardless of whether we called it Learning to Learn or Learning for Life, for some reason many students referred to it simply as Learning Skills. We weren’t particularly taken with this name either. We wanted something with a bit more pizzazz. At one point, we referred to it as The Praxis Curriculum. Praxis is an ancient word that means something like ‘a combination of reflection and action’, and it is kind of a cool concept that comes close to capturing what we were trying to do. But unfortunately – as we can now see, with the clarity of hindsight – The Praxis Curriculum is a truly dreadful name.

Once it became apparent that what we were doing might be worth reproducing in other schools, we realised we needed a name that would look at home on a school timetable. Reflecting on the fact that whatever we called it, our students often called it Learning Skills, finally the penny dropped: it doesn’t matter what we think, it just has to be something that makes sense to the students. So, finally, we settled on the name Learning Skills.

The word ‘curriculum’ we use advisedly, because if there’s one thing we are convinced of, it is that teaching children how to get better at learning stuff requires dedicated curriculum time. Metacognition, self-regulation and oracy can and should be developed through all subject areas, and we absolutely advocate that. But it isn’t enough. As we argued in Part 1, with the best will in the world, an ‘embedded-only’ approach just doesn’t get you where you need to go. It’s easy to see why: there just isn’t time to do all of this within the context of subject learning, because there’s so much to cover already. An embedded-only approach would also be inefficient, because you’d be duplicating if you had every subject area teaching the students how to set effective short, medium and long-term goals; how to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning; how to speak and listen effectively across a range of contexts; how to organise their time and resources effectively, and so on. It would also be confusing for the students, because they would likely be getting different messages from different departments.

We are acutely aware that the need to carve out curriculum time is the main obstacle to the Learning Skills approach becoming more widespread. But by the end of this book, we hope to have persuaded at least some readers of a truth that we hold self-evident, because we have lived and breathed it for the last fifteen years: if you really want your students to become effective, self-regulated learners, you need to provide them with dedicated lessons in which this work can take place. Whether you need as much curriculum time as we had in the Sea View pilot study – more than 400 lessons over three years – is another question. No doubt some people would say that sounds like too much, but the truth is, we just don’t know because we don’t have the data yet. What we do know from the Sea View study is that 400+ lessons doesn’t seem to do any harm – quite the reverse, in fact. As we will see in Chapter 6: The evidence for Learning Skills, the Learning Skills cohorts at Sea View were able to do more with less, performing significantly better in measures of subject learning than the control cohort, who had a corresponding 400+ more lessons of subject-based learning.

By way of a final word on the matter, we don’t think the name is particularly important. It’s the mission to create generations of confident, curious, independent learners that’s the thing. So, if you want to take the ideas in the book and call it something completely different, you do so with our blessing. If anything, we’d prefer it that way; what we really want is for you to take these ideas, play around with them and make them your own.

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] Mannion, J., McAllister, K., Mercer, N. (2018) The Learning Skills curriculum: raising the bar, closing the gap at GCSE. Impactthe Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, Sept 2018. LINK

[2] McInerney, L. (2018) Education ministers need to stop arguing about skills. SchoolsWeek, Fri 26th Jan. Available at: https://schoolsweek.co.uk/education-ministers-need-to-stop-arguing-about-skills.

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