I’m excited just thinking about writing this blog! I’ve just returned from two trips to two incredible schools. Both Ofsted “outstanding” but, more importantly, both deeply invested in improving their children’s life chances and ensuring that every second of every day strengthens their children as learners and thoughtful, reflective human beings.

These school visits are part of a gathering of ideas and excellent practice in the Learning Power Approach. Examples from these schools will be used to illustrate the nifty tweeks Learning Power practitioners make to their practice to embed learning power. They will join many other examples in a book I am co-writing with Guy Claxton on developing learning power in a primary classroom. You can already buy the first book in the series here.

Blending Learning Power with complementary approaches

Having visited these schools, I’ve become interested in how schools are blending learning power with other complementary and meaningful approaches. Sandringham school (@sandringhamE7), in East London, combines the learning power approach with P4 and oracy (sharing practice with @voice21oracy). I have already written one blog about their practice here.

St Bernard’s (@stbernardsep), near Chester, is combining learning power with “dilemma-led learning”, pioneered by Dr Debra Kidd (@debrakidd) and Hywel Roberts (@hywel_roberts). This is the combination of approaches I’m going to expand on in this blog.

What I loved about combining these approaches was that children not only sought out ways to strengthen themselves as learners, they were all also engaging in real-life problems and dilemmas. They were building their learning power AND constantly exercising the thought-processes needed to become thoughtful and engaged citizens.

Why is this important? Because, when they leave school, children will be faced with an array of opinions, views, facts, false facts which they will have to be able to sift through and make sense of (see “critiquing” below). If they haven’t practised the skill of weighing these up, they will be in danger of falling into simplistic thinking, unable to weigh up the information in front of them, or worse, disengaging completely. Children need to engage in these problems because they matter. And what they think about them matters too. If education is to play an important part in building the next generation (which I hope it is!) then it needs help children grapple with these sticky issues.

This blog will refer to the following elements of learning power, so I have included a small sample of them here. The full set can be found inside the front cover of Guy Claxton’s latest book, “The Learning Power Approach“.

In all classrooms, in all schools, we are strengthening or weakening these learning habits in every moment of every lesson. To get a “full mental workout” and to become a strong all-round learner, Guy Claxton argues that we need to purposefully plan to strength these learning habits across a range of lessons. St Bernard’s is doing just that, and you should be able to see which elements of learning power are being stretched at different points in each example below.

What happens at St Bernard’s?

Whole school curriculum design

The staff at St Bernard’s, led by Andy Moor (@amoor4ed), are working alongside Debra and Hywel and the staff at Chester Zoo to reimagine a pioneering curriculum. They are in mid-creation at the moment, which makes visiting them an exciting event in itself! To get the ball rolling, they piloted a “Songbirds” project last year, which engaged children across the school in thinking about the depletion of songbirds in Indonesia. Put in a wider context, the children were learning about the interplay between traditional practices and conservation.

Letter writing from invested children
Letter writing from invested children

Staff created a rigorous curriculum across all subject areas where subject-specific skills were taught in the context of the songbird crisis. Many innovative approaches were taken including one where children from years 4 to 6 prepared a choreographed song that they performed in the middle of a local shopping centre. As staff stood out of the way the ‘flashmob’ took place with onlookers curious as to what it was all about. Children had worked before this to prepare leaflets about the songbird crisis and then worked in campaign teams as they marched through the shopping centre, explaining to shoppers why they should care. Alongside this, they were taught valuable speaking and listening skills, including how to approach people, what to do if they weren’t interested, how to capture their interest (thus combining “investment” with the development of learning power; in this case “socialising” – see above). Younger children in KS1 held a campaign on the schoolyard for parents at the end of the day while year 3 pupils prepared and presented an assembly to other schools in the local area. Their investment and near obsession for the birds allowed the knowledge and skills that teachers then brought forward to be learned and with the emotions attached to the event, memory of the content and activity will not easily be forgotten. 

The children became invested in their experience through stepping into multiple viewpoints to the problem of catching songbirds and coming up with solutions to protect endangered species of songbird. By doing this, they were not only learning that there are many valid viewpoints to a problem, but they were also developing empathy and understanding of these viewpoints. And they also learnt how to write persuasive, heartfelt letters and design eye-catching leaflets to draw the issue to the public’s attention. Being invested in the project raised the stakes for the children in all the right ways. It meant they HAD to make the letters persuasive, they HAD to draw in their reader. The birds were depending on it.

The children now care passionately about birds but have learnt many areas of the national curriculum alongside it. See here how the final celebration of this work was shared with the world:

Individual lesson design: combining stretching learning muscles with a cultivating a healthy obsession!

This was the part that really sent chills through my spine. Both lessons I observed took the children on a journey in their learning. Both lessons had the children on tender hooks, caught up in an Eastenders-style drama, desperate to be involved in the next part of the action. Most importantly, both lessons gave children the opportunity to grapple with real-life problems and relate them to their own lives. And they seamlessly wove in learning power, inviting children to stretch elements of learning power, such as noticing, developing empathy and visualising (refer to elements of learning power above).

A bit of theory:

Before I describe a few examples of this in practice, let’s take a step back and look at the reasoning behind such an approach. It might seem obvious that actively engaging children in their learning in this way will have positive effects: the children become inspired and enthusiastic about their learning, which will, in turn, lead to better quality work (because they will want to do it) and better behaviour (because the learning is more inviting than getting distracted). However, this approach is aiming to go beyond engagement, to a state of being Hywel Roberts describes as “Botheredness”. This slide depicts the movement from attention to interest to engagement, investment and finally obsession:

Moving from engagement to investment

All of the above were evident at St Bernard’s. Since the children showing me around the school were still excitedly showing me all their learning on songbirds, you could see many had been “obsessed” with their learning. By making the project mean something and getting them to look at the problem from multiple points of view, they became invested in the outcome of their learning. The quality of their work was incredible. Here are just a few examples of their work that the children excitedly shared:

By inviting the children to invest in this way, they shifted from being dependent, where you have to ensure the children are “on task” (Debra Kidd referred to this as the lowest common denominator in learning) to independence, where the children are hungry to learn and find out more. Who wouldn’t want that for the children they teach?! What parent wouldn’t want that for their child?!

Debra and Hywel talked about moving away from dragging children through education (because where’s the joy or meaning in that?) to getting children to invest in their learning and see a point in what they are doing. It makes total sense to me; it’s not rocket science!

It’s worth just pondering …

  • Which children do you think remember more (those who are ‘paying attention’ or those who are ‘invested’)?
  • Which group of children do you think are more fun to teach?
  • Which produces more critical and reflective thinkers?

It is also worth taking into account the research behind emotionally investing in learning (I’m sure Hywel will love me for inserting this photo – he looks “bothered”!):

A look at the learning:

The photo below is from Rebecca Senior’s year six class. The children had been invited to consider what life was like as an evacuee in World War Two. To begin with, the children had discussed photos of children leaving London. The children were invited to hone in on their noticing muscles by noticing and interpreting the expressions on the children’s faces. At first glance, the children offered ideas that the children looked happy and excited. However, Rebecca didn’t leave it there. She invited them to move from “what they noticed on the surface” to “deeper noticing” (thus stretching their noticing skills beyond the obvious). She provided a thinking frame, “I thought … now I think”. With this extra “nudging”, the children came out with some profound observations:

“First I thought they were happy, but now I think they’re just smiling to help the little ones.”


Rejoice added, 

“There are lots of mixed emotions in that picture.”

Children discuss the feelings of evacuee children in WW2
Children discuss the feelings of evacuee children in WW2

Just this simple “nudge” from their teacher, deepened the children’s skill of noticing and began to engage their empathy. You could see that the children were beginning to invest in their learning (What if this were me? Or my brothers and sisters?). They were also getting better at paying attention to detail in different contexts (in this case, reading emotions and recognising that people often work hard to hide them).

The photo below shows a real turning point in the lesson, where Rebecca invited the children to imagine that they were alive in wartime. She talked them through excitedly leaving school, looking forward to playing football with their friends on the docks. However, when they ran in through the door and into their bedroom, instead of a football, they found this letter on top of a packed suitcase. You could feel the atmosphere in the room shift as the children reached for and began to read their individual letters:

Child receives letter, stepping into the shoes of an evacuee in World War 2.

Again, why do this? It wasn’t to make the children upset at the idea of leaving home and cry (although one child very nearly did!). It was to develop the children’s empathy and compassion, to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and begin to imagine what being a child might have felt like in wartime. And why is this important? Because there are many modern-day situations where it will be useful for children to stretch their empathy and open up compassionately to others; the refugee crisis being just one example.  And if school isn’t a forum for children to begin to explore feelings and viewpoints related to big ideas, when will they truly get to grapple with these complexities? As Debra Kidd said, “It’s about bringing the ‘out there’, ‘in here’”. And as Kevin Dyer from @ATTtweet said in the INSET with @igniteTSA:

“What’s the point if we don’t ask the big questions?”

Kevin Dyer

How did the children apply this skill? They wrote detailed diary entries, imagining that they were one of these refugees, engaging with the mixed emotions they had talked about earlier in the class, toying around with the excitement of exploring somewhere new and the turmoil of what might be happening to their families back home. You could have heard a pin drop whilst the children were absorbed in their imagining.

I have some more examples of this kind of learning – combining investment and purpose with developing learning power, but I think you’ll have to wait for the book to read about the other ones. For now, I’m wondering if you see the point in developing children’s thinking in this way? If you can see the subtle (or not so subtle?!) shift from telling children what they are going to learn and how they are going to learn it to inviting them to play a vital role in their learning journey …

A few other bits:

Grouping and table arrangements

This might seem a little bit boring after reading the lesson example and learning above! But, attention to detail is important and can make all the difference between creating passive learners and active, independent ones. First of all, every class in St Bernard’s had mixed attainment pairs. The teachers generally chose them at random at the beginning of every week. Thoughts behind mixed attainment pairs and how to group them are on this page on my website.

They had also thought very carefully about table arrangements. Many classrooms had two tables joined together in an “L” shape. The purpose behind this was simple. Pairs could share ideas, reflect on and support their learning and, when needed, the teacher could position him/herself between both of the pairs and facing them. Simple, but effective:

Tables are arranged into an “L-shape” so that learners can collaborate and teachers and feedback to both pairs.

Some new Learnish!

I have written about developing your Learnish in the classroom here. I’m always on the lookout for new phrases and words that will invite children to think critically, use their imaginations and explore possibilities. Hwyel and Debra used the phrase “Let’s say …”. This simple use of language creates a safety net for children, inviting them to come on an imaginative journey with their class.

“Learning coaches”

Teaching assistants had the revamped job title of “learning coach”. Again, this may seem like a small detail, but titles like this send a message to the children. “Teaching assistant” sounds like just that: An assistant to the teacher. For me, this job title implies a hierarchy in the classroom and lends itself to a job description of doing what is asked by the teacher. In some schools, I have heard TA’s referred to as LSA’s, learning support assistants. This has a semantic shift, to “we’re here to support the learning” – a step in the right direction if you want the focus in classroom support to be on learning. But why not take it a step further and refer to adults who are there to support learning as “learning coaches”? See here for a bit on the semantic shift from teacher to learning coach.

Reference cards for tables.

In each classroom, children had cards to refer to which helped them pick apart each learning muscle. They referred to these throughout each lesson and it helped them to be articulate about their learning:

The Learning Power Station.

If you’ve read this far, well done as I’ve saved the best until last! The school has set up a “Learning Station”. This is a room where the children reflect their learning by using an I-pad that is set up to record. “Learning power ambassadors” in each class help spot the use of excellent learning habits in each classroom. The children then get to go to the “Learning station” to feedback their learning. Excellent learning is reinforced by playing back these recordings at lunchtime. What a brilliant idea!

The learning power station – this is the playback screen for lunchtimes.

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