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Capturing Hearts and Minds...

There is a great deal of talk about creating the learning school these days. And rightly so, because if a school isn't about learning what is it about? But what, exactly, does that entail, how do you do it and what does it look like?

Capturing Heart and Minds

Three years on it’s still all about learning

A case study Jackie Beere is Head teacher of Campion School, a specialist language college in Northamptonshire

This large 11-18 school has been involved in research into transforming learning since 2001. This article reflects how ideas on ‘Learning to Learn’ have developed.

Three years ago I wrote a case study about how we were trying to build resilience and independence for learning through our Learning to Learn programmes at Campion School. At that time I was an Advanced Skills Teacher leading learning at the school, now I am head teacher at the same school trying to making my ‘learning school’ dream a reality.

So how is the plan progressing and what have we learnt? We began teaching a discrete Learning to Learn lesson for Year 7 as part of a Campaign for Learning research project.

The course consisted of an introduction to neuroscience and intelligence, including creating student learning profiles and considering how to use this knowledge across the curriculum. In addition, our schemes contained many lessons on how to develop emotional intelligence for learning. The course was very successful; teachers enjoyed teaching it and the students enjoyed the lessons and seemed to become more aware of their learning potential. We held parent’s workshops and developed learning to learn resource packs as our course progressed.

The most powerful impact was the way the student’s knowledge of their learning styles created a bottom-up approach to introducing brain-friendly approaches across the curriculum. Students talked to teachers about their favoured styles and staff requested training on brain gym and mind mapping etc. because students were talking about these techniques.

Following several full training days that explored theories of Multiple Intelligence, Emotional Intelligence, Hemisphere Dominance, Learning Styles and Accelerated Learning, all departments planned to address the practical implications of these across the curriculum. Some staff conducted learning research projects as part of our school-based MBA course led by work they were doing in the classroom. We created a Learning Group who would lead all innovative practice and report back to staff as well as plan all INSET around ‘learning’. We published a newsletter called Learning Loads that presented all the latest research on learning for staff to read as well as experiences from Campion classrooms.

As part of the ‘learning school’ focus we dismantled the curriculum after the SATS for Year 9 students to follow a Learning Breakthrough Project for a week. We found the least motivated students staying behind at lunch and breaks learning how to referee or make a rocket, choreograph a dance or learn the art of photography. We offered a KS4 option in Learning to Learn; a course accredited by the Open College Network that provided an opportunity for students to choose something they wanted to learn and set their own targets, assessed by a presentation and learning log.

Students designed projects such as alternative health care, how to paint a mural, digital photography, martial arts or creating a multi-sensory garden amongst many other interests.

Our focus on learning enabled me to develop the hierarchy of needs for a ‘learning school’shown later. I had realized from work in other schools that there was often much enthusiasm for addressing ‘learning’ and schools were sometimes dipping into aspects of the ‘learning to learn’ agenda such as using learning styles tests or planning cross curricular days on multiple intelligences – often with a frustration over the lack of long-term impact. The hierarchy gives some guidance on planning strategies that can really change the ethos through a focus on what works for learning.

The learning environment is crucial and underpins all school activity. This includes the smile as a student walks into the classroom to the way the desks are set out and the use of posters on the walls. Relationships throughout the institution are key to the emotional wellbeing of the learners and teaching emotional intelligence implicitly and explicitly through the curriculum will create the self management necessary to create good learning. Only when these are embedded can the use of learning profiles make an impact on attainment and, ultimately, enable our students become independent and engaged learners for life. We have since introduced Thinking Skills for Year 8 which involves the P4C (Philosophy for Children) principles of thinking through questions like ‘What colour is Tuesday?’ and students planning and teaching their own lesson to the class.

Most importantly, we have embraced the principles of Assessment for Learning, sharing criteria for assessment with students and encouraging self-and peer-assessment against these criteria. Using this plus the data now available for setting targets enables us to truly personalise learning and help students take more control of and responsibility for their own progress.

Learning to Learn is about having a whole-school ethos where every subject focuses on the ‘how’of learning throughout the lesson and empowers students with an awareness of their own learning capacity. Learning is offered in a wide variety of styles with role-play, ICT, games, group work and film as part of the mixed diet that engages and excites students. Time for reflective questioning is built into schemes and lesson plans with teachers able to engage in a dialogue about learning so that students understand what works for them.

So what about the impact?

When OFSTED visited in October 2004 they asked me how much of our focus on learning was embraced by all staff. I estimated that 40% may be on board and enthusiastic. Co-incidentally (or not!) 46% of our teachers got Excellent or Very Good in their observations. Interesting! The report was very supportive of the way the focus on learning had impacted on standards. Some of the comments from the report reflect this:

  • ‘The dynamic focus… on improving learning is proving very effective.’
  • ‘The way ‘they help students understand how to learn’ explains ‘very high achievement.’
  • ‘Teachers increase the depth and pace of student’s learning through their expertise in developing learning skills.’
  • ‘The use of brain gym, role-play and visual aids are some of the many successful approaches teachers use to provide for a range of learning styles.’
  • 'Student learning is very good as a result of the emphasis placed on adapting teaching to learning styles favoured by students.’
  • ‘Students who had completed the Learning to Learn course had a very sophisticated knowledge of their own learning styles and how to use them.’
  • ‘Innovative provision for teaching learning styles and thinking skills are having a positive impact on the quality of learning.’

Susan Greenfield recently said in an article in the Times Educational Supplement that there has never been a greater need for scientists and educationalists to work together to develop and research ideas based around learning to learn to create the major breakthrough we need in helping young people engage in learning. This was the same conclusion reached by three neuroscientists and three head teachers under the guidance of Professor David Hargreaves in a recent Demos working party report entitled ‘About Learning.’

In addition, it was suggested that schools that develop a real ‘learning’ culture should have the chance to accredit their efforts through some kind of Investors in Learning Award. As a biased member of this group who continues to learn about learning, I advocate this as a positive way forward in the context of a profession committed to finding a way to re-engage young people in the life-changing experience that is learning.

End of term report on Learning to Learn: ‘Showing great potential for a major breakthrough!’

Jackie Beere

To go to Jackie Beere's profile please click here.

Further reading ‘About Learning’

  • Report of the Learning Working Group, DEMOS For a detailed list of submissions to this group which is a definitive account of important research on ‘Learning to Learn’ go to http://www.demos.co.uk/files/About_learning.pdf
  • Also see: www.campaign-for-learning.org.uk
  • ‘The KS3 Learning Kit’, Jackie Beere, Connect Publications
  • ‘How People Learn: brain, mind, experience and school’, edited by Bransford, Brown and Cocking (2000) National Academy of Sciences, USA ‘
  • Creating the 21st Century Learning School’, Middlewood, Parker and Beere, Sage Publications.