The above is the title of a book by Guy Claxton that I read recently. At the time of publishing the author was Director for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester. After teaching for a few years the book was a revelation about how poor and old-fashioned some practice in education really is, but more than that the book gives suggestions at what we can do to improve our learner’s experience and attainment. It is an inspiring text and has implications for the other disciplines that I work in – football coaching and sport psychology. The book is a must read for anyone involved in teaching anyone anything.

Year on year record exam results show success at record levels. This must mean one of a few possibilities: Kids are getting smarter year after year; teaching is improving year after year; or the system is being manipulated so that exams are becoming easier or students are being ‘coached’ to pass them in such a way that very little learning actually takes place. Claxton points out that a vast amount of what kids are taught in school is useless information that they will never have cause to use again (simultaneous/quadratic equation anyone?). Also, that education has changed very little since it became mandatory over a century ago. The same ‘factory production line’ approach persists today, albeit constantly re-packaged and re-named by successive governments whenever there is a change in power at the top i.e. learning for learning’s sake and producing students incapable of thinking for themselves. There have even been many examples of teachers pretty much doing the work for the students in order to achieve their much coveted ‘targets’ for success and achievement.

Claxton also derides the over-reliance of modern teaching on the various fads that surface occasionally, the latest being ‘learning styles’. Apparently (according to the Department for Educational Standards DfES) we learn best according to seeing information presented (visual), hearing it (auditory) or doing it for ourselves (kinaesthetic).

Claxton: “The apparent science behind them has turned out to be flawed. Many of the so-called ‘learning styles’ are far less permanent, pervasive or clear-cut than they have been claimed… people change the way they approach things depending on what it is they are learning. I am a much more ‘visual’ learner when I am watching TV, more ‘auditory’ when listening to a teacher, and more ‘kinaesthetic’ when I am playing football – aren’t you? Also, learning styles turn out to change and develop considerably over time. They are better thought of as temporary snap-shots of evolving habits and preferences than as life sentences.”

The pigeonholing of learners to one style can be problematic if they are then targeted with only one source of information – our brains are ‘plastic’ and can be moulded over the course of our lives. The obvious implication from this as an educator is to present all learners as if they learn with all three styles all the time, then people don’t get left out.

He goes on to criticise the differences between how we are taught and in school and how we learn in ‘real life’:

“If the core purpose of education is to give young people a useful apprenticeship in the arts and crafts of real-life learning, then the kinds of learning they do in school – not the content, but the sorts of learning activities which that content demands and exercises – has to match the kinds of learning that people do in the wider world. If education is to be a preparation for dealing with rich, messy, disconcerting life then it can’t just train young people in how to hoover up pre-determined, bite-sized gobbets of knowledge.”

In real-life we may learn by:

  • watching others (role models)
  • trying it ourselves
  • asking questions, when and if we need to
  • making notes/diagrams that may make sense only to us
  • trying different scenarios, trial and error
  • visualising in our mind’s eye how things might pan out and how we can rehearse various outcomes

This tends not to happen in the formal classroom setting.

Rather than just attack current methods, Claxton does give us some guidance about what we can do to change the situation:

“The language of learning needs to become the dominant discourse of schools. If young people do not know how to talk about the process, the feelings and the trials of learning, it is hard to interest them in how they might get better at it…

  • ‘How are you going to go about that?’
  • ‘What is hard about that?’
  • ‘How are different groups going about that?’
  • ‘How else could you do that?’
  • ‘What could you do to help yourself if you get stuck?’
  • ‘How could you help someone else learn that?’
  • ‘What are the tricky parts?’”

The ability to ask such questions as these is one of the steps in producing more inquisitive and rounded learners. Modelling is another. As educators it is OK for us to sometimes say that we don’t know the answer to something, but to show the willingness to find it out as soon as possible. If your teacher embraces the active learning approach, surely it will rub off on you?

Language is also another important factor. Minor alterations can make a big difference. Steer clear of using the word ‘work’ for starters as this has negative connotations associated with boredom and monotony. Simply changing to the word ‘learning’ (i.e. hows your learning going?) can make a huge improvement. Dealing in ‘maybes’ rather than ‘absolutes’ has also been shown to be effective i.e. this ‘could be’ true rather than this ‘is’ true:

“If you talk to me in ‘Could Be’ language, I am immediately in a world of openness and possibility… as soon as you tell me something ‘Is’, all I can do… is my best to understand and remember it.”

Another suggestion is to encourage your students to be’ language monitors’ and pull you up every time you slip back into old school (pardon the pun) language. Parents can also be complicit by using the same types of language at home (more about parents later).

Praise is mentioned as being of limited use, something which I find particularly interesting. Praise (positive reinforcement) can be an effective tool (especially with younger learners) when used sparingly and appropriately. However, you can have too much of a good thing:

“Powerful learners don’t need much encouragement; they are learning because they want to. Paradoxically children who are praised all the time become less creative and imaginative, and less confident to learn on their own. It is as if they become addicted to the constant stream of praise and approval, so when it doesn’t happen they are thrown. They have learned to learn for the approval, not for the intrinsic pleasure and purpose of getting better at something.”

This is a common problem and stems from the ‘self-esteem movement’ of a decade or so ago. Carol Dweck (author of another fantastic text – Mindset) also talks about the dangers of too much praise:

Dweck also highlights the issues associated with labelling learners as ‘gifted’ or ‘naturally talented’ as opposed to being successful due to effort. This is the subject of another blog I have published, but Claxton deals with this too.

Towards the end of the book, Claxton also mentions another vital factor – often overlooked in education – happiness. Try to make the learning experience enjoyable and it is more likely to be repeated (if it is intrinsically rewarding), but again award achievement for hard work over ‘ability’.

The book finishes with a parent’s guide to raising learners:

  • “be a visible learner for your children
  • involve children in adult conversations
  • let them spend time with you while you are doing difficult things
  • involve children in family decisions
  • tell your children stories about your learning difficulties
  • encourage children to spend time with people who have interesting things to share
  • don’t rush in too quickly to rescue children when they are having difficulties
  • restrain the impulse to teach
  • don’t praise too much – use interest rather than approval
  • acknowledge the effort not the ‘ability’
  • make clear boundaries and maintain them
  • don’t overstimulate – boredom breeds imagination
  • choose multi-purpose and open-ended toys
  • encourage different kinds of computer use
  • talk to children about the process of learning (without offering too much advice)
  • watch and learn from your child’s learning”

Like I said above, a must-read for anyone trying to encourage others to learn, in whatever domain. I am doing my best to implement these ideas, but it does take time to break my own educational habits!

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