Transforming Schools through Powerful Learning

I spent most of the day today at an ACER seminar with Professor Guy Claxton,  Co-director , Real World Learning, University of Winchester

He began with his depiction of the ‘holy grail’ of 21st Century learning and argued that ALL the things below were necessary and that this wasn’t a list you could choose from.

Education fit for the 21st C
• Rising standards
• Engaged students
• Enthusiastic teachers
• Wider skills, key competencies, essential ‘learnings’ for life

He then mainly talked about the last of these; the inter-disciplinary stuff from VELS and warned against wish-lists of attributes which in isolation look very odd (EG: ‘Students should be helped to ‘develop a sense of wonder and awe about the world’)

He warned us against a simple belief in policies. Student levels of engagement and achievement are raised not by what we’re doing, not by what we think we are doing, but by what students think we’re doing.

He was particularly critical of the ‘lifelong learning’ phrase that was at the center of mission statements in England, NZ and here in Australia and whether we all shared an understanding of what this actually means.

The question of lifelong learning raises issues about what sort of learning (real world  or just school?), for whom?, how it’s promoted (intentionally or naturally) and what’s involved (dispositions or just skills?)

Claxton argued that education had been a bit glib about all this and argued for a broad understanding of the term ‘lifelong learning’, which isn’t a new idea: ‘We need to produce people who know how to act when they are faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared’. (Seymour Papert, 1998)

He argued that raising levels of achievement was one thing, but we ‘need to have a wee think’ about whether we were doing this through ‘spoon feeding’ knowledge, creating passive, docile learners rather than active, engaged learners.

I wondered, in his concentration on the broader lifelong learning skills and his critique of ‘conventional good teaching’ and his rejection of a conventional pedagogy, how these things should be ‘addressed more directly’, particularly when he was cautious about how we might assess such attributes.

He talked a lot about he obstacles to lifelong learning and how progress has been patchy, slow and superficial across the world, including patchy implementation of VELS itself in Victoria.

Some of those obstacles were:

• Grandiose, vague and obscure terminology (a problem that Tasmania’s ‘Essential Learnings’ suffered from)
• Persistence of traditional forms of assessment (working out hot to measure what we value beyond academic achievement)
• Persistence of focus on teaching, not learning
• Presented as a new demand, not a reorientation of goals
• Treated as ‘tinsel’, a sprinkle of tips and sound bites
• Qualities treated as new knowledge content
• A thin language for talking about learning
• Ignoring the plight of the successful students
• Under-estimation of the process of habit change, for teachers, parents, and students themselves
• Our will – are we really serious about this? Are we concerned enough to do what it really takes to ‘help all young people to develop the confidence, capacity and appetite to face, select and pursue difficult things worth doing’ ie. To become powerful lifelong learners.

Traditional good teaching doesn’t do it (he repeated) but again saw traditional good teaching as ‘spoon-feeding’ which I’m not sure quite nails it.

He argued that even teaching skills like mind-mapping, thinking hats, etc didn’t meant it was translating into the real life action. The UK was obsessed with skills he argued.

The problem with the word skills is that skills are ‘things like welding and making a lump free white sauce’ are clearly prompted by the world you’re in. You know when you’re supposed to do these things, but the world doesn’t prompt you about ‘skills’ in thinking. David Perkins argues that 50% of performance can be attributed to an ‘intuitive understanding’ of when to apply relevant thinking skills; he argued for students to be ‘self-prodding’ about their approach to thinking and learning beyond the classroom.

‘If its not dispositional, we haven’t done the job’

‘For over twenty years it’s been known that students with more elaborated conceptions of learning perform better in exam situations.’ Young people who are able to be more articulate about their learning, are likely to do better.’ So, it’s not ‘either-or’; achievement or metacognition. Powerful creative learners investigate, experiment, imagine, reason, are curious, determined, resourceful, sociable, thoughtful and have presence. The cross-over to Ritchhart’s positive thinking dispositions is interesting. Claxton called it a 4-5-1 model of powerful learning, that looks like this

4 Ways of Learning
Investigating: researching, copying, assessing
Experimenting: tinkering, practising, drafting
Imagining: visualising, dreaming, feeling of rightness
Reasoning: liking, analysing and explaining

5 Dispositions
Curious: wondering, questioning, doubting
Determined: risking, persisting, patient
Resourceful: capitalizing, tool-making, collecting
Sociable: discussing, helping, accepting criticism
Thoughtful: taking stock, overriding, assumption-checking

1 Big Thing
Presence: bringing it all together in the learning moment.

Claxton argued for gradual, systematic culture change in the school; ‘nothing else will do’. Learning must permeate the culture and not in a rhetorical or cosmetic way, but deeply, as experienced by the students. His preferred strategy was ‘gentle pressure, relentlessly applied’.

He gave some practical examples of how this enculturation might begin; in terms of language (‘learning’ not ‘work’), example (learn an instrument ourselves) and talked about ‘coaching’ some things such as ‘group work’, ‘cooperation’ or ‘listening’. He talked about giving students responsibility, split-screen teaching, and the environment in terms of resources and displays (what the walls are saying)

One simple strategy was moving from ‘is’ language to ‘could’ language, which invites creative responses to the information, a for of language that affords other kinds of engagement: critical, creative, playful etc.

He kept talking about ‘which learning muscles do we want students to be using’; those to with memory and recall, or a richer, broader set of thinking like reasoning, collaborating, revising, reflecting, summarising etc.

Interestingly, he gave the thinking routines of Ron Ritchhart as a good example of getting started with moving beyond recall and passivity. Those thinking routines are things we’ve been exploring for a while now and they are gaining momentum with teaching staff.

He asked us to be ‘brave’, to not be mindful of pandering to a narrow set of parent expectations and kept asking us where we where, in listening to his ideas, on the ‘spectrum’ of three baskets: basket 1: this is obvious, basket 2: this is promising, basket 3: this is outlandish and out of my reach.

Claxton was critical of the way that technologies which ‘distribute’ our intelligence (watches, phones, computers, calculators, phones) are all put aside when we go to examine and assess students. So, my students will put away the tool that they’ve been planning and drafting and writing with all their life pretty much, and doing the year 12 exam on a piece of paper. VCAA don’t seem to have an answer to that.

In some ways it was a bit flat. He talked at us all day, with a PowerPoint presentation unadorned and with no apparent sense of design and a strong primary school focus I thought.  But he was interesting and smart and it was more than worthwhile all the same. I bought a copy of his book, What’s the Point of School, (OneWorld, 2008)

Oh, and to end on a technology note. It wasn’t the first time, in an age when every teacher in Victoria has been given a notebook computer, that, in a room of maybe 150 teachers, I was the only one using a computer to take my notes.



  1. Thanks for the detailed summary of your notes from your session with Guy, Warrick. Very useful for someone who wasn’t there – provides and excellent summary of what was covered and a good insight into the points Claxton made. I particularly appreciate the list of obstacles you’ve recorded, agreeing with Claxton that in terms of any change to thinking and practice regarding learning in our schools progress has been patchy, slow and superficial across the world. It would be interesting to be able to take each of these obstacles and unpack exactly what they mean, how in fact they present as obstacles and what sorts of strategies could be employed to overcome them. But then, that would take time, effort and some serious focus of attention – and that’s hard to find in an essentially superficial world. (sigh) I guess the real struggle will always be how we operationalise the things people like Guy have been saying for ages.

  2. Thanks for a detailed and thoughtful post Warrick – I found you through ‘etalbert’ on Twitter. I’m glad you were taking notes on your computer, as hand-written ones could never have captured each of his main points with such depth and clarity (well, mine wouldn’t have!).
    I think many individual teachers are beginning to tackle these issues in the classroom and, when not impeded by higher authorities, are doing a reasonable job. However, I agree our efforts are breaking down at VCE level, when students sit a written exam – there must be other ways to assess 13 years of schooling that allow students to show their creativity, curiousity and resourcefulness.

  3. Hi Warrick,
    I miss your thoughtful and provocative observations on teaching and learning. Your conference notes bring a range of issues to my attention and I’ll be thinking about them for a while, particularly in the new context of teaching in China. The ideas of ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘good teaching’ are certainly very different in the eyes of many Asian educators – a constant challenge here. Do you mind if I share your ideas with the staff here?
    Hope all is continuing to go well in Melbourne!

    1. Hi Anna; we miss you too! We’re having a breakfast meeting tomorrow with all the Ithaka crew so I’ll let them know you’re going well. More than happy for you to share any of the ideas on the blog.

  4. Warrick
    Thanks for the notes. I have recently heard Guy Claxton mentioned a few times in discussions about reform in schools.

    One quote really resonated with me:
    “gentle pressure relentlessly applied”

    His point about being brave in the face of parent pressure is worth noting as well – nothing breeds like success [parent love hearing about success] and success is one thing not done well in schools – a real challenge for me.

    A point I noted was that he talked at us all day long. I have given a number of talks and presentations and always tried to find the balance between presenting to and engaging with. I recently went to an all day workshop on assessment for learning and the skilled presentor got it right. Its a thing for me to keep in mind for an upcoming presentation I am writing and presenting in Singapore. Thanks for the reminder.

    Thanks also for the link to Andrew Douch’s work its inspiring.
    Mark Walker

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