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What does it really mean to get ‘better’ at learning?

Teachers are familiar with the need to assess, record and report on curriculum progress and attainment. The world is full of levels, level descriptors, tests, diagnostics, examinations, point scores, value added measures, and the like – even in ‘life after levels’ !! But they all refer to the acquisition of the knowledge, skills and understandings defined in the National Curriculum. But what of the child’s progress as a learner ? Where are the comparable measures for identifying how the child is growing and developing as, for example, a curious, tenacious, flexible and sociable lifelong learner? Not, mercifully, in the National Curriculum !

However any school that is interested in growing student learning behaviours will want to know the effectiveness of its strategies and the extent to which its students are growing as learners. This is not rooted in a need to label students as ‘level 3 at turn taking’ or ‘A* at conflict resolution’, rather out of a desire to understand the small, incremental steps that will take a child from ‘can’t share’ to ‘great team worker’, so that subtle intervention can support and even speed the child’s growth as a ‘collaborator’. The same is true, obviously, for all of the other learning behaviours within the Supple Learning Mind.

There are three key facets to the progression of learning behaviours – firstly the frequency/strength with which the behaviour is used, secondly the range of contexts in which it is deployed, and thirdly the skilfulness with which it is employed.gettingbetter

The frequency and strength of the habit:

The first dimension of progression, and easiest to activate, is frequency and strength. The distinction between skill and habit is important – skills are what you can do, whereas habits are what you do do. A skill that is only rarely employed, or only employed when adult directed, is at best embryonic. Initially the aim is to activate the skill more frequently through direct intervention with a view to reducing the level of intervention as the skill becomes stronger through more frequent use. The target is to develop the skill into a habit that the student employs frequently, without support, as and when the need arises.

The scope of the habit:

The second dimension of progression relates to the range of contexts within which the skill is deployed. The child who is tenacious and thoughtful on the play station can equally be defeatist and impulsive in the classroom – they have the skills, but fail to recognise that the perseverance that leads to success on the play station is precisely the same outlook that is needed for success in the literacy lesson. Initially the skill is used only in familiar circumstances, but the aim is to help students to recognise and exploit opportunities to utilise their leaning behaviours in new and uncharted territory.

The skilfulness of the habit:

The third dimension, and by far the most subtle, is that of skilfulness. While we may start by wanting students to be asking questions, for example, more frequently or in a wider range of contexts, once achieved we rapidly turn our attention to the quality of the questions that are being asked. It is not too difficult to describe the attributes of a high level, sophisticated questioner who is skilled at asking incisive, generative questions, but it is very difficult to map out and sequence the steps between the natural curiosity of a three year-old and the sophisticated skill-set of the consummate question-asker/enquirer. This is the challenge, and why skilfulness is the most complex of the three dimensions. However, once mapped, the impact on mentoring, target-setting, self and peer assessment, assessment, recording, reporting, task design, curriculum planning etc is immense.

Schools that are developing such progression ‘trajectories’, are gaining the insights that allow them to identify and build progressively the fine grain learning behaviours that comprise the highly effective learner. 

In summary:

Progression puts the ‘Building’ into Building Learning Power. We are seeking to understand how, over time, we can intervene to enable students spontaneously to make more, wider, and increasingly sophisticated use of these behaviours. Unless students can make these skills their own, can intuitively see the point of them, can call them to mind for themselves when needed, and are becoming ever more skilful in their use, there is much still to do.

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