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Building Learning Power from scratch

I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days last week at a new free school in London that accepted its first intake (120 year 7 students) last September. Having previously spent two days working with the newly appointed staff in June, I was keen to see how their vision was taking shape.

The vision is based around Brave Hearts, Bold Minds, underpinned by ‘Brave enough to listen to our Hearts, Bold enough to sharpen our Minds’. They aim to inspire and empower students to flourish in all aspects of their learning, so that they are committed to being and doing their best, and to ensure that students leave with the dispositions, experiences and knowledge to realise their career and life aspirations, enabling them to make a real impact in their community and live fulfilling, happy lives.  The head teacher, Lee Faith, and his staff, are seeking to create a school based on the values of Courage, Curiosity and Integrity, under which they have clustered the 17 Building Learning Power learning dispositions.

They have made a couple of entirely sensible ‘changes’ to the BLP lexicon – they much prefer Refining to Revising (to move away from the connotations with Revision), and they have ditched Imitation in favour of Emulation. Otherwise they have chosen to stick with the Building Learning Power language, and are seeking to create a school based on Building Learning Power principles.

Creating a school from scratch is a challenge not too many of us experience in our careers, and there are no roadmaps! They have only been ‘up and running’ in Ealing for eight weeks, and they immediately faced the same problem all new-start schools face – they have no collective history, no ‘way of doing things’, nothing to fall back on when the unexpected happens. It has been a tough few weeks as the school learns its way forward.

On the plus side, however, it’s because the school has no collective history, no ‘way of doing things’, nothing to fall back on when the unexpected happens, that they have to keep asking themselves how their principles relate to this or that and design things ‘their way’. No inertia to counteract, nobody talking about ‘last time’, because there is no ‘last time’.

While the vision, aims and values excite me, I arrived with little expectation of how far the school might have gone on its journey towards building Brave Hearts and Bold Minds. Surely, the task will take ages and become ever more complex as the school grows, but what might their first steps look and feel like ?

Here’s just one example of what already, regularly happens at Ealing Fields High School:

Having spent a morning in lessons, I was invited to Family Dining (they don’t do ‘lunch’). The whole school sit down together to eat. All have roles, they serve each other, they tidy up after each other, and it is completed in well under half an hour.

Towards the end of Family Dining two young students stood up, held an arm aloft to indicate silence (which rapidly followed) and asked students to put their cutlery down. It was the beginning of Shout Out.

Who has a ‘Shout Out’ they ask. A forest of hands go up, and a few volunteers are chosen.

“My shout out is for Nisha who was struggling with a problem in Maths but she showed Perseverance and did not give up. She was displaying the value of Courage”. Everybody applauds Nisha for her Perseverance in Maths. Nisha looks proud, and not remotely embarrassed.

Sometimes it is a teacher who does a shout out for a student, sometimes a student does a shout out for a teacher, but mostly it is students spotting their peers displaying Courage, Curiosity or Integrity and congratulating them for so doing.

Two minutes every day in which the school comes together and reasserts its commitment to Building the Habits of the Brave.

Over time, the language used will become increasingly subtle and the observations increasingly perceptive, but not bad for half a term in, eh ?

I was left wondering how this has been achieved in such a short time, and it was when I analysed my lesson observations that the answer emerged. In the course of over 40 learning reviews in all types of secondary schools over the past few years, fewer than 10% of the lessons I have observed have included students talking about the process of learning. Content has been a regular focus for talk, but observing students talking with fluency and precision about how they are learning has been rare, usually because the students have little language with which to conduct such a conversation.

At Ealing Fields, well over half of the observed lessons included students discussing for themselves the process of learning. For example, the debate about the difference between the pursuit of excellence and the pursuit of perfection, and which is healthier, during Values Time (they don’t do form time), was, quite simply, breath taking. They are being given and encouraged to use a language with which to discuss their own learning, and the dividends are already evident.

I’m back in June next year for a follow-up visit. Can’t wait !!

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