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How to approach Building Learning Power

Achieving the ambition: vital, difficult and do-able

A good deal has been learned over the last decade about how to do this well—and about how not to do it! We know from what schools tell us that the ambition is achievable. As well as stories of success we have gathered cautionary tales, because the latter can be helpful and instructive. And a great deal more remains to be discovered. BLP is a journey of exploration, not a neat glossy package. It is a set of practical ideas, frameworks, and resources generated by schools and teachers willing to take these aims seriously and try them out.

A journey of exploration

BLP is definitely not for those who want a quick fix. It demands of schools exactly the same kinds of resilience and resourcefulness that they are aiming to strengthen in their students. They have to be willing to keep going even though some teachers—and indeed some students—may not like it or ‘get it’ to begin with. There may well be rational scepticism, or even reflex cynicism, to be overcome. Is BLP, as someone put it, ‘just another bloody initiative’?

There are legitimate worries about whether the exam results might be put at risk, whether parents will appreciate what is going on, or whether the local authority or Ofsted (or similar regulators across the world) might disapprove. Leaders have to know their school communities well, in order to judge best how to challenge and reassure in the right measure: where they can push and take a few risks, and where they will have to be patient and prepare the ground more slowly. All of these issues, and many more, will be aired in the pages that follow.

Taking it up: doing it right

Some have ‘got the bug’

So far, thousands of schools and classrooms around the planet have experimented with BLP. Some of them, like Red Beach School in New Zealand or Park View Community School in County Durham, have really ‘got the bug’ and deeply embedded the principles of BLP in every aspect of school life. In such schools, you can find the spirit and language of BLP in the way reports are written, the way teachers talk to each other and plan their lessons, the kinds of work that is displayed on the walls, and the way the pupils ask questions, face difficulty, and work together. Some have had more of a ‘dabble’, and adopted some techniques that are still rather on the surface.

Whole-school experiences

BLP is about culture change in schools. By a ‘culture’ we mean all the little habits and practices that implicitly convey ‘what we believe and value round here’. The fact that Art occupies a fraction of the time devoted to Maths, or the emphasis on ‘target grades’ in school reports, tell you more, we think, about the culture of a school than does its Vision Statement. The medium of a school is its most powerful message. And the most important messages are conveyed to students in classrooms. Classrooms are the places where, hour after hour, students experience the values and practices that are embodied in the school, rather than just the ones that are espoused. We have learned that you can’t make young people into powerful, proactive, independent learners by pinning up a few posters, or by delivering a stand-alone course on ‘learning to learn’ in Year 7. Unless you can actually see and hear the commitment to the development of students’ learning capacities in the middle of a routine Year 9 lesson on simultaneous equations, or a Year 4 project on the Vikings, we don’t think that the teachers have really ‘got BLP’ yet.

All-round mental work-outs

So the heart of BLP concerns the details of the micro-climate that teachers create in their classrooms. What they do and say, what they notice and commend and what they don’t, what kind of role model of a learner they offer: all these are of the essence. And especially what matters is how they design and present activities so that, over the course of a term or a year, their students are cumulatively getting a really good all-round mental work-out. All the learning bits of their brains are being stretched and strengthened, one by one and all together.


Involving everyone

Anyone can be a role model of learning

But BLP really takes root in a school when the whole community supports the vision and finds ways of helping to make it real. We have found that teaching assistants of all kinds can play a vital role. So do the administrative staff in the school. People who type letters or look after the buildings can be powerful role models of learning. Support from governors really helps to reassure heads and their staff that these ideas, though some of them might be a little strange at first, are worth trying out. Parents obviously play a vital role in supporting the school, and also in directly encouraging their children to persist in the face of difficulty, and to realise for themselves when they need help and when they don’t. We have a growing body of knowledge about how schools can work with parents to forge stronger partnerships.

What’s different about a Learning Powered school?

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