My menu

What Happens When You Build Pupils’ Learning Power?

  • Pupils learn more deeply
  • Teachers learn about learning
  • Pupils’ attainment rises
  • Teachers become learning coaches

This is the story of how this can happen – a report of a short but powerful feasibility research project in Cumbria.

What Is Learning Power?

Screen Shot 2015 09 11 at 16.05.41Learning Power is about knowing ourselves as learners: consciously using and improving useful learning behaviours and gradually turning them into habits. Learning behaviours might include how we: persevere; get curious and ask questions; imagine what if: learn with and from others; plan ahead; reason things out and so forth. Understanding how we learn helps us to get better at learning.

Five schools that are part of the West Coast Teaching Alliance in Cumbria have been finding out what it’s all about.

1. Before The Research

It all started some years ago when, after reading Professor Guy Claxton’s book Building Learning Power and gaining funding through Creative Partnerships, staff at Victoria Infant School in Workington began working with some of the learning power ideas. Although the resultant changes in the classrooms were fairly superficial there seemed to be sufficient change for the school to want to find out more. Then Ofsted began to look for learning behaviours and the school realised their work on learning needed to jump up a notch or two. After attending a Building Learning Power workshop the senior leaders recognised that going deeper would take time and effort but that the approach had the potential to make a real difference to children’s learning.

After becoming a Teaching School in 20xx and setting up the West Coast Teaching Alliance, the pursuit of learning power became the Alliance’s central theme for improvement. Over the next 2 years, 18 schools, 144 members of staff and 60 trainee teachers variously undertook 25 days training in Building Learning Power, provided by TLO Ltd. The training served to deepen teachers’ understanding of learning behaviours and the teachers’ learning enquiries developed their classroom practice.

End of Building ON the Foundations for Learning Power course, Participants proudly show their certificates

End of Building ON the Foundations for Learning Power course, Participants proudly show their certificates

Glimmers of independence?

From their learning enquiries teachers began to notice real changes in their pupils. They were talking more confidently about how they were learning. They were developing a growing number of strategies to use when they were stuck. Pupils seemed to have more energy and thirst for learning and they needed less help; more able to make their own decisions about how to tackle a challenge. Were they just beginning to take charge of their own learning? As a result teachers found that they had time to step back a little, to observe what pupils were doing and then to engage more productively with pupils in moving their learning forward.

Interesting questions

These apparent small changes piqued teachers’ interest and raised more questions. Was this just a passing phase or was it here to stay? Were pupils really getting better at learning and becoming more independent? The growth mindset of the teachers themselves led them to wonder what would happen if they had a more consistent approach to teaching. How might they structure the learning to enable pupils to make more decisions and attack more open ended challenges? Would they be able to see any impact on pupils’ learning and levels of attainment?

Undertaking the research: An opportunity to find out more

header logo nationalcollegeThe WCTA came across an opportunity to explore and maybe prove some of their questions. The National College for School Leadership Closing the Gap research projects in 20?? gave them the opportunity to discover some of the answers to their questions, under the constraints of ‘real’ research.

But this was real research so the outcomes would have to be scientifically measurable; the approaches across schools would need to be consistent; they would need to find a control measure (another school where meta-cognitive strategies were not being explicitly trained or surfaced) and, last but not least, the project would need to be carried out over a very limited timescale – eight lessons across three weeks.

Screen Shot 2015 09 30 at 16.46.23The need for such rigor was challenging. The new National Curriculum had just been introduced and they wondered if they were brave enough to explore new approaches in something so recent. Not only a new curriculum but now a life without levels. How would they prove any development without levels to rely on? The curriculum end-of-year expectations were too broad to prove any improvements especially over a short timescale, and, in looking for improvements what curriculum area would be most useful? Furthermore they wanted to test out whether developing learning behaviours would help pupils become more able to tackle increasingly challenging open-ended tasks

So how did they resolve these difficulties?

2.Undertaking The Research: The Who And The How

First of all they needed to sort out which schools wanted to be involved, this would after all mean time being available for careful data collection before and after the project.

The following schools and year groups opted to be involved

  • Screen Shot 2015 10 06 at 12.47.50Victoria Infant School: Reception, Year 1, Year 2
  • Victoria Junior Schools: Year 4
  • Hensington Primary School: Year 3, Year 6
  • Bransty Primary School: Year 4
  • Frizington Primary School: Year 6
  • Distington Primary School: Year 1 (who acted as the control school)

How: The subject and its measures

The Alliance needed to decide which subject to work on and crucially how this might be measured. The schools quickly recognised their local need to raise attainment in Maths and decided that this should be the focus of the research.

The next problem was to design a process through which they could both teach and measure attainment in maths. This had to have clearly identifiable steps and be manageable within the time constraints of the project. They selected multiplication and picked out the process of teaching multiplication – from counting in steps of a number through to formal calculation methods. Each year group agreed the most appropriate times table to work on and used this process consistently across the schools. Every pupil was assessed against the multiplication process steps at the start and end of the project.

Multiplication process steps

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 17.04.02

Steps 1, 2 and 3 are about learning and understanding the multiplication tables being focussed on. These depended on the year group the pupils were in and were linked to National Curriculum end of year expectations. (Connect)

Steps 4 and 5 are about using tables facts to solve simple problems – a variety of different types of tasks to encourage understanding of tables. (Stretch)

Steps 6 and 7 are about using formal methods to solve 1 digit by 2 digit multiplications and then 2 digit by 2 digit multiplication (Stretch)

Steps 8, 9 and 10 are about mastery – using and applying their knowledge and understanding of multiplication tables to solve one, two and multistep problems. (Transfer).

How: The learning behaviours and their measures

The final area requiring definition was which learning behaviours might best lend themselves to the development of multiplication. The Alliance plumped for developing questioning and link-making skills. In essence this would involve prompting and nudging pupils to use these learning behaviours to help them understand and solve multiplication procedures and problems; to think more deeply about the how rather than focusing on the answer itself.

To assist teachers’ understanding of the meaning and subtleties of such behaviours, TLO Ltd provided progression tables for how these different learning behaviours might develop over time. For example, the types of questions that might be useful (e.g. open, closed, past, present, clarifying, planning, hypothetical, etc.), or the range of links pupils might make (e.g. noticing similarities and differences, linking known and new ideas/patterns, using analogies to explain complicated ideas).

Through the use and prompting of such behaviours it was expected that pupils would develop these meta-cognitive skills, leading on to fluency and mastery of multiplication tables and challenges. The questioning and making links progression tables were used to provide entry and exit data for each pupil and also to guide teachers in planning the next steps in activities.

Steps in Questioning (partial)

Types of question in their repertoire

  1. Open questions to elicit longer answers
  2. Sequencing (funnel) questions to identify detail
  3. Sorting and sifting questions to distil meaning
  4. Elaborating questions to go deeper
  5. Rhetorical questions to engage and convince
  6. Provocative, divergent irreverent questions to challenge thinking
  7. Unanswerable question that inspire

Steps in Making links (partial)

Type of links

  1. Links detail to what they currently know
  2. Links detail to previous knowledge
  3. Makes links between similar disciplines
  4. Makes links between dissimilar disciplines
  5. Makes links with aspects of their life
  6. Makes intuitive links between the known and the unknown

How: The Curriculum model

The curriculum model used follows the aims of the new maths National curriculum, but coupled with the explicit development of the learning behaviours.


Connect activities

Tuning pupils into learning through hooks or starter activities based around a focus learning behavior

Teacher role

Train, explain, model and explore learning behaviours


Stretch activities

Activities about multiplication that, by their design, activate and provoke learning behaviours (dual focus) Sometimes collaborative teamwork, sometimes practising alone.

Teacher role

Nudge, remind, communicate & reflect on learning behaviours. Assess readiness for open ended tasks.


Transfer activities

Open-ended challenges that can be achieved by using learning behaviours and understanding of the content.

Teacher role

Stand back, gauge any intervention carefully

Over the course of a series of lessons or a unit of work the model translates to:


An open ended challenge to establish which Knowledge / skills / Concepts pupils are secure in

Connect & Stretch

Various types of tasks including practise using learning behaviour to build knowledge / skills / concepts


Open ended challenge to assess knowledge / skills / concepts

Connect & Stretch

Various types of tasks using learning behaviours to build more / consolidate knowledge / skills / concepts


Open ended challenge to evaluate knowledge / skills / concepts

This model causes teachers to think about the design of tasks in relation to the steps in the multiplication process and the stages in the learning behaviours. How might they be blended to achieve best results.

So what happened when they implemented all this…

3. Results Of The Research: The Impact On Teaching And Learning

Although the teachers taking part in the research had dealt with learning behaviours for a year or more, the focused nature of this study meant that the pace of change was rapid, and shifts in attitude and behaviour, both teacher and pupil, were significant. Working at a degree of depth and precision they had not worked at before, teachers recorded improvements in both pupil achievement and employment of metacognitive strategies.

Changes In Teaching

What did teachers actually do that was different? How did their practice change?

Planningteaching community

Teachers found they:

  • had to think about tasks and lesson planning far more deeply
  • had to plan out the questions they needed to ask and decide how they would model a learning behaviour,
  • needed to design connecting activities that would work as warm-ups.
  • recognised the need to plan for Transfer early and work backwards to ensure there was enough Connect & Stretch time built in to enable Transfer to happen. They added more connect and stretch as necessary

Learning climate

P1200282 1600Classrooms became much more collaborative; learning became a more two way process. The pupils were drawn in, adding their own ideas and questions to explain the why and how of their learning. Climates changed from ‘done to’ to ‘done with’. The methods used by the teachers served to focus meta-cognitive interaction in the classroom.

NB: the teachers worked with a Hierarchy of task types based on the degree of control and decision making invested in the learner ( or teacher). The more open ended the task the greater control of the learner.

Designing lessons and tasks

Teachers now considered both the content to be learned and the learning behaviour (s) that would best assist this. (dual focused)

They asked;

  • Am I trying to enable pupils to Connect to the content/behaviours?
  • Stretch the content/behaviors?
  • Transfer the content learning to another context using the learning behaviours to assist?

They thought about;

  • The level/stage of content
  • The level of learning behaviour that would take content learning forward
  • The type of tasks needed
  • The review/reflection process needed.

Teacher talk

Teachers’ language moved from the general to the specific in relation to the learning process –

  • ‘What links this to that?’
  • ‘When you did this last time what did you do?’
  • ‘How could you use that idea here?’
  • ‘Can you find an idea on the learning wall to help you?’

Commentating on learning behaviours became the dominant teaching strategy – nudging pupils to explain and model their understanding. They explored open and closed questions and used these to help pupils explore multiplication.

One school worked with all the Teaching Assistants to create a book of words, phrases, and questions to use to support pupils and move their learning forward.

“I tried to improve my own questioning so that children wouldn’t just say words like “I made good links or he made links” I wanted them to be able to explain, for example, that they had made links to previous learning and say why. I used more open questions myself and allowed them time to think about answers. I looked at Blooms taxonomy to improve my questioning and put them into my planning”

Sarah Parr, Hensingham Primary School

Displays and Classroom Walls

Screen Shot 2015 10 06 at 13.31.44

Screen Shot 2015 10 06 at 13.26.36

Classroom walls were used to display different ways of making links or asking questions. The walls served not only to help pupils but also to remind teachers and teaching assistants to reinforce key messages and connect to the steps they needed to take. Some teachers created a washing line to record helpful questions to develop pupils’ self-talk. These were added to and updated, and pupils could take questions to their table to help them when they were stuck.


Teachers learned that differentiation had to go deeper. It wasn’t so much about a harder or easier level of task but rather about discovering which learning behaviour strategies different pupils were using (questioning, linking) and then using these to move and support pupils further.

Reward and Recognition

Stickers, praise and other forms of recognition shifted from being awarded for right answers to how pupils used their learning behaviours.

  • ‘You used a useful question. Can you see/tell me why?’…
  • ‘Good, can you tell me why that pattern will help you?’
  • ‘Well done, you used good thinking questions there and your answer has come out right’

Modeling Behaviours

Teachers learned how to model their thought processes to work through an example problem. They voiced the questions they were asking themselves about the procedure; they voiced the links they needed to make. Modeling moved from demonstrating the mechanics of the procedure to demonstrating the thought process behind it.

Understanding Learning

By using these meta-cognitive processes themselves the teachers began to have a greater understanding of the mathematical concepts/procedures they were teaching. They used the learning behaviour tables to help them understand the meaning and use of questions and making links more precisely and practically.

They learned that the warm up sessions they used to introduce these learning behaviours needed more time. Many introduced such sessions once or twice a week outside maths lessons. They learned how to introduce such learning behaviours through how they talked about them, showing examples, modeling them in action and pointing them out when they spotted them being used by pupils.

For Teachers … A Big Shift

P1200282 1600

The classroom talk and dialogue shifted from being dominated by maths talk to being dominated by meta-cognitive talk.

Teachers could more easily discern a child’s understanding and which strategy might help them forward. They quite quickly came to know whether a pupil would be able to tackle a more open ended task, without having to be rescued, by the way the pupil used questions, made links, saw patterns and talked about their learning.

Changes In Pupils’ Learning


Changes in subject content. Mathematics

For Pupils … A Big Shift In The Maths Results

Statistical analysis of the before and after data showed a significant ( in statistical terms) improvement in the maths scores in the research schools. In these schools pupils worked through more steps of the multiplication process and reached the point of transfer more quickly and with greater accuracy. They were more successful in the open ended problems using the meta cognitive strategies they had learned.


Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 16.53.14Older pupils completed the progression – from understanding tables, recognising patterns, using formal methods and using word problems. Link-making specifically enabled pupils to move through this process more quickly. Questioning helped them to look at the types of questions used in word problems – e.g. sifting, sorting, questions, and pupils picked up the vocabulary clues they needed to learn to make sense of the problem.


Younger children were able to demonstrate transfer of knowledge/skills from one context to another. For example a reception pupil used the ‘counting in steps of 2’ to count pencils ready for literacy lesson without prompting from an adult.

Transfer of the ability to undertake multiplication calculations and use these same skills in word problems was particularly apparent. Older pupils were able to plan and organise their own maths word problems, with 90% of them able to write appropriately challenging questions.

Successful strategies

Younger children benefited particularly from making links and looking for similarities, differences, and patterns in times tables. The Connect – Stretch – Transfer model, together with constant referral to the learning walls motivated children to ‘up-level’ both their learning behaviours and their maths.

Consistent reinforcement of link-making strategies helped younger pupils to understand how to solve a problem.

Learning Behaviours


Deepening language

Pupils quickly moved on from simply saying ‘I made a link’ to a more detailed explanation of what they were doing – ‘there’s a link between those numbers because ….’ In questioning, pupils quickly learned the difference between open and closed questions. Their language developed from ‘I asked a question’, to’ I asked myself what was different about that pattern’. Pupils became eager to demonstrate the questions they would use to help them to dig deeper. This type of self talk became common place in classrooms.

Making progress

In some classrooms pupils were made aware of a simple progression in the two learning behaviours. One class used the popular characters, Minions. The Minion Ladder showed progressive statements for making links on one side and questioning on the other. After reflection and discussion the pupils could move themselves up the ladder when they could use the strategy well.

Pupils were also encouraged to watch out for and discuss their peers’ learning behaviours; how they might try another way, or sharing successful strategies.


Teaching specific, progressive learning behaviours has a significant impact on pupils’ maths attainment, confidence, and independence in problem solving.

The use of questioning, making links, and reflection has given pupils strategies that they can call on to better understand and solve maths problems. These meta-cognitive strategies have given pupils ways of working things out for themselves.

Such strategies have enabled pupils to move from tackling an abstract multiplication procedure to transferring these skills in multiplication word problems.

Teaching multiplication through the use of meta cognitive approaches has led teachers to understand the learning process more deeply, think more intently about how they teach, and transform themselves into learning coaches.

For pupils to become fully conversant with these strategies and ensure transfer the Connect – Stretch – Transfer model should be repeated frequently throughout units of work.

Real learning, rather than performance, is invisible, it takes place in pupil’s heads. But this way of teaching has made it possible for teachers to have a much closer understanding of pupils’ learning gains. By nudging, questioning and enabling pupils to use meta-cognitive strategies, teachers and pupils have got much closer to the real action of learning itself and are shaping it more profitably.

Although this research project was small (numbers of pupils & timescales) the results are highly encouraging. Further larger scale research over longer timescales is worthy of serious consideration.


Comments are closed.