I once moved to a new school to be confronted with Guy Claxton’s “Building Learning Power” (BLP) programme. This was such a bizarre scheme that I struggled to understand what it was all about. For those of you who are unfamiliar with BLP, it is a cross between a growth mindset intervention and a learning-to-learn programme. Students are told that they possess ‘learning muscles’ which can be trained. For some reason, these all begin with the letter ‘r’; resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity. Staff and students are even shown a diagram of the brain that is divided into these ‘muscles’.
At my new school, teachers were supposed to take time at the end of each lesson to reflect with the students on which learning muscles they had used that day. There was a box on the lesson observation proforma to ensure compliance. A large minority of teachers didn’t bother with it unless they were being observed. However, the school was totally committed. A keen Assistant Headteacher was a true believer and pumped resources into training teachers and students. The students would get whole days on it and yet there was little discernible impact. It was all a classic example of the sunk cost fallacy.
My first foray into evidence-based teaching was when I tried to look for research evidence on BLP. At the time, I recall that the BLP website had a tab called ‘research’ which linked to a few action research projects conducted at Bristol University (it doesn’t have a research tab now). I had never heard of action research prior to this and I quickly grasped that it was incapable of objectively evaluating a programme such as this. I went to the Assistant Headteacher and tried to convince him to move away from BLP. He was having none of it.
Since then, I have heard horror stories from other schools about attempts to implement BLP. The worst of these happened to a relative of mine who was training to be a teacher: In a placement school, a child was tormenting another child. The one who was being tormented was then berated by the teacher for not exercising his ‘managing distractions’ muscle.
The problem is that there is no one thing such as ‘reciprocity’ or ‘resourcefulness’ that can be directly trained in this way. Claxton has reified these concepts. Resourcefulness looks different in different contexts. A child may be resourceful in one area and completely unresourceful in another. The key variable is domian-specific knowledge and skills. This is why attempts to teach ‘learning how to learn’ in this way are doomed to frustration and failure. Instead, we should be teaching worthwhile content in a rigorous way.
So this is why I am skeptical when Guy Claxton pops up from time-to-time to explain to us what we are all missing:
“Cognitive science is moving very much in this direction – seeing mental capacity as something that is, in itself, educable. We can teach people to become more intelligent, to become better at learning, to persevere, to become better collaborators, to use their imaginations more effectively. The scientific underpinning of that is strong.”
Sorry, but I really don’t think that the scientific underpinning of this idea is strong at all. Where’s the evidence?