Claxton’s Character Education

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?

The brain is like a muscle. Geddit? [Häggström, Mikael. "Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström 2014". Wikiversity Journal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.008. ISSN 20018762]

The brain is like a muscle. Geddit? [Häggström, Mikael. “Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström 2014”. Wikiversity Journal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.008. ISSN 20018762]

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9 Comments on “Claxton’s Character Education”

  1. madeupteacher says:

    The old chestnut. A new head at my old school regularly banged on about this. Several children in the nursery and reception class struggled with ‘reciprocity’. Saying it, that is.
    One member of staff dared to say she simply preferred ‘learning’ as opposed to ‘learning to learn’ and was told “…….you are either with me on this or you are against me.” It was all a bit cultish for most.
    Move on to a new school to find the same thing dressed as ‘child friendly’. The Rs became bird characteristics – Resilient Penguins, Resourceful Magpies etc etc
    Another school used animals. Another had eight Cs…….meanwhile it’s just another box to tick on the book look/ observation/ learning walk treadmill.

  2. julietgreen says:

    This was pushed hard at our school and it became obvious (sooner rather than later to some of us) how wrong-headed the whole thing was. We were being made to teach lessons that took the ‘learning powers’ in abstract and tried to teach them specifically. We were being asked list in our plans, which aspects of BLP featured in the lesson. I took to cutting and pasting the entire list for everything. I called out the Emperor on his clothes as soon as I could. We’ve stopped using it now – after much time and resources have been spent. Here’s what I wrote 9 months ago: https://wordpress.com/post/julietgreen.wordpress.com/93

  3. We are a BLP school! Trouble is that once management have fallen for something and signed up they find it very hard to either publically ditch it – or apologise to staff whose time has been wasted. Nothing against resilience etc but that word existed before it was packaged and sold to our scgool.

    https://joiningthedebate.wordpress.com/2015/10/31/snake-oil-challenge-to-senior-managers/
    https://joiningthedebate.wordpress.com/page/3/

  4. Also watch out for tougherminds. Watch out for anything which has a picture of brain in this context and they talk about latest neuroscience’.

  5. Chester Draws says:

    I read the OECD report that Claxton cites in that Telegraph article. It is a good report, and quite a decent read, but has effectively no support for his position.

    1) It explicitly states that it found very little effectiveness after pre-primary school for most programs.

    2) the programs it cites, when there was some evidence that they worked, were all targeted at disadvantaged kids. The sort that always get our attention as a modern society. The programs did not address normal kids.

    The thing I find funniest about this “teaching grit and resilience” stuff is that it is what schools have been doing for centuries. The old English Public Schools made it their main purpose (often at the expense of academic education) with their emphasis on sports and “houses” and public school “stiff upper lip”.

    The best way to re-introduce grit and the OECD report cites this in passing, would be to return to old-fashioned teaching discipline — insisting on timeliness in attendance, dressing well etc. Fat chance of that happening.

  6. […] Skills” (PLTS) into the curriculum – my school adopted the absurdly formulaic “Building Learning Power” approach – and the English schools inspectorate would visit schools, observe teachers […]

  7. […] I am of this stuff. I find the analogy of ‘learning muscles’ a bit cringeworthy, and I’m not the only one. But, with the (anecdotal) evidence from Tamara in front of me, and the Quaker passage pictured […]


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