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Have You Fulfilled Your Potential Yet?

Every now and then a moment comes along that reminds me what is really important and reinvigorates me about why I enjoy my job so much, an enjoyment that I appreciate I sometimes manage to hide rather well.  Such a moment came a couple of weeks ago at a Dukes awayday for principals and heads, where the keynote speaker was Professor Guy Claxton.

Professor Claxton has been a long-term collaborator with Professor Bill Lucas, writing together and spreading their core message that the education being offered to children in this country is fundamentally misguided and does no one any favours except those who find passing exams easy and who want to end up as university professors themselves.

To my way of thinking, Claxton, Lucas and others who promote such a compelling narrative won the intellectual argument years ago, but they have not yet come close to winning the educational war that would result in the complete overhaul of the public examination system, the university admissions process and the way we fail to appreciate the importance of practical learning while favouring intellectual hoop-jumping.

Much of what we are trying to build into our pedagogy at Radnor House, and into the plans we are making for Kneller Hall, pays homage to Claxton and Lucas.  Our Values Wheel comes from thoughts they have shared that have worked in schools where their ideas have been adopted.  Our aim to create a system to validate learning outside the classroom, attaching as much importance to such activities as to what happens in classrooms in preparation for public examinations, is underpinned by their analysis and research.

As Professor Claxton highlighted in his talk, the constraints placed on teaching and learning by the straitjacket of GCSEs and A Levels, not least the amount of content that needs to be covered in each syllabus, reduce the ability of schools to spend time on the sort of wider learning that would be far more beneficial for young people’s development, reminding his audience of the old saying that a primary school teacher teaches children but a secondary school teacher teaches history.

I recently mentioned Aristotle’s observation that character is a collection of habits, which Claxton used as an introduction to encourage us to focus on the need to develop character in our pupils and also to concentrate on their wellbeing.  He talked about ‘Results Plus’, which will allow us to have our cake and eat it, with the obvious, but not always recognised, observation that academic success and the development of character are not mutually exclusive, and character lives both inside and outside the classroom.

At my previous school, we used the strapline ‘An all-round education with an academic edge’, which is basically the same idea, and this has developed over to time to ‘Great Teaching, Genuine Values’, which we are using now at Radnor House.  These are the same themes that shine through in our latest promotional video about the need to avoid a 'win at all costs' mentality and to focus instead on kindness and decency.

Schools that are perceived to promote values ahead of achievement can sometimes be seen to be a bit soft and somehow lacking in academic rigour.  I often get asked by prospective parents if their bright child will do well academically in a school that seemingly puts such an emphasis on character ahead of grades, to which I try as politely as I can to explain, as Claxton does, that you can have both – indeed you must have both if you are going to do a proper job of educating children.

The challenge for schools is how to prove that the dispositions we are seeking to inculcate in our young people are actually being developed.  For example, how exactly do you measure resilience?  Teaching a subject in the classroom is like going to a golf driving range in the daylight.  You can see exactly how far the ball has travelled, and in which direction, and you can adjust your style accordingly.  If you go back to the range in the dark and start hitting balls, you get a sense of what it might be like trying to develop values.  If you don’t know the outcome of the first shot, it makes it hard to adjust for the next one, and so on.

There are lots of valuable definitions about learning, but not surprisingly I liked Claxton’s – it is the need to develop the ability to face difficulty, complexity and uncertainty calmly, confidently and capably.  He defined powerful learners as people who ask their own questions, research independently, check what they are told, design their own learning, try new things, help themselves when they are stuck, persist intelligently with difficult things, plan and anticipate, check and improve their own work, seek and value feedback, work well in groups, look and listen carefully, concentrate despite distractions and ultimately become their own teachers.  He then challenged us by asking how much time our teachers allow for this to happen in class and how do we know.

The next slide highlighted that powerful learners have dispositions as well as skills.  They are adventurous and curious not passive and timid; determined and buoyant not brittle and expedient; collaborative and talkative not mute and competitive; reflective and self-evaluative not compliant and extrinsic; focused and flexible, not disengaged and rigid; imaginative and playful not literal and dependent; rigorous and critical not slapdash and superficial; organised and methodical not disorganised and careless.

Again, the challenge was laid down – how can we do more to develop these dispositions, how can we develop a pedagogical style that systematically and simultaneously develops knowledge and understanding, builds literacies and expertise and cultivates broad, positive learning dispositions?  The point was made that this will not be achieved by didactic teaching, fond hopes, repeated slogans, ‘thinking skills’ workshops, occasional ‘creative’ projects and cheesy posters, but by creating a particular culture in the classroom that continuously infuses all aspects of classroom life, and through an accumulation of relatively minor adjustments to teaching style and activity design.

My favourite part of this uplifting presentation was when Professor Claxton focused on the need for clarity about the desired outcomes we are seeking, the imperative to make everything operational and accountable, which is exactly what we are trying to do as we design the curriculum for Kneller Hall, both what happens in the classroom and, just as importantly, what happens beyond.  For example, we are working out a laureate programme to complement progress towards public exams, with credits being awarded for the successful completion of meaningful activities, including the measurement of resilience – once we have worked out how to do it.

Too many schools talk about developing ‘lifelong learning’ or ‘a forward-thinking holistic education’, which do not actually mean very much.  Instead, we need to think really carefully about exactly how we can prepare pupils for the modern world, particularly when many adults do not cope with it particularly well.  Above all, we were urged to avoid vague and waffly promises to fulfil potential.  As our speaker challenged us: ‘When did you fulfil your potential?  Can you remember the moment?  What happened?  What changed?  Was it during that second gin and tonic while watching Strictly?’  Now there is something to ponder over the Easter break – answers on a postcard, please.

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