The invention of childhood

John Locke and the invention of childhood. 

Notions of childhood

What do you think about when you think of the word ‘childhood’? Do you think of toys, playing with friends, the magic of Christmas, amateur dramatics or making a mess with paint? My own children think  of playing outside, going to castles (we went to a lot of them!) and school.

Whatever comes to your mind, your thoughts are very likely to include commonly held notions of what it means to be a child. As a child you play, you learn, you imagine and you are kept sheltered from the dangers of the world for as long as possible even though bad things can, of course, still happen. The adults in your life want you to remain naïve and untainted by the brutal realities of the world—to simply be a child.

So it is quite shocking to consider that this notion of childhood has only been a mainstream concept in the western world since the twentieth century. It is also worth remembering that, in many countries, for many different cultural, religious and economic reasons, childhood is very different to and distant from, our western ideal. In the past, while some children did experience a childhood that we might recognise today, most did not, and it is only in the twentieth century, and even then mainly in The West, that childhood, as we now know it, has become the norm.

Origins of childhood

Our modern notion of childhood has its origins during the Enlightenment otherwise known as ‘The Age of Reason’, which spanned from about the 1620s to about the 1780s. The Enlightenment shook up the traditional religious values of the Middle Ages and many cherished ideas about the nature of childhood were challenged and re-examined.

A particularly influential thinker at the time was John Locke who published the book ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’ in 1693. Locke’s ideas were highly regarded in educated circles despite being at odds with accepted thinking at the time. Locke stated that authoritarian teaching is counterproductive, suggesting, of children, that ‘all their innocent folly, playing, and childish actions are to be left perfectly free.’ The goal was to make moral children, not scholars. Locke believed that education should be enjoyable and sculpted around the needs of the individual child in order to make a productive, positive member of society. This was nothing short of revolutionary thinking at the time when any form of unstructured play or entertainment was considered a waste of time. In fact his words sound distinctly revolutionary and forward thinking today at a time when so much has been done by governments to make learning increasingly formal, academic and proscribed.

The hornbook

In Locke’s time the only ‘book’ and learning tool specifically designed for children was the hornbook. With a history that traces back to the 15th century, this “book” was actually a wooden paddle, traditionally inscribed with the alphabet, numbers from zero to nine, and a passage of scripture. Unfortunately for the children of the time the wooden implement had the dual purpose of being both a learning tool and a form of punishment! In Locke’s time, very little thought was given to a child’s rights. If you didn’t have the money to care for a child, that child was simply used as an extra worker and if the child wasn’t working, then they were an extra mouth to feed.

Child labour in 17th century England

It is also disturbing from the perspective of 21st century England , to think of the 200-year-long English tradition of child chimney sweeps, which really took off in the 1660s. Small boys between 4 and 10 years old from families of poverty were sold to master sweeps. Using their elbows, back and knees, the boys would climb up and down narrow chimneys to clean out the soot. These children were severely beaten, starved, disfigured, prone to serious health complications, and frequently died young. However, this ‘business model’ remained until 1875, when it finally became illegal to use children as chimney sweeps.

The historic use of children as cheap labour has of course continued to the present day in many countries. Although the idea of children working , even for  part of their day, is generally not acceptable to us in the west, even when combined with formal schooling, many families across the world would not be able to survive if forced to abandon the practise. However even if the ideal of a childhood free from the cares and corruption of the world is only possible if there is sufficient disposable income available, it is still amazing to think that the concept of childhood is only as old as our grandparents or, at the most, great grandparents.

What now for childhood?

Could it be that we have already passed the period with the most powerful conception of childhood (1850 – 1950) and that in the current era, childhood is now mainly defined and shaped by the media, particularly social media, rather than by society and families? If so this has profound implications for educators. Indeed I have noticed after 27 years in education that children appear to be less resilient emotionally and physically, than they were in the past. If the notion of childhood as being highly protected and low risk is a relatively modern phenomenon I would suggest that it is dangerous to now consider this notion as fixed forever more since it may not be benefiting our children in the long term. As educators, and as parents, I think that we have a duty to continually question what the nature of childhood should be, and that we should resist attempts to set it in conceptual concrete so as to best serve children’s long term interests in a rapidly changing world.

‘Things of this world are in so constant a flux, that nothing remains long in the same state’.

John Locke


The irreplaceable Mrs Woods


It is hard to believe now, but before the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988 there was enormous variation in what was taught in primary schools and, although many did an excellent job, others were quite chaotic places by modern standards. No school exemplifies this latter point better than my first placement school in which I worked when I was a student. At this school teachers were allowed to teach in any way that they wanted, irrespective of what was going elsewhere in the school in other year groups. There was a Year 3 teacher who, for example, decided that no instruction was necessary if children were to learn and that they could basically teach themselves if left with suitable materials. On visiting the classroom the children could at any one time be wearing fancy dress and engaging in role play, making models out of junk materials, playing the recorder or doing some writing on the floor with chalk. Maths might happen or it might not; weeks or months could go by without any physical education or music. It all depended on what the children wanted.  I have no idea how those children progressed later in life and this style of learning may have been very beneficial for some. However, at the very least, it must have been confusing for most children in this school as they moved up the year groups, each year having to learn in a completely different way depending on the views of individual teachers. At worst children could have huge gaps in their basic knowledge as they moved up through the school. A similar approach has been controversially developed in a modern context, using technology, by someone called Sugata Mitra, author of ‘The Hole in the Wall: Self-organising Systems in Education’ (2006)

A few months after this placement I was teaching a Year 6 class in a different school. It was my final placement before qualifying and it was in the days before SATs tests at Year 6 so I was basically left to get on with the job, aided by some planning to guide me and with the support of a wonderful teacher called Mrs Woods.

Mrs Woods was in her last year of teaching and was about to retire in 1989. I hadn’t even qualified as a teacher and the contrast was not flattering for me. Mrs Woods would make a lesson look easy while I excelled at confusing the children and breaking the chalk on the chalk board in mid-sentence. The gulf between us was a source of amusement to us both (but probably more to her) as I stumbled through the weeks of my placement and sought guidance at every turn. When she was teaching, commands were obeyed by the children, the children seemed to know what they were doing and she always seemed to know what to do next. However as soon as she left the room and I took over it was obvious that teaching wasn’t easy at all: to start with my supposedly clear instructions  were misinterpreted, my planned activities didn’t always work very well and I frequently couldn’t find what I needed at the right time. Fortunately I managed to build a good rapport with the class. It’s amazing how transformative music can be, and by bringing in my guitar and singing with the children, we got on well most of the time despite my blunders.

On arrival at the school I was loaned a black plastic whistle for use at playtime and when doing Physical Education, but Mrs Woods always had a shiny silver whistle round her neck; a sort of teachers’ insignia, and I vowed to get one myself when I got my first job. As it turned out I didn’t have to because as we said goodbye at the end of my placement, she pulled a brand new silver whistle out of her pocket and gave it to me as a present: kind and nurturing to the end. I still have that whistle!

Thus does a trainee teacher learn, earn and break the tools of the trade and, like all teachers, I had to learn mine quickly in order to survive and improve in the profession. Notwithstanding my numerous lesson disasters, as far as I know, no children were harmed in the making of this teacher! It is worth mentioning as an aside that at this school there was just one computer available for class use; I never got to use it because I hadn’t had the training.

Moving on to today, and from my current perspective as Headteacher, it is amazing at how different schools are compared to the late 1980s . Gone are the enormous differences between the types of curriculum children experience. Gone are the worst of the decaying, leaking and poorly designed post-war school buildings that were used to educate generations of children. And today the quality of teaching is more consistent and of a higher quality than it has ever been. Mrs Woods would be impressed; or would she? What would she make of schools today if she could be time travelled from 1989 into Bradway Primary School? I think that she would see much that she recognised because children still have similar characteristics, interests and needs whatever generation they are from. She would be shocked however at the workload for teachers, and the expectations placed on pupils through so many national tests. She might be glad that she had retired when she did. I think that she would be bewildered by all the electronic devices, the amount of time that children spend on them at home and at school, and astonished at the degree to which the teaching profession along with life in general, has become computerised.

Mrs Woods was a fantastic teacher in 1989 and, although she would have to learn an enormous amount to teach in the 21st century, she would be an excellent teacher in today’s schools too because she knew how to bring out the best in every child. She would very quickly get things organised in her high tech classroom of 2015 and would probably teach an excellent lesson on her first day without using any computers at all.

Could technology ever replace a great teacher like her? Of course it can enhance a lesson if used well but I don’t think that it will be able to replicate an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and deeply empathic person like Mrs Woods, so much appreciated by the children in her class, any time soon. Perhaps teachers are safe from being replaced by robots and computers; for now.

Square pegs and round holes.


Recently I’ve been asking myself this question: are schools doing enough to provide a good education for the full range of children that they serve, particularly those who find school difficult? As part of a group looking at trying to lower the number of pupils being excluded from Sheffield schools, I have been considering how inclusive our schools really are, and how the expectations placed on schools by politicians and society may in fact be making it more difficult for schools to succeed with more challenging pupils.

There is an assumption that all children will go to school until they are at least 16 and the hope is that they will come out at the end of the education system as useful members of society. However, some children find the academic nature of schooling incredibly difficult to handle; not because they have a particular learning disability, but because of their attitude to learning and to school; their often negative self-perception. Some children give up on learning at an early age and either go through the motions of learning to keep out of trouble, or rebel against authority. Often they end up getting temporarily or permanently excluded from the school system.

There are many examples of people who did badly at school and who were like square pegs trying to fit into round holes while they were there, failing to see the point or struggling to remain engaged. I was one of those people and did poorly in most subjects all through primary school and, in secondary school, until I was in Year 10. For example take this 1977 school report for me in History when I was a 14 year old.

‘His written work has been thin and he came bottom in the exams with 32%. His project was a poor affair too. Bodes badly for next year. He is inclined to be lazy; capable but idle and a disruptive influence in class’

and then compare it with my report one year later:

‘He deserves success through a hard graft this academic year’.

What happened there? From being in the bottom set in every subject, disliking school and failing in all my exams as a 14 year old, I somehow became incredibly hard working in the following year. In my case it was my English teacher who finally helped me to turn the corner. He didn’t judge me, despite my bad reputation for behaviour in class, and I tried like I never had before for him. I quickly experienced success in that subject and soon I realised that I had some ability in subjects like English after all; it was a complete revelation and it came just in time.

I have always been interested in what motivates people and why some children and young people are just ‘switched off’ at school or why they suddenly switch on like I did. I think that part of the underlying root of motivation lies in our perception of ourselves, our perceived chance of success and the feedback we get from our actions. Through much of my school career, misbehaving, annoying my teachers and doodling in my book seemed more rewarding to me than risking having a go and then failing. By not trying I was safe because the often, understandably negative feedback I received from teachers, just reinforced what I already ‘knew’ about myself.

There is a clear and well evidenced link between self-esteem and behaviour but I don’t think that our school system has enough flexibility to cope with those who either take a long time to engage with school or for whom school is anathema. Although I did finally see the point in school, and managed to succeed in the end, I think that there need to be more options for pupils who don’t fit the mould and who may have more success following a different path. Not all children have a natural ability or interest in Maths and English for example, and, for many children and young people, their skills may lie in other areas such as Art or Geography, French or Sport.  Society needs adults with a range of skills and abilities and it often seems that these other skills are less valued, even when they are very much valued in the job market. The recent removal of the speaking and listening element from GCSE English for example made little sense to me when business leaders are looking for school leavers who can communicate effectively and are lamenting the poor quality of candidates. Because primary schools are measured so narrowly on the study of English and Maths and have to focus much of their time on teaching them, the risk is that children who experience nothing but failure in these subjects at a young age will be put off learning as a whole and will consider themselves as unintelligent as I did. Of course it is much more difficult to get through life and almost impossible to get a job if you don’t have the necessary basic skills but I don’t think that you always need GSCE Maths or English to be a successful adult. In 2013 I was disturbed to hear a government minister declare that children who did not pass their GSCE Maths would be forced to study the subject in school for longer, retaking the exam until they passed. For some pupils this would be just what they needed but for others it would be demoralising and counterproductive. Instead some children could benefit by transferring earlier on to a different, more practical vocational learning path with the relevant vocational knowledge and skills being taught. University Technical Colleges (UTC’s) for example (and there is one in Sheffield) offer young people from the age of 14 ‘a dynamic, career-focused and supportive learning environment working in partnership with a wide range of local employers’. Successive governments have been determined that all young people should go to university and college when, for many young people, an apprenticeship or work based route to employment, starting at an earlier age, would actually be more suitable. In Germany, apprenticeships are valued and respected at least as much as University degrees and I hope that different routes to the workplace will be developed in the UK so that all young people will be able to achieve success in our education system.

I think that we need square pegs as well as round ones for a successful society; look at ‘failures’ like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who dropped out of higher education.  Indeed Einstein struggled at school but then went on to be highly successful and Charles Darwin was chastised by his father for being lazy and too dreamy. Darwin himself once wrote that his father and teachers considered him rather below the common standard of intellect.   . Schools need to be able to bring out the best in all our children, irrespective of whether they are round pegs or square.





Let Them Shine.

The fruits of a creative child-centred approach


At the end of the summer term this year I was standing in front of 200 parents after a spectacular show of ‘The Lion King’, performed by ninety 9 to 11 year olds. I was almost lost for words and, I must admit, a little wet around the eyes, as I spoke to the audience. This wasn’t because it was one of the most stunning performance of singing, dancing and acting that I have seen at our school and it wasn’t because I love the beautiful music of ‘The Lion King’: it was because, behind every shining, joyful face on stage, there was a young person who had grown enormously in confidence and skill by being part of a big show like this. The pupils standing on stage had astounded me with their musical, dancing and acting abilities and I felt really proud to be their Headteacher and really proud to be part of a school that is able to provide such wonderful life changing opportunities for pupils. There were many surprises; pupils who had never sung in public before, pupils who were previously really shy but who were somehow able to climb on to that stage and project their voices to fill the hall. Every child had their story to tell and every child, I am certain, will never forget being part of that community of performers. Being a Headteacher in 2015 can be very challenging, the responsibilities daunting. However, at the end of that Lion King performance, all the difficult moments of the year were put in to perspective as I surveyed the cast, comprised of children who were fulfilling their ambitions, expanding their horizons and achieving in ways that many had not thought possible before.

And there were others in the audience who felt the same way:

‘The children of Bradway did themselves, their parents, their school staff and their community proud – to see such energy, talent, confidence, and sheer enthusiasm was a sight to behold.  It was an education in itself’. (Antony Hughes; Children’s Commissioner and Director of Teaching and Learning for Sheffield)

Schools have a duty to give children a wide range of experiences

Then a week later I watched a performance of Les Miserables at High Storrs secondary school in Sheffield. It was an absolute privilege to see young people, ranging in age from 12 to 18, performing a challenging musical to such an incredibly high standard. The confidence of the cast shone through, just as it had at Bradway, and I know from my own daughter, who was involved, that the show had had a profound effect on those taking part. In my opinion these sorts of experiences are just as important as other parts of the curriculum, as they can change lives by enabling children to discover what they are good at. Children learn in different ways and whilst the stage is a perfect way for some children to express themselves, and to achieve, for others it is the sports field, while for others it may be through drawing or through mathematics, science and creative writing. I think that schools have a duty to give children the broadest possible range of experiences so that every young person is able to succeed at something. This experience of success is at the heart of motivation and without at least some success in their lives, children often give up trying.

Success breeds success

Unfortunately external bodies such as Ofsted and the Department for Education inadvertently make a broad curriculum more difficult for school leaders to justify by judging schools, and children, according to their success in just a few subjects and activities.  There is a perverse incentive in our current system to do more of what is measured and less of what is not measured and, understandably, some Headteachers, who rightly fear that they could lose their jobs if their school does not perform highly enough, resort to a narrow range of activities, designed to raise achievement in tests. The overemphasis on tests is therefore distorting the educational experiences of many children and I fear that the result is that some young people will, and do, go through school without experiencing success, because they do not do well in the measured subjects. There is a risk that these children will become disenchanted and demotivated as a result. By narrowing the curriculum, as we have been doing through successive governments, we deny many children and young people, often the most vulnerable ones, the opportunity to shine. It often seems that we are so busy as an education system, measuring and evaluating the visible aspects of children’s academic performance, that we sometimes miss the vitally important but much more difficult challenges of preparing children for their part in society. We must ensure that we value and promote the less academic parts of the curriculum, as well as the academic elements, if we are to develop the whole child, prevent excessive stress and enable all children to reach their full potential.

Headlines like the one in the Guardian in May 2015 ‘Surge in young people seeking help for exam stress’ will become more common unless the damage being done is recognised and changes made. According to the child protection campaigners NSPCC, the number of young people in Britain seeking counselling over exam stress has increased by 200% in recent years, with worry over education one of the leading causes of concern for children.

The NSPCC said last year (2014) that its ChildLine service received record numbers of approaches from students worried about exams, with a tripling in the number of those receiving counselling over exam stress specifically.

What happens when PISA rankings are more important than children’s mental health

The current situation is not very encouraging with the UK government increasingly looking at school systems from other countries, for example China, for inspiration, despite the evidence that many of these high performing countries are achieving their top results at the expense of young people’s well-being.  The result is that the international PISA league tables of educational performance have become a significant driver of government policy. In China for example, many young people kill themselves because they cannot bear the heavy pressure of the test-oriented education system, according to findings of the 2014 Report on China’s Education. In China, the school day can last as long as 12 hours. In many cases, Chinese students return to two to four hours of homework after finishing school. Do we really want to import this sort of educational culture into the UK?

We need leaders who are risk takers and non-conformists.

Enabling children to shine and succeed through drama, music or dance, like the cast of The Lion King or Les Miserables, and giving them confidence and belief in their own abilities, is one of the most precious gifts that our education system can give. However we need leaders with clear child centred educational principles who are willing to resist the pressure to conform to ever changing government priorities and definitions of success, if we are to achieve the rich, high quality, inclusive education for our children that is needed to prepare them for the world of tomorrow.  As the composer Pablo Casals said:

‘Each moment we live never was before and will never be again.  And yet what we teach children in school is 2 + 2 = 4 and Paris is the capital of France. What we should be teaching them is what they are. We should be saying: “Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. You may become a Shakespeare,  a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel.’


Times Educational Supplement 23rd May 2014. When school stress becomes a matter of life and death.

Annual Report on China’s Education (2014), or the Blue Book of Education,

NSPCC 14th May 2015 news bulletin

Wolf Rescue

Love Learning by Debra Kidd

Timberwolf oder Amerikanischer Grauwolf (Canis lupus lycaon)

In her book, Seven Myths of Education, Daisy Christodoulou is a little dismissive of the use of Mantle of the Expert as a means of getting children into learning. She refers to the Outstanding Ofsted reports of the Bealings School and offers this as an example of how progressive Ofsted are and how misguided teachers are in insisting that children use role play in their lessons. She is not alone in assuming that drama related activities lead to what is commonly being called the “opportunity cost” of knowledge – one blogger even questioned the role of drama in the study of Shakespeare. But such critics of these techniques are often blind to the knowledge that is required in order to conduct MoE well and to the myriad of additional skills and competencies that the children develop in their quest to solve the problems that drama creates.

A couple of weeks…

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Philosophising our way towards a more tolerant society

Socrates, Greek philospher: Born c470BCE died 399BCE

Portrait Herm of

Intolerance is gaining ground

Nowadays the news is often filled with stories of religious extremists committing terrible acts of barbarity in the name of God. Currently Islamic extremists dominate the media coverage but let us not forget the Buddhist monks involved in ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, sectarian killings in Northern Ireland or the murder of doctors willing to carry out abortions, amongst many other examples. These are atrocities committed against those with views or religions that are different to those of the perpetrators. The victims are targeted because they hold different opinions; and difference, to some people, is a threat. It is hard enough for adults to understand these events so it must be utterly baffling for children. After the recent Paris attacks a large part of my subsequent Junior assembly in school was devoted to the importance of tolerance, and to explaining, with these older children, what free speech is. There was that sense of community shock which comes after any major disaster and it was important to acknowledge the event with the pupils. It was one of those assemblies when I knew, by their careful attention and insightful questions, that the children were very interested in the subject matter.

The impact of extremism on educational policy 

As a consequence of these troubling events across the world there has been a great deal of debate amongst politicians and educationalists about how we best prepare children for the world that we live in, and how we can prevent extremist views taking hold in our wider society. A sharper focus on ‘British values’ has been demanded of schools as one way of achieving this. The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, Lord Nash, has explained that this focus on British values is designed to “tighten up the standards on pupil welfare, to improve safeguarding, and the standards on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils, to strengthen the barriers to extremism”. There are increased expectations that schools should be at the front line of this battle against extremist views. A typical headline in The Times Education Supplement. 23rd January 2015 was ‘Teachers are uniquely placed to divert young people from the path of terrorism’.

This is not the first time that schools have been called on to provide checks and balances for societal trends such as this. For example, Ofsted has been inspecting the degree to which schools promote ‘community cohesion’ for some time now, after problems between community groups became a headline issue, with riots in 2001. In Sheffield, tensions in areas like Page Hall, remain high. However, despite this understandable focus on the role of schools in promoting cohesion and, now, to prevent extremism, a wider discussion about the much more contentious topic of religion in schools appears to have been largely avoided, despite, in my opinion, being equally relevant.

The role of Religious Education in my school

Bradway, as a Community state school, has to teach Religious Education and legally should have regular acts of collective worship, which are ‘of a broadly Christian character’. We use our Religious Education (RE) lessons, as well as some whole school events and assemblies, to provide children with an overview of world religions, and our acts of collective worship are used to instil tolerance and understanding of different cultures and faiths. We do not tell children what to believe, rather we aim to show them the range of beliefs and views which people have, including the view that there is no God, with the hope that, if they understand, they will be more tolerant of people with differing views to their own. It seems to work because the community of Bradway children is a happy one, where everybody is valued for who they are, and where difference is celebrated and encouraged.

Faith schools and their influence

In this context it appears strange to me that, in a world where religious intolerance is a very real and current problem, schools funded by the state are being asked to hold acts of collective worship at all. But even more perplexing, is the fact that many state funded schools in England are faith schools.

In 2012 one third of schools were publically funded faith schools, free to teach about only one religion. Faith schools are mostly run like other state schools. They have to follow the national curriculum, except for religious studies, where they are free to only teach about their own religion. These schools are often high performing institutions, providing an excellent standard of education in most areas, but because they are only focusing on one religion, children are not necessarily given the range of viewpoints which they need in order to make their own minds up. Although many faith schools do provide a more balanced approach, the decision about how to teach religion in school is much too important to be left up to individual schools to determine. Although some schools may not fully exercise their freedom to promote one religion, others certainly do, as can be seen by visiting the websites of prominent faith schools across the country. I think that a better way of promoting tolerance in our society would be to have the same expectations of all schools with respect to religion, rather than the current contradictory mixture, in order to give all children the knowledge required to make an informed decision.

Encouraging young people to think for themselves about faith and religion. The use of P4C.

If I was to redesign the teaching of religion in schools from scratch I would be looking at the generic ethical values and qualities that are the bedrock of our society, and of most religions too, rather than being specific about a particular faith. For example the use of Philosophical discussions, which we use at Bradway, enables all children to discuss their views, including religious views, in a controlled way, with the teacher modelling and facilitating. Philosophy For Children (P4C) is a recognised and widely used method of encouraging important behaviours such as good listening and good discussion skills, in a non-judgmental, safe environment of discovery. Pupils really enjoy the sessions and Year 6 had this to say about learning in this way when I asked them recently:

‘In P4C there is no right or wrong. I really enjoy it because you can say how you feel’.

‘You learn how to contribute in front of the whole class and it helps you if you are shy’.

You can say what you believe in and also you can say what you don’t believe in, in order to get more depth in the discussion’.

Towards a more tolerant future?

This encouragement and freedom to explore ideas in an atmosphere of tolerance is what most parents hopefully want for their children, and should be an integral part of what all state funded schools stand for in this country. By promoting and refining the ancient art of philosophical discussion amongst our children we can look forward to a more tolerant future, and a world where we have a better chance to, as the idiom says, ‘live and let live’. We all still have the freedom in this land of free speech, to educate our children at home about our beliefs and to instil our own moral code and schools should be part of the solution to tolerance, not part of the problem.

Why Building Learning Power works in our school

BLP: Not just a passing fad because it works. There’s so much more to learning than what schools are tested and measured on…

Learning at school is more about SATs
Learning with clay at Bradway Primary school 
Learning to be away from home by camping on the school field
Learning to be away from home by camping on the school field

I started writing this blog in response to blogs and comments on Twitter suggesting that Building Learning Power or BLP in schools does not work. In researching for this blog I was interested to read a 2009 blog, lambasting BLP, as a meaningless fad with no substance. The author had only admitted to reading one source, the original book by Guy Claxton, and did not claim to have even tried it out himself. Similarly, subsequent detractors such as ‘Webs of Substance’, appear to have little or no direct evidence to support their claims that it does not work and instead come up with wildly inaccurate suggestions such as the idea that ‘Building Learning Power is set-up in opposition to teaching children knowledge’.

Nothing could be further from the truth in our school. Knowledge is celebrated, skills are honed and a vast array of extracurricular activities are provided to enable children to discover their skills and abilities. It would be very difficult to succeed as a school if knowledge was not seen as important, but of course there is much more to learning and being a successful human being, than being good at Literacy, Maths and Science etc. So to quote from our website:

‘We believe that ‘everyone is good at something‘. With the ever increasing focus on English and Maths in schools it is particularly important to ensure that pupils can experience and celebrate success in other areas of their lives, especially if they find more academic subjects difficult. We aim to develop resilient, reflective and resourceful pupils who are able to cope with the challenges of life and who are able to collaborate and co-operate with other people. We provide an exceptionally broad range of clubs and activities which children can attend. Through these activities, alongside a creative and exciting curriculum, every pupil can find develop confidence and find something that they are good at.  and children are encouraged to do their best in all that they do’.

What strikes me as significant is the fact that BLP is still prevalent in many primary schools, suggesting that it has not been a passing fad at all. In our school we have been using the ideas for several years and have now developed them further as a whole school strategy for developing good learning habits. BLP is not ‘another thing to do’ or a lesson in its own right. Instead it is integral to the way we speak to children about their learning and also supports our Learning for Life sessions, which also include Philosophy session (P4C) and Circle Time.

Why we use BLP in our school

BLP provides a overall context to learning in our school and supports our ethos of ‘Learning Through Enjoyment’ and ‘Everyone’s good at something’. It helps to underpin the idea that we are all learners, whatever our age, and that we all have barriers to learning which we can overcome. Becoming a successful learner requires a degree of reflection about the actual process of learning and BLP helps to achieve greater self awareness and emotional intelligence in our children. The children love the characters, which are puppets we have dressed up, and identify good learning habits with them. BLP creates a language of learning that children, parents and staff, understand and use. Thus when Robbie Resilience had some trouble managing his distractions in one of our BLP assemblies, the children were keen to help him to find a solution to his problem. Staff were dressed up as various characters, including ‘Betty Sue’ who finds learning very difficult! Children found this very funny and were fully engaged in the assembly. Those pupils who are easily distracted are now more self aware of how being distracted disrupts their learning and are more able to resolve it by taking responsibility for their learning, for example by moving away from the distraction. ‘Robbie’ is a popular figure around the school and children have developed the habits he represents around the theme of resilience such as ‘noticing’ and ‘managing distractions’. He sits on a chair in the hall together with Rosie Reflectiveness, Rhianna Reciprocity and Ricky Resourcefuness. Teachers design a lesson each half term to exemplify the importance of a the current focus learning power. So last week it was all about careful planning, linked to Rosie Reflectiveness.  Check out our school website for more information

Robbie Resilience to the rescue!
Robbie Resilience to the rescue!

What the children say about BLP in our school.

Below is the text from a June 2014 ‘Learning Walk’ undertaken by Governors and SLT members.

KS1 children were not familiar with the term BLP but were able to talk about managing distractions, absorption and noticing. In one Y2 class they were able to identify the child in the class who was best at noticing deliberate mistakes on the flipchart. Children recognised that we learn from making mistakes and understood the importance of building independent learning skills.

In KS2, children are familiar with the term BLP and all the children I asked said that the explicit learning about BLP did impact positively on their learning skills. A child in Y4 asked to put on ear defenders because they were becoming distracted. Children in Y5 and Y6 spoke very articulately about various aspects. For example in Y6, they offered strategies for managing distractions: ignoring, ‘pulling the shutters down,’ thereby discouraging others from distracting, asking to move to a different place. They said they sometimes assess their own levels of absorption. In Y5 there was a discussion about the importance of noticing mistakes to enable you to then ‘get things right.’ They said that BLP ‘gets you more into your learning’, that ‘if you do something good, you feel good about yourself.’ Another child said they found it ‘harder to become absorbed in maths,’ because they were not so good at maths, whereas in literacy, ‘you can be creative and let your ideas pop out.’ They said: ‘Every time I learn something in literacy, I can use it in my own writing at home.’ This child is about to write chapter 11 of their ‘book’ at home. Another child said they liked the chance to choose the level of difficulty in maths, enjoying tackling harder problems.

All in all, there was evidence of a high level of engagement throughout school, a clear awareness of  learning skills and a predominant view from the children that BLP helps them become better learners.

Learning about winning and losing
Learning about winning and losing

Examples of schools using BLP

Goldfields Infant and Nursery school.

Quotes from teachers’ marking and verbal feedback using the BLP model

  •  “I like the way you wrote those summaries to help you remember”
  • “Well done for concentrating through all those distractions”
  • “Well done you noticed!”
  • “Let’s try to figure out what it is that is making this hard for you to learn, and what might help you get the hang of it”
  • “I know you used to love being the one who knew all the answers… But I’m really excited about how you are pushing
    yourself more now…choosing things you are not so good at, and really sticking at them…”

What is BLP based on?

  • An extensive body of research into learning and the brain
  • Recent research into the key dimensions of learning power
  • Practical trials in schools across the country
  • The pioneering work of Professor Guy Claxton, who is programme consultant, and chief inspiration, for TLO’s Building Learning Power programme

The above summary was taken from the website:

Further reading

2012 SSAT conference; Liverpool

Claxton, Guy, Building Learning Power, TLO, 2002