Resourceful and creative learners or PISA success or both?

When English children are compared unfavourably to those in Finland or parts of China by their PISA test scores (as they frequently are), there is always a temptation for people to suggest that teachers should change tack.  ‘We must focus on the basics of English and maths and stop being interested in this wider learning capability stuff’, is the cry from some.
But such polarizing sentiments are deeply unhelpful and ill-founded. Doing really well at maths and becoming a powerful learner are not mutually exclusive goals. We can and must achieve both. It was in an attempt to reconcile these ‘false opposites’ that Guy Claxton and I coined the expression ‘expansive education’. In our recent book Expansive Education: teaching learners for the real world, we explore the underpinning research for this view (it’s strong) and share examples from across the world of teachers who want outstanding results but not at any price. For primary schools wanting practical examples, Building Learning Power  is an excellent starting point.
There are three strong arguments to be made here. The first is based in research, the second is a moral argument and the third requires us to be principled pragmatists.

1. Heeding the evidence
‘For 20 years it has been known that students with more elaborate conceptions of learning perform better at public examinations.’  Specifically we know that certain pro-learning capabilities improve attainment. Two powerful examples are emotional self-management (persisting when the going gets tough) and the possession of a positive or ‘growth’ mindset  as Carol Dweck has termed it. Such a mindset would include self-belief, willingness to practise, learning from mistakes, and an inclination to collaborate. John Hattie  has specified very clearly those aspects of learning and teaching which best correlate with raising achievement. These include formative feedback such as assessment for learning, peer/reciprocal teaching, and learning to learn strategies.

2. Making the moral case
Schools, we believe, have a moral duty to prepare children for a lifetime of learning. Doing well on tests is important, but it is only a part of a bigger educational and societal project. The outcomes we desire from schools include communal virtues – honesty, trustworthiness, kindness, tolerance and empathy, the virtues of self-regulation – patience, self-discipline and the ability to tolerate frustration or disappointment. And then there are the epistemic or learning virtues, those that enable one to deal well with real-world challenges. These include determination, curiosity, creativity and collaboration. (We know that will power, for example, behaves exactly like a mental muscle that can be strengthened by exercise ). Teachers should be consciously, persistently and systematically cultivating the habits of mind that will serve children well, adding to the harmony, prosperity and creativity of society.
The good news from this moral argument is that the development of almost all of the kinds of the virtues we list will help to improve the PISA results. It’s not an ‘either/or’.

3. Being pragmatic
For some primary teachers it can come as shock to realise that it is, in any case, simply not possible just to ‘do the basics’, to concentrate on subject expertise alone. For whether you are teaching maths or English or history or science, you will also be shaping the way learners see themselves. Will children be acting dependently or resourcefully in maths? How will children view their drafts in English – embarrassed by their mistakes or comfortable with their story-in-progress? Will dispositions like empathy and rigorous analysis be cultivated in history, or will they be colouring in and getting ready to regurgitate? And will they be thinking like scientists or in a lab devoid of first-hand experimentation?
Even if we were to want to, we cannot choose between PISA-focus and genuine learning. For whatever curriculum we teach our values will be on show and learners will see which kinds of learning counts for us. That’s what I mean by principled pragmatism. We all need to provide an apprenticeship for children that produces both powerful learners and great test-takers!

Bill Lucas is the Director of the Centre for Real-World at the University of Winchester and the co-creator of the Expansive Education Network. Find out more at http://www.expansiveeducation.net.

This article appeared in the May 2014 edition of Teach Primary