Ed Finch finds a book that makes a great case for ‘learning to learn’, provided you’re happy to give up doing something else

If you’ve been a teacher for a few years you’ll have been on the receiving end of INSET on helping pupils ‘learn to learn’. The word ‘metacognition’ was used a lot. Maybe there was a bit on the importance of hydration to keep the brain working. Maybe a poster of tricks to get information to stay in the adolescent memory. And maybe you gave it a couple of weeks and sighed with relief when it wasn’t mentioned again.

Well, you’ll be glad to know that this book ain’t that. Author/researchers James Mannion and Kate McAllister are keen to face up to the mixed results of previous attempts at ‘learning to learn’ and to distance the programme they have put together from some of the ‘snake oil’ peddled under the L2L brand.

They say four successive cohorts who took their course at a school they call Sea View Secondary, from entry at year 7, achieved remarkably higher attainment. Overall, they saw a greater than ten per cent increase in pupils achieving 5 A* to C including English and maths at GCSE, and closed the disadvantage gap from 25 per cent to less than five per cent. These are substantial improvements that deserve to be taken seriously.

The authors are so acutely aware that what they propose will not be to the whole profession’s taste that they form a section of the book as a trial. They take on and counter some big points from their imagined accusers – ‘Knowledge is Foundational’, ‘Children are Novices’, ‘Generic Skills Can’t Be Taught, or Don’t Transfer’.

To me, if I’m entirely honest, this didn’t seem quite necessary: frame it as knowledge or skills, I don’t mind. Surely educators are pragmatic enough to see a win as a win, even if it runs counter to their preferred pedagogy. You taught these young people how to do better at school. What was it you taught them?

Would you surrender a period a week from your own subject?

The answer is forthright. Many pupils are so deeply afraid of failure that they simply can’t engage in learning. Before you can make an impact on attainment you need to make an impact on that fear. Once pupils are confident, able learners, great subject teaching will be able to flourish. They might do better in life after school too.

What pupils were taught at Sea View was complex, with three distinct ‘moving parts’. Metacognition, self-regulation and oracy. Pupils were learning to debate, were involved in project-based learning (PBL), took part in ‘Philosophy for Children’ structured discussions and kept learning journals.

Aware that the very mention of PBL will have raised hackles, the authors point out that if you want to convey a body of knowledge, then direct instruction will be your tool; but if you want learners who can manage their time, communicate, adopt roles and support each other, you will have to think about project work. Subject-specific skills may not be transferable, but time management, confidence to participate in lessons, pride in presentation and respect for one’s own learning certainly are.

The programme was complex and time-intensive. Five periods a week in year seven decreasing each year as the first cohort moved through – more than any other subject. Mannion and McAllister tell us they took periods from computing, humanities and the arts. One wonders if, with the inspectorate’s new-found fervour for the wider curriculum, that’s a step too far for even the bravest. Would you surrender a period a week from your own subject?

Could the Sea View programme be replicated in other schools? The authors think it can and say this book provides all the tools you need. In fact, they go further and provide contact details so you can get in touch and join them on the journey to braver, more empowered learners.

That’s brave in itself. But as desirable as the book’s aims might be, I wonder how many school leaders will be brave enough to take a punt. This is a provocative and entertaining title that will provide plenty of food for thought, but fear may indeed be its greatest obstacle.