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The Learning Power Approach: Some Non-Negotiables

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

I’ve been trying to boil the LPA down to its essentials. Here are some suggestions about how you might tell if any candidate style of teaching (or leadership) is a member of the LPA ‘club’ or not. Please treat these notes as a work-in-progress, and provide feedback and suggestions for improvement. These core principles are constantly evolving in their clarity and precision.

Christian College Geelong, Victoria, Australia.

Here we go.

The LPA is a broad school of thought about the purpose and practice of school that is emerging from many different centres of innovation around the world – individual schools, educational consultants, school-based action-research, university research groups and individuals. It sometimes gets confused with a variety of other approaches that may look similar on the surface, but which are in fact distinct. Such confusion is to be avoided, and this memo suggests some criteria that may help to decide whether any particular approach to teaching and learning is an exemplar of the LPA or not. They may also help schools and individual teachers who would like to practice the LPA to keep on track, and not, with the best of intentions, to slide off into parallel paths that lose something important. They points are, if you like, draft ‘articles of association’ of the LPA ‘club’, and you might like to reflect on whether you are already a member, and if not, whether this a club that you might feel inclined to join.

1. The LPA derives from a commitment to preparing young people for 21st century life, not just for the next stage of education (though it does that too). This means that we (practitioners) are not just thinking about today’s lesson, or the up-coming exam, or covering the syllabus, but about the way in which this lesson contributes to the long-term aim of equipping people to flourish in the real world beyond school. We are ready to explain, as best we can, how everything we do, and the way we do it, is designed to further those long-term aims. There is no point in a student getting an A for an essay unless teachers are also clear what of long-term, real-world value a pupil learned by producing that essay. If an approach espouses such aims, but is not making constant, conscious attempts to live them every day, it is not (yet) practising the LPA.

2. There are myriad ways to craft a fulfilling life, and very many of them will not require high-level scholastic or academic skills. (Being literate is not the same as being intellectual.) The LPA tries to identify clearly what it is that the majority of young people are likely to need, in order to flourish in tomorrow’s world, in all walks of life. Many current systems of education, by contrast, seem designed to create ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ at a particular intellectualised style of learning. The LPA is actively committed to designing schools and pedagogical practices that develop recognisably valuable outcomes for all young people, whether or not they are going to do well in competitive, norm-referenced examinations.

3. The Desirable Outcomes of Education (DOEs) comprise things that most young people will need to know; be able to do; and possess as mental and emotional attributes: in other words, particular knowledge and understanding, competences and literacies, and dispositions or habits of mind. The LPA focuses especially on the long-term development, in schools, of the latter attributes which fall broadly into two classes: prosocial attributes such as friendliness, kindness, honesty, trustworthiness and empathy; and epistemic attributes which include curiosity, craftsmanship, determination, concentration, open-mindedness, flexibility and critical and creative thinking. LPA teachers and schools have to have a clear and shared understanding of what these desirable dispositions are. Without that, they cannot know where they are heading, or whether they are succeeding. Note that some versions of the LPA pay greater attention to the cultivation of the prosocial virtues than do others. All of them are concerned with the cultivation of the epistemic virtues.

4. These attributes cannot be developed through direct teaching or exhortation, or through add-on training sessions, alone. They are habits of mind that grow over time when young people are immersed in specific classroom cultures that invite and stretch them. Thus the LPA posits a strong association between the purposes of education and the classroom cultures and atmospheres which teacher create day in and day out. Purpose and pedagogy are tightly linked. How we teach becomes just as important as what we teach. To make the LPA a living reality, therefore, teachers have to be willing to become aware of the implicit messages of their ‘natural’ teaching styles, and to seek out and implement ways of adjusting them so that the culture they create constantly supports the development of positive learning dispositions. Sticking up a few Growth Mindset posters or a list of desirable attributes such as the (International Baccalaureate) Learner Profile don’t get you off first base with the LPA unless you are also making sustained changes to how you talk and what you notice routinely.

5. Just as the LPA sees the cultivation of students’ learning dispositions as a slow process over time, so the development of teachers’ pedagogical style is also best approached as the gradual accumulation of small tweaks and techniques that are one-by-one ‘worked in’ to their natural way of being in the classroom. That way, teachers are not overburdened with abrupt demands to change, and pupils are not disconcerted by sudden, major shifts in procedure. The LPA is not a ready-made package or an ‘initiative’ that is just plonked in to a school or a classroom. It requires determination, ingenuity and reflection from teachers: it is not for those who have quiet classes, good test scores, and are content to ‘coast’ professionally.

6. Changing habits (in both pupils and teachers) requires time, support, conversation and coaching. Thus the LPA requires attention to the organic, in-school continuous professional development (CPD) system that is in place. Some staged inputs from external coaches or consultants may be helpful, but embedding the LPA across the school requires continual, focused attention by the senior leadership. Sporadic pep talks by an enthusiastic school principal have little effect unless they are supported by a well-designed, carefully targeted and stringently implemented approach to CPD. Without dedicated, determined and detailed leadership, an LPA culture is unlikely to take root in a school. (Thus the C in CPD is vital.)

7. When the LPA is working well, learners are engaged, productive and ‘happy’. These states are, if you like, welcome side effects of the LPA. They are not best described as ‘play’ or ‘fun’, because powerful learners are used to experiencing, and tolerating, periods of frustration, confusion or even boredom as they pursue meaningful, challenging learning. Research in positive psychology tells us, however, that happiness or well-being should not be construed as goals of the LPA in themselves. Teachers who have roomsful of busy, happy pupils are not practising the LPA unless they (the teachers) are also deliberately, systematically and demonstrably developing attributes and capabilities in their learners that have long-term value beyond the world of school. Children and young people can be busy and happy and not learning anything of long-term value (just as you can be physically active without increasing your fitness; to exercise, you have to be pushing yourself). Mental and emotional health and well-being are conditions that enable people to achieve worthwhile things; not desirable outcomes in their own right. The LPA is not being used correctly if it used mainly as a way of sugar-coating the standard curriculum, engineering higher levels of engagement in prescribed activities in the service of achievement in conventional examinations (though engagement and achievement do in fact rise as well).

8. The LPA is transparent to young people and their families. It always seeks to be explicit about what the LPA involves and what its intentions are, and to communicate in language that is accessible and appropriate to different groups and ages. (“This is what we are up to; this is what we are trying to help you become; and this is why we think these attributes will stand you in good stead throughout life.”) Furthermore, where possible and appropriate, young people themselves are involved in co-creating classroom and school cultures that will support their development as powerful learners. For example, student lesson observers and student councils are involved in discussing ways in which teaching and learning can be improved. As always, students’ capacity to handle these responsibilities productively have to be grown gradually through discussion and coaching.

9. Here are some watchwords for the LPA. It is conscious, explicit and deliberate: not left to vague good intentions. It is communicated to all stakeholders in language that is clear, precise, fresh and down-to-earth: no vague waffle, hackneyed phrases or hifalutin vocabulary. It is coherent and comprehensive: not piecemeal. It is pervasive and infused: not a bolt-on or just pockets of voluntary enthusiasm within the overall institution. It is gradually introduced, and builds on existing good LPA-style practice which is already going on in a school: not presented as just another ‘initiative’ to be ‘implemented’. It is developmental, it continuously builds and deepens students’ learning-oriented habits of mind over time: not reducing them to tick-boxes and sporadic stand-alone workshops. It is monitored and adapted in the light of experience: not set in stone and treated as beyond criticism or revision.

10. It should be clear that the LPA is not to be identified with so-called ‘progressive’ stereotypes of education (and consequently tends to avoid terms like ‘play’ and ‘fun’ that might invite this confusion). It does not abandon hard knowledge or rigorous inquiry. It does not leave pupils to flounder unprofitably through lack of guidance or instruction. It does not require teachers to abrogate responsibility or to feign ignorance. It does not attempt to teach ‘generic skills’ directly, at the expense of time spent on acquiring knowledge. The LPA represents a nuanced middle way that weaves aspects of both ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ pedagogies into a coherent, research-based model of education that fits young people for life without sacrificing attention to rigour, knowledge and grades.

Read the ten key points for teachers to bear in mind when making their classroom a safe place to be a learner.

To consolidate your understanding of learning to learn, I recommend these resources.

You can order the Learning Power Approach book series here.

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