Major influences on BLP
Learning power isn’t just some magic wish list, it has been influenced by the major psychologists of the last few decades and by many more informal classroom experiments to test its value and worthiness. Here are the main influencers of the importance of developing powerful learners.
Carol Dweck: the growth mindset
In a major programme of research extending over the last thirty years, Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has demonstrated repeatedly that people’s beliefs about intelligence have a marked influence on how they go about learning. Put simply, if you believe that ‘intelligence’ is fixed—that is, people are just born with a certain amount of ‘ability’ which is incapable of expansion—whether you are conscious of it or not, that belief undermines your resilience in the face of difficulty or frustration.
It’s as if people say to themselves, ‘Well, if I haven’t got what it takes, I’d be a mug to put in the effort, wouldn’t I?’ Conversely, if people believe they can ‘get smarter’, they are much more likely to see difficulty as an opportunity to do just that. Dweck teaches us to focus on the expandability of young people’s minds rather than their fixedness; and this realisation—that what we do affects how children think and learn, as well as what they know— is the springboard that makes the very idea of ‘building young people’s learning power’ credible.
Dweck often makes use of an analogy between mental and physical activity, which we too find very helpful. When youngsters are taught to think of their brains as being like a muscle, capable of being strengthened and expanded through exercise, they mobilise the resources they have more effectively, they try harder, and their achievement goes up. That is why, particularly with younger children, we often talk about learning power as being composed of a set of ‘learning muscles’ that are capable of being stretched and strengthened. Like Dweck, we see the classroom as being like a ‘mind gym’, with each lesson making use of the content and activities to create a pleasurably taxing mental ‘workout’. Following Dweck’s lead, the whole language of BLP is designed to reinforce the idea that learning is learnable, and ability is something that can always expand.
Howard Gardner: multiple intelligences
The two founders of Harvard’s Project Zero—Professor Howard Gardner and Professor David Perkins—have both influenced the development of BLP significantly. Howard Gardner has had a huge effect on education worldwide over the last 20 years, and BLP is no exception.
His theory of multiple intelligences helped us—like many others—to see human intelligence not as some kind of monolithic faculty, separate from the rest of our psychological processes, but as an umbrella idea, covering a variety of constituent abilities.
The ‘intelligence’ traditionally valued and regularly exercised by school is overwhelmingly linguistic, mathematical and rational; but this is only a fraction of a much more comprehensive approach to intelligence, in Gardner’s system, that also includes our relationships with others, our self-awareness and our imagination.
Gardner always saw multiple intelligences as a psychological theory, and has been wary of drawing any educational implications—though this has not prevented a good many others from doing so. Perhaps that is why he has always been somewhat ambiguous about how learnable each of his intelligences is.
He says, for example, that, ‘all normal human beings develop at least these seven forms of intelligence to a greater or lesser extent’, suggesting that they are ‘nurtured’ as much as they are ‘natured’. But he has not gone on to develop any educational model of how different cultures influence that nurturing process, which is at the heart of the BLP approach.
John Hattie: effect sizes and achievement
John Hattie is Professor of Education at Auckland University. His highly influential book Visible Learning, published in 2009, has really encouraged us to believe that focusing on building learning dispositions is not at odds with the traditional school concerns of literacy, numeracy and the mastery of examinable bodies of knowledge.
On the contrary, Hattie’s meticulous review of research reveals that ‘the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers’. Helping pupils become more independent, more reflective, and better able to plan and evaluate their own learning, turns out to be a better way of boosting their attainment than drilling them in the subject-matter.
Hattie has come to a view that is very similar to BLP. We should be aiming first to strengthen young people’s sense of themselves as learners, and to help them learn how to learn, and then to assist them in mastering useful and important bodies of knowledge and skill. Unfortunately we have all too often put the cart of knowledge before the horse of learning.
What makes John Hattie such a powerful ‘godfather’ to BLP is that he has arrived at this position not as a matter of belief, but through a detailed examination of the research evidence.
Ellen Langer: the power of language
BLP has been much influenced by the work of Harvard Psychology Professor, Ellen Langer. In a wide range of studies, Langer has shown that small shifts in a teacher’s language can induce a marked change in the learning habits that students are bringing to bear on their work.
Specifically, if you say definitively that something is the case, students take it literally and try to remember it. But if you say, of the same thing, that it could be the case, they become more engaged, more thoughtful, more imaginative, and more critical. That ‘could be’ invites students to become more active, inquisitive members of the knowledge-checking, knowledge-developing community, rather than to see themselves as merely doing their best to understand and remember something that is already cut and dried.
BLP recognises that there may be many ways in which subtle changes to the way we speak with (and talk and write about) young people can impact on their development as learners.
Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger: communities of practice
If it is to be successful, building learning power involves a process of deep culture change in a school that takes time, patience and commitment. The work of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger on ‘communities of practice’ has helped us to think about school as a kind of ‘epistemic apprenticeship’—a culture where young people pick up all kinds of attitudes and habits towards knowing and learning.
Lave and Wenger describe how groups with particular trades or interests, such as Liberian tailors or American supermarket butchers, induct their apprentices into their characteristic ways of thinking and working. Newcomers move from being low-status apprentices to eventually becoming acknowledged skilled practitioners. We think you can look at schools in the same way, except their trade is ‘learning’ itself—traditionally with an emphasis on the kinds of learning called ‘scholarship’.
As well as teaching numeracy, literacy and ‘subjects’, schools socialise their pupils into ways of thinking about learning: how to go about learning, which kinds of learning are most esteemed, and how to think of themselves as learners. In all kinds of subtle (and not so subtle) ways, schools imply answers to these questions that seep into young people’s minds and shape their attitudes towards learning.
For example, the traditional image of a ‘master learner’, conveyed by such means as end-of-year celebrations and ‘honours boards’, is someone who wins a scholarship to Oxford. As most youngsters are obviously going to fail in those terms, we think there ought to be a wider conception of what a real-world master-learner might look like, and greater precision about how schools are cultivating the relevant traits in all their students.
David Perkins: learnable intelligence and the transfer of learning
David Perkins’s writing has inspired us to think carefully about what is possible and what is problematic in achieving the goals of BLP. His book Outsmarting IQ (1995) encouraged us by showing just how much of our so-called ‘intelligence’ is in fact learned—and therefore capable of being helped to grow in timely and productive ways.
Making Learning Whole (2009) has more recently pointed up the discontinuities between the kinds of learning that are traditionally required in schools, and the kinds that get you places you want to go in the ‘real world’. Perkins has therefore helped us think about the difficulties of getting what is learned in school—even what is learned about learning—to transfer out of the school gates, so that it becomes a genuine, spontaneous asset beyond the cloistered world of education. His work explains why we insist on talking about habits of mind and dispositions rather than skills (of which more in a moment).
Perkins’s thinking has spawned its own practical spin-offs, most notably the project on Visible Thinking (not to be confused with John Hattie’s ‘visible learning’) led by one of Perkins’s graduate students and now collaborators, Ron Ritchhart. Visible Thinking is the regular use of a range of ‘thinking routines’—such as ‘Think–Pair–Share’ or ‘Predict–Observe–Explain’— that get students into the habit of attending more closely to evidence, reasoning more carefully, and discussing with others more skilfully.
We have adopted (and adapted) some of these routines as a very useful way of getting teachers to embed a concern with the learning capacities into their teaching. Because of our overarching concern with real-world learning rather than disciplined thinking, however, BLP covers a wider range of habits of mind—including things like absorption and perseverance—than are usually given prominence in Visible Thinking.
Other educational research
Several other strands of research have strongly influenced the development of BLP. In this section we note just a few of them.
Professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has significantly advanced our understanding of creativity and creative learning. His concept of flow, a state of focused attention in which one is wholly engaged in learning and which, he has demonstrated, has a hugely positive impact on learner wellbeing, has been important in developing aspects of BLP.
Michael Fullan, Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Studies in Education, has undertaken extensive research into educational leadership and change. He has demonstrated the central importance of creating cultures of learning which engage teachers collaboratively and has been consistently realistic about the persistence required by schools wanting to change their practices.
Lauren Resnick is Professor of Psychology at Pittsburg University and one of the most eminent American psychologists of the last fifty years. Her thinking about real-world learning and how it is different from school learning is central to BLP. She has been a pioneer in advocating the central importance of habits of mind as the core component of what it is to be intelligent.
Sir Ken Robinson has been a dominant force in shaping policy and practice, especially in the US and UK, with regard to creativity and learning. He has championed schools which put learners at the centre of their curriculum and do their utmost to unearth every young person’s ‘element’, the aspects of their own talents which matter most to them and which will engage them throughout their lives.
Professor Martin Seligman is the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. His work on positive psychology and specifically his concept of ‘learned helplessness’ has done much to shape our understanding of what it is to be resilient and resourceful in learning.
Professor Robert Sternberg is Provost at Oklahoma State University and acknowledged as a world authority on intelligence. His thinking about the degree to which intelligence is both experiential and practical, and especially the degree to which it is part of real-world learning, is central to BLP.
Chris Watkins is Reader in Education at the London Institute of Education. For several decades his tireless work with the International Centre for School Improvement has explicitly made the link between students who have more advanced conceptions of learning and higher levels of attainment.
Dylan Wiliam is Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the London Institute of Education. His groundbreaking work on Assessment for Learning was an important stepping stone on the way to shifting teacher understanding of the role of formative assessment and the broader importance of a more scientific approach to helping learners become better learners.
BLP’s American cousin: Art Costa’s work on ‘habits of mind’ (HoM) until around 2004, after we had developed our own framework. Costa had been developing an approach that is probably the closest cousin to BLP, offering advice to teachers about structuring their teaching around a list of 16 ‘habits of mind’.
These overlap considerably with BLP’s 17 learning capacities. The common features include curiosity and questioning, noticing and observation, perseverance, questioning, exploring possibilities through imagination, clear thinking and reasoning, checking and improving, distilling principles and applying lessons for the future, meta-learning or metacognition, interdependence with others, and listening and empathy.