Pedagogy unplugged ―¬†understanding how children learn


From teacher collaboration to how children learn, the work of Professor Bill Lucas is providing a blueprint for 21st century education. We preview his speech at the forthcoming SSAT National Conference when he will encourage teachers to ask: How can I do

From his early days as an English and drama teacher to his present role as a speaker, education strategist and prolific author, Professor Bill Lucas has always been fascinated by the question of how young people learn.

It is one of the key issues that he will be addressing next month when he gives a keynote speech and workshop at the SSAT's National Conference in Liverpool.

The theme of the conference is "innovating learning" and with that in mind, Prof Lucas (pictured) is keen to examine "what is going on at the learner's end of things" in education and to look at ways in which teachers can deepen learning for students.

"Throughout my life I have become progressively more curious about what works for learners and progressively more passionate about the fact that the learning project is much broader than school alone," explained Prof Lucas, who is co-director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester. Many of Prof Lucas's interests in education have been directly inspired by his own experiences. For example, during his first teaching job at Peers School in Oxford (now the Oxford Academy), he created a Saturday arts centre, a "school within a school" for local children.

"It was for the children but the parents engaged too and soon you couldn't keep them away," said Prof Lucas. "From then on I began to think more about how you can systemise the involvement of parents and engage them more fundamentally in the project of lifelong learning."

Later on, during his work as CEO of the Campaign for Learning, he created Family Learning Week and set up the first research project to explore "learning to learn" approaches in schools and colleges.

He was also the founding director of Learning through Landscapes, the UK charity dedicated to enhancing outdoor learning and play for children.

During the course of his career he has written more than 40 books, including New Kinds of Smart: How the science of learnable intelligence is changing education, rEvolution: How to thrive in creative times, and Power Up Your Mind: Learn faster, work smarter.

More recently, through his work on expansive education, Prof Lucas has helped to transform the ways in which teachers work collaboratively.

He and his University of Winchester colleague Professor Guy Claxton set up the Expansive Education Network in order to help young people to develop the disposition, habits of mind and capabilities to thrive "in complex and uncertain times". In other words, the pair are keen to encourage schools, colleges and teachers to be more precise about what, as well as knowledge and skills, young people are learning.

Prof Lucas continued: "The Expansive Education Network that Guy and I created is not all about taking a radically bipolar look at education, not about saying that all the stuff in the secretary of state's head is wrong ― because it isn't.

"We clearly need to improve standards and to have kids who can do all the things they need to do in their different subjects. But actually the thing that is really going to distinguish us as a nation is whether or not all our citizens can learn whatever they need to learn to sustain them throughout their lives.

"So expansive education is an approach to education predicated on the idea of expanding young people's capabilities ― their ability to be persuasive and creative, to be resourceful and reflective, to adapt, to solve problems, all those things ― as well as making sure that our schools are outstanding."

He is particularly keen to encourage teachers to think more about pedagogy. This means not just reflecting on how they teach, but about how their students learn.

"Frankly, initial teacher training is pretty thin on that subject," he said. "If you are training to be a doctor you learn a lot about basic biology and how the body works. If you are a teacher you learn a lot about the basics of your subject, which is important, but many people go into teaching without really understanding much about pedagogy or how the mind operates or how learning really takes place."

He acknowledges that some teachers "run a mile" from the notion of pedagogy. He has therefore decided to title his speech to the SSAT National Conference Pedagogy Unplugged ― in the hope that it will encourage headteachers and teachers alike to ask "what do I need to know, what do I need to apply and how can I do things differently?".

"The danger is that pedagogy sounds too fancy," he said. "But I would translate it as the set of choices that teachers make on a daily basis."

During his speech, Prof Lucas will highlight a useful decision-making framework that he and Prof Claxton have developed for teachers.

This framework summarises the choices that teachers face day-in, day-out. These include the teacher's role and approach (facilitative or didactic?), the nature of the activities, attitude to knowledge, organisation of time and space, approach to tasks, visibility of processes, and the role (self-managing or directed?) of the learners.

"But I will also be drawing attention to approaches to pedagogy which might be helpful and likely to work ― such as peer teaching, problem-based learning, enquiry-based learning, experiential learning, parental engagement, and teaching for transfer," he explained.

"Basically I want to give clear practical examples of different pedagogical approaches, why you might want to use them and what the benefits of using them might be. There is a really interesting body of research out there which I'm going to share. So let's hear it for pedagogy ― although if you don't like the term, let's talk about it as 'decision-making'."

Following on from his speech at SSAT, Prof Lucas will also host a workshop focusing on expansive education, when he will look at practical ways in which teachers can develop their expertise and build more effective learners in the classroom. He and Prof Claxton will run the session together and are keen to encourage the notion that professional development should be "a kind of continuous enquiry".

With this in mind, the two men have invited Ian Potter, headteacher of Bay House School and Sixth Form in Hampshire, to outline his school's innovative approach to CPD.

At Bay House School, virtually all the teachers undertake action research. They frequently try out new strategies that they believe will impact on teaching and learning and then carefully evaluate the impact of these.

"Pedagogy is a series of choices, so action research is about doing something different in the classroom and noticing what happens," explained Prof Lucas. "It's not a case of just saying 'oh, that went well', or 'the kids seemed to like that'.

"Bay House is an extraordinary school. It is a fine example of a school really embracing expansive education.

"After all, if we are saying that we want learners to be reflective, enquiring and thoughtful, then assuredly we need teachers to be the same. This isn't about research with a capital R, it's all about teachers' ongoing and precise reflective practice."

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

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