Educating Ruby: Wot-I-Got out of the book, and why I read it

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 9.08.16 pmAs mentioned in my previous post I’m currently participating in the Bastow Institute’s Create: Middle Leaders program. In that previous post I talked about the great vs. typical learning activity in which we had to take photos in our classroom, then have a conversation with students in which they identified which images represented ‘typical’ and  ‘great’ learning. What I didn’t mention was the impact that the sharing element of the activity had on me. The students with whom I’d discussed the photographs were from my year 11 physics class, the students with whom one of my colleagues, Tamara, discussed her photos were from year 2. Here’s the kind of things that my students said:

‘I like the way that teacher explains and writes on the board to make sure that students understand the content.’

‘Reading books are a great way to learn.’

‘Looks like (the teacher is) helping a student out, it’s great when students asks when they’re not sure to consolidate their understanding. Two students in the photo are working out a question together. That’s great learning

‘I think it’s (using the spaced repetition software Anki) pretty useful. Helps you retain information.’

‘It’s just easier to remember. For doing [tests] and exams, because of Anki I can remember all of the formas and answers more easily without having to check my cheat sheet.’

Here’s the kind of things that were said by Tamara’s students (Thanks to Tamara for sharing with me her records of students’ quotes):

‘(this student) chose a good partner, different to usual, it’s a good decision to choose someone you don’t know well.’

‘(this student’s) writing shows they worked really hard and noticed where they got the letters wrong or used the wrong word’

‘This is great learning because this student is working hard and using his perseverance muscle.’

‘they’re trying really hard and using a different idea/ strategy’

It might not come out as powerfully through the quotes as it did in our discussion, but what surprised me was the meta-language that Tamara’s students used in analysing what makes ‘typical’ and ‘great’ learning. These Year 2 students had a metalanguage for learning including words and concepts like ‘perseverance’, identifying different ‘ideas/strategies’, and they went beyond the general to talk not only about group work but specifically about with whom individuals had chosen to work. Moreover, the students talked not about what the teacher was doing, but about what the learners were doing. In fact, none of the photos that Tamara’s students chose to represent great learning included Tamara, or any other teacher! In sum, these year 2 students appeared to have a more developed and nuanced understanding of what it means to be a ‘great learner’ than did my year 11s, and that was scary!

So, I had to ask the question…’Why?’.

Luckily I’d used pretty much interview question that I had in my arsenal (see my Education Research Reading Room Podcast!) on Tamara the night before and she’d told me about the massive positive impact that Guy Claxton’s ‘Building Learning Power’ program has had on their school. This warranted a closer look.

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 9.05.53 pmAt this point I’ve got to mention how much of a sceptical consumer I am of this stuff. I find the analogy of ‘learning muscles’ a bit cringeworthy, and I’m not the only one. But, with the (anecdotal) evidence from Tamara in front of me, and the Quaker passage pictured right in mind, I thought it worth checking out further. I knew that even if I wasn’t sold by the whole thesis, there’d still be stuff in the book worth taking away.

I went straight ahead and read Claxton’s most recent book, Educating Ruby. What did I get out of it? Well, I guess inspiration is the main thing. Through all of the explicit instruction that I’ve been doing, although both highly stimulating and effective, I’ve had this feeling that something’s missing. I don’t think I’ll be advocating for the implementation of BLP at my school any time soon, there are many other programs and approaches out there worth exploring first and I need a better understanding of how each of the elements of such a program would tangibly fit together in my school’s context. But I am definitely more inspired to work out how to build my students into more independent learners, and furnish them with a better understanding of, and metalanguage around, what it is to be a great learner. Watch this space!

Here are my notes from the book, arranged in a semi-sensical order.

Note: Something that surprised me was how explicitly Claxton seemed to argue against the ‘trads’ that are so prolific on twitter and the ed blogosphere. He literally referred to the articles that they cite, and provided counter-sources and counter-arguments. I was impressed by his awareness of the dynamics at work within the current educational landscape, and I think he did a good job of transcending much of the bickering that occurs within it in order to try to find common ground and paint a positive picture of how evidence and inspiration can be combined to make schools a more empowering and relevant place for students.


  • A letter from a parent
    • ‘Dear Head Teacher, I want to write and thank you for recently running the parent workshops on how to support our children in ‘Building Learning Power’. Your talk has given me a vocabulary to use when talking to my children to help convey some truly important values that I have always believed to be vital to both success and happiness. Specifically that ‘effort is more important than ability’ and ‘mistakes are part of the learning process/to succeed you have to be prepared to take the risk of failing’. I loved the analogy you used of the brain being a muscle that has to be exercised and made fit for learning. I have been talking a lot about overcoming adversity with my children.'(location 1825)

Some of the key pts

  • A great summary of  the ‘Three educational tribes: Roms, Trads and Mods’(location 360)
    • E.g., ‘It is perhaps not surprising that Trads are over-represented in the worlds of politics, the law and journalism, where skills in adversarial debating and point scoring are highly prized. Such sophistry is, of course, very different from real thinking, which is an often hesitant, difficult and slow attempt to get closer to the truth. Mods like to discuss and wonder, edging their way towards ideas that feel more solidly appropriate to the unprecedented challenges of the present.’(location 438)
    • Because Trads like to keep things simple, they reduce knowledge to facts (and ignore the fact that most knowledge actually consists of webs of ideas that have withstood empirical tests). They reduce the subtle art of teaching to ‘knowledge transmission’ – just telling. They like to make assessment as rigorous as possible by making everything right or wrong – which, of course, ignores thinking. And they have a simplistic view of students’ minds which revolves around memorising: putting facts into storage and hauling them out on demand. This world view obliterates much of what is interesting and true about the mind as something which grapples with ideas, copes with degrees of uncertainty, interprets and muses – and sometimes improves – on what it has read or heard and, critically, is capable of getting better at grappling, interpreting, musing and, indeed, memorising. Young minds are full of habits and processes that are capable of being stretched and strengthened by the right kind of teaching, but which are often not. A major study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard and other partner universities found that students’ performance on tests is powerfully predicted by their level of these mental skills and habits, but that studying in the traditional Hirschean way does not develop these skills.6(location 453)
  • The Sabre-Tooth Curriculum(location 639)
    • A nice little narrative that Claxton and Lucas develop in order to illustrate their point regarding how we must change curricula in response to changes in the world outside of school.
  • the seven Cs: confidence, curiosity, collaboration, communication, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship.(location 863)
    • This is the basis of Claxton’s model
    • the ‘other game’ of school. If you cannot be a winner at the grade game, you can still come away having been a winner at the character game. The first requires losers; anyone can win the second.(location 864)
    • If you had to rank order the seven Cs, which would be at the top of your list? Which at the bottom? How would you adjust them?(location 894)
  • Education is not the same as school(location 927)
    • Education is a vision of what it is that our children will need if they are going to flourish in the world as we predict it will be:(location 929)
    • It is to do with what’s left at the end of their formal educational experiences, the residues of that experience which will enable them to engage intelligently with the ups and downs that come their way. This is a moral conversation, and it is necessary and unavoidable. If people disagree about the aims of education, this has to be within a conversation about differing values and differing images of the future.(location 939)
    • School, on the other hand, is a particular system that societies have invented for ‘doing education’.(location 942)
    • Education is the ends; school is the means.(location 943)
  • A really well thought out list of what are the core competencies in order to live a successful life
    • what are the core competences for living safely, sociably and satisfyingly?(location 987)
    • Here are some candidates. They were generated in the context of a very exciting ‘global summit on education’ held at the Perimeter Institute, an elite physics lab in Waterloo, Canada, in October 2013.3(location 988)
    • This list of competences is a bit of a rag-bag. We could tidy it up somewhat by dividing it into two groups: what we might call skills – which are techniques that can be learned or trained quite explicitly – and what we will call habits of mind – which are more general tendencies to respond to events in a particular way.(location 1033)
      • There are broadly three clusters of these character strengths(location 1066)
      • The first is called rather grandly ‘self-regulation’.(location 1067)
      • A way of teaching pre-schoolers in the United States called Tools of the Mind structures this kind of play – and it has shown that children develop self-regulation faster, and also show better development of literacy and numeracy. Self-regulation(location 1079)
      • The other two clusters are, if you like, the two main branches that grow out of this trunk of self-control. The first branch grows into the habits and attitudes of a ‘good person’: kind, friendly, generous, tolerant, empathic, forgiving, trustworthy, honest, having moral courage and integrity, and so on.(location 1082)
      • The second branch grows into the habits of mind that characterise a ‘good learner’.(location 1087)
    • Two recent books provide comprehensive reviews of the research that shows how important these habits of mind are for success in life. They are How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, and Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman.4(location 1038)
  • What happens when you don’t develop positive habits of mind?
    • The problem was that most of them then dropped out. When they went on to college that high-powered support team was left behind, and without it many of those young people didn’t know how to cope. They had got the grades, but they hadn’t developed the resilience, independence and self-discipline that they now really needed.5(location 1050)
  • Claxton and Lucas’ take on the school curriculum
    • there are three kinds of things that deserve to be in the school curriculum. We call them utilities, treasures and exercise-machines.(location 1149)
    • Utilities are things which are self-evidently useful for young people to know or be able to do. They include being able to tie your shoelaces (if this is still essential since the invention of Velcro),(location 1150)
    • treasures: things which we all agree may not be directly useful, in a rather utilitarian sense, but which, we broadly agree, form such an important part of our (however we define ‘our’) cultural heritage that everyone who lives here should have encountered them.(location 1162)
  • What are the ingredients of generating change?
    • D x V x F > R It was dreamt up by a man called David Gleicher, who was trying to explain the three different elements which need to be in place if you are trying to overcome resistance to change. Here’s what each letter means: D = Dissatisfaction with how things are now V = Vision of what is possible F = First concrete steps that can be taken towards the vision R = Resistance to change(location 2293)

Great Quotes!

  • It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age. Margaret Mead(location 1147)

Use in class tomorrow

  • We have heard of one brave school where every term the children are each given a ‘joker’ they can play at any point of any lesson during that term. When they do so, the teacher has to stop teaching and try to give the class their best explanation of why that topic is important enough to be taking up the children’s time. The explanations are listened to respectfully and evaluated by the class. Trads might well be appalled by this apparent show of disrespect or lack of trust. Mods, however, will be open to the possibility that the thinking involved, and the discussion that could ensue, is a better preparation for life than passively accepting what you are told.(location 1192)
  • A ‘mistake of the week’ accompanied by an explicit attempt to tease out the insights it can bring the class is an example of the kind of curriculum we think children of this age need.(location 1259)
  • there is a great website called which shows short film-clips of all kinds of people talking about the journeys that led them to the work (whether employed or self-employed) they now love doing.(location 1371)
  • I had a really good history teacher, fun and full of energy. He taught us in a different way. Once before school he asked me, “Hannah, in the middle of the lesson can you keep on asking questions and I’ll ignore you, then you storm out?” So I was like, yeah. The lesson was about reliable sources, so after I stormed out he made everyone write a letter to the head teacher explaining what had happened. Then he called me back in and told everyone it was a set-up. We read all the letters out and some, of course, were really biased – my best friends vs. people who hated me, kind of thing. It was a really clever way to show us what we were learning about. Hannah, Year 9, London secondary school(location 1375)

One day I hope to use…

  • On the financial crisis, 15-year-olds could read John Lanchester’s Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay or John Coates’ brilliant exposition of the neuroscience of risk-taking, Between the Hour of Dog and Wolf.12 On climate change, George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning or James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia would be good.13 On the evolution and future of humankind, anything by Richard Dawkins is an exemplary piece of science writing, while Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee is a great read14 – there is even a version adapted to the reading level of 10-year-olds now on the market,(location 1406)
  • The Social Animal, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind are highly accessible, well-researched and very thought-provoking.15 Alexander Diener and Joshua Hagen’s Borders: A Very Short Introduction brings history and politics together in a way that illuminates many current post-colonial conflicts.16 Many works of fiction also address contemporary or historical issues of real importance in lively ways – for example, John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.17 Any would-be writer of fiction would learn hugely from John Yorke’s Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them.18 Olivia Fane’s The Conversations: 66 Reasons to Start Talking would be a terrific primer for debates about painful contemporary issues.19(location 1413)

Stuff to Check out

  • David Perkins wrote a very good empirical paper on this way back in 1985, called ‘Post-primary education has little impact on informal reasoning’, which about says it all.3(location 418)
  • a detailed, critical review of E. D. Hirsch’s work by Kristen Buras in the Harvard Educational Review, in which she carefully rebuts all of Hirsh’s claims, has gone unmentioned by many Trad defenders.(location 448)
  • Academics like Robin Alexander at Cambridge or Andrew Pollard at Bristol, innovative head teachers like Sir Anthony Seldon at Wellington College or Tom Sherrington at Highbury Grove School in London, or thoughtful ex-teachers and administrators like Sir Tim Brighouse, who have spent decades thinking about schools(location 481)
  • See Amy Finn, Matthew Kraft, Martin West et al., Cognitive skills, student achievement tests, and schools, Psychological Science 25(3) (2014): 736–744.(location 776)
  • Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton, Wider Skills for Learning: What Are They, How Can They Be Cultivated, How Could They Be Measured and Why Are They Important for Innovation? (London: NESTA, 2009). Available at: files/wider_skills_for_learning_report.pdf.(location 1140)
  • curriculum from New Zealand called Te Whāriki, which means a woven mat in Maori.(location 1247)
  • Some schools use the popular technique known as Six Thinking Hats, created by Edward de Bono, as a basis for making switching roles fun (the children wear different coloured hats to signal which ‘mode’ they are currently in).4(location 1266)
  • What the heck, students producing an academic paper?
    • On 22 December 2010, the prestigious science journal, Biology Letters, produced by the Royal Society, published a paper entitled ‘Colour and spatial relationships in bees’.6(location 1297)
    • Two researchers, Ann Brown at the University of Berkeley, California7 and Chris Watkins at the Institute of Education in London,8 have shown how, by deliberately seeking to set up classrooms as communities of enquiry, the level of understanding and quality of questioning becomes much deeper.(location 1320)
  • They are using a tool called the TASC wheel (Thinking Actively in a Social Context), which was created by Belle Wallace.2 The TASC wheel helps them orchestrate the task; their teacher is doing very little to guide or rescue them from the considerable difficulty of the assignment.(location 1578)

I don’t understand the value of this as yet.

  • Another similarly adventurous example which we liked was the decision by teachers at Coombes School, in Berkshire, to teach the Great Fire of London by having the whole school (and parent body) construct a scale model of London outside in the grounds, then to orientate it so that the wind was blowing in the same direction as it was on that fateful day, then to light it in Thomas Farynor’s bakery and see what happened. The children and assembled throng of parents potentially learned as much about the passage of fire as they did about the fragility of a capital city largely built of wood. The whole thing was filmed so that the learning could endure beyond the few minutes of the playground conflagration.5(location 1282)
  • Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLE) where children can work in groups, accessing the internet and other software, following up on a class project or taking them where their interests lead them. Mitra’s research shows that this self-organised enquiry works brilliantly – unless interrupted by adults.(location 1328)