Author Blog

Happy Birthday Ruby!

Educating Ruby was published a year ago to critical acclaim. The book is in its third edition and we have been deeply honoured by a 'jury' of our peers who have contributed to the annual Open Dialogue volume published last week by The British Psychological Society - The Psychology of Education Review, Volume 1, Spring 2016. Here is the last article in the Review in which Guy and Bill reflect on the opinions of reviewers in the eight articles which make up the collection.

The Hole in the Heart of Education - Some replies to our critics1

First of all, we would like to offer our sincere thanks to our respondents2. It is not often, particularly at our stage of life, that one has one’s work publicly scrutinised by such a distinguished jury of one’s peers. So we were delighted – and not a little relieved – to receive such a sympathetic, as well as thoughtful and constructive, set of responses. And we are grateful to the editors of this journal both for the invitation to present the core arguments of our book Educating Ruby: What Our Children Really Need to Learn to a psychological audience, and also for the chance to reply to some of the many pertinent points which the responses raise.

Two quick points to start. First, it is obviously impossible to do justice to a book length treatment of a body of work that has developed over twenty years or more in a short article, so some of the responses give us the opportunity to flesh out points that were explored at more length in the book. And second, Educating Ruby was explicitly written for a lay audience, particularly parents of children in English schools, so contains many more stories and illustrations, and much less detailed analysis of psychological research, than a different set of readers would have had a right to expect. Entwistle especially complains that we have used too many anecdotes and broad assertions, and we hope that other of our publications (e.g. Claxton 1999, 2013; Lucas and Claxton 2010; Lucas, Claxton and Spencer 2013) will reassure him that we do know our stuff. He also notes that the Scottish ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ has already made great strides in the direction we advocate. Indeed. If we were to write a Scottish edition of Educating Ruby, we would surely allude to our work with a wide range of schools and regions in Scotland including state schools in Aberdeen and Midlothian as well as independent schools such as Gordonstoun

It was gratifying to find agreement on two core areas:

That there is a set - a ‘reservoir’ (Volker) of learning dispositions which make ‘great learners’ (Hattie and Clinton) and that such dispositions or habits of mind are worth our serious attention. The 7Cs for which we argue in Educating Ruby, while scrutinised, re-interpreted and counter-poised with useful knowledge as any such list should be, were seen by all as a legitimate part of the core purposes of school.

That educational psychologists and psychologists working in a number of fields which contribute to our understanding of how children learn well do indeed have a role in causing, contributing to and supporting educational change, a debate which is only now really beginning.

Several respondents (Cremin, Kyriacou, Thomas, Volker) offer us a reality check, considering our proposals anything from optimistic to fanciful. They remind us that change is hard. We couldn’t agree more. Schools are complicated cultures that take time, effort and clarity of vision to change, and the pervasive ‘culture of performativity’, the constant churn of imposed initiatives, the ‘philistinism of the political class’, and the ‘psychotoxic system’ which surrounds them makes it difficult for schools to focus on their own vision-led change. Our positive approach reflects the convictions, borne of many years in education, that critical analysis of unwelcome government initiatives by academics has a poor track-record of success, and that the effort to inspire schools and teachers with an alternative vision that is both positive and practical, is more productive. In general we suspect that academics (and particularly research psychologists of education) would have greater success in changing the world if they paid more attention to strategies for increasing impact, and relied less exclusively on the dubious persuasive effects of finely-wrought argument and well-gathered evidence conveyed in prestigious journals. In these days of behavioural economic ‘nudges’ and embodied cognitive ‘promptings’, such touching faith in the causal power of naked reason is unfounded. We propose that it is possible for a combination of factors to overcome both stress and inertia. They include a vision of education that resonates with personal values (which dispositional approaches tend to); a reassuringly solid base of evidence from cognitive science (which they have); reassuring evidence that neither indiscipline nor a slump in achievement levels is likely to occur (which there is); and a variety of small practical steps that seem do-able in their own settings  (of which there are many).

We have recently argued that vocabulary is vital in communicating character-led approaches to teaching, and that descriptors such as ‘non-cognitive skills’, ‘soft skills’ – and indeed, as Thomas helpfully points out, the very word ‘skills’ itself - should be avoided (Claxton, Costa and Kallick 2016; Lucas and Hanson 2016). Design and tone matter, especially in these visually literate days. As we said in our lead article, our political strategy in writing Educating Ruby was to increase both the nerve of school principals, and the anxiety of politicians, by mobilising and informing parental enthusiasm for a better deal for their kids. To do this, you have to speak simply and directly. There will always be disagreement about the success of any attempt to do this. One person’s ‘smart communication’ is always going to be another person’s ‘dumbing down’.

Stoll and Williams are right to emphasise the critical role of school principals in leading such change with courage, commitment, clarity and cunning. Several of our commentators point out that what is sauce for the student goose is also sauce for the teacher and headteacher gander: the cultivation of fortitude, imagination, forethought and conviviality is as relevant to those who teach as it is for those who are taught. And we agree with Volker that forms of professional development for headteachers, so that they can better model and design learning cultures in their schools, is critical. (That is why both of us spend a good deal of our time these days working directly with school leaders.)

It is critical to the approach we espouse that the cultivation of character is directly linked both to life success, broadly defined, and to improved performance in examinations. The compatibility of these outcomes has been convincingly demonstrated by Nobel Economics Laureate James Heckman and his colleagues (Krautz et al 2013). Of course, some approaches to character education and the development of learning habits have been over-hyped, superficial or badly-implemented – just as traditional teaching can be either inspiring or stupefying, depending on how it is done. Inquiry-based education can be ineffective and time-wasting if it descends into a laisser-faire free-for-all (Kirschner et al 2006), and it can be powerfully educative if it is carefully designed and moderated (e.g. Murdoch 2015). Poor implementation, and the need for some trial-and-error in developing new approaches to pedagogy, are not good reasons for rubbishing the ambition. Yet some people seem to insist on sticking an ‘Or’ in: either rigour or ‘life skills’; either ‘knowledge’ or ‘learning dispositions’.

Hattie and Clinton are right to stress the non-necessity of opposing content and process, though they attribute more imbalance to our position than we think they have a right to infer. We do not advocate ‘learning how to learn’ as an alternative to ‘learning valuable content’. Such an error was sometimes made in the early days of ‘learning and thinking skills’, when some schools proudly designed lessons on Thinking that competed for timetable space with lessons on History or Maths, but we don’t make it. The norm now is an approach to learning design that fuses the two objectives of deeper understanding and stronger learning dispositions. You can’t cultivate ‘resilience’ or ‘imagination’ in abstract; you have to have something worthwhile to persist and wonder about. In Educating Ruby we explicitly argue that the curriculum should contain three kinds of content that we call utilities, treasures and exercise-machines. Utilities are practical things that everyone (in a globalised, digital culture) needs to know, and includes both know-what and know-how. Treasures are things that every educated member of a society ought to know about. In a globalised, multicultural world, what counts as a treasure is quite rightly hotly contested, and constantly under review. And exercise-machines are topics and activities that are particularly effective at engaging and stretching valuable habits of mind. History, if taught appropriately, is good for developing empathy and tolerance. The study of Literature can stretch and refine imagination and communication. Science can be designed so that it strengthens perceptual acuity, curiosity and hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Equally, anything can be taught in a way that develops credulity, passivity, dependency on a teacher to rescue and explain, and a generalised reluctance to ‘have a go’ or make a mistake. Many high-achieving students who have dutifully gained their places at the Universities of Melbourne or Cambridge have been taught in this dysfunctional way, and they suffer for it when they have to fend for themselves. So Ruby’s 7Cs are misunderstood, and misused, if they are seen as a kind of ‘consolation prize’ for the less privileged or the less able. Everyone needs them, and not everyone gets them from a ‘good traditional education’.

Hattie and Clinton’s stress on balance also hit another very important note. Each of the ‘learning dispositions’ is best seen not as a universal ‘good’ but as one of a complementary pair of ‘goods’: usually the one that is most in need of emphasis within the context of contemporary educational practice. Resilience, for example, is in need of emphasis. Many more students abandon their attempts at mastery prematurely than persist too long. Yet knowing when to quit – not because you ‘give up’ but because you have accurately re-evaluated the situation – is obviously of value as well. Collaboration is good, but so is solitary contemplation. Deep understanding is good, but not always. Sometimes a rote-learned rule of thumb, a quick heuristic, is more efficient. As Hattie and Clinton say, ‘It depends’. Again, this ‘bi-polar’ view of learning dispositions does not invalidate the approach, it makes it more flexible and intelligent.

Several respondents (Entwistle, Kyriacou) suggest we have under-emphasised the importance of relationships, especially those between teachers and students. To clarify: we do of course consider the quality of these relationships vital, but in a particular way. We see the dispositional teacher as akin to a sports coach. Such a coach needs to have a good relationship with her athletes not primarily to make them feel ‘safe’ or ‘valued’, but to help them develop in ways that they agree are valuable and desirable. The coach is empowered by her learners to remind them of these goals, to coax and push them in the right direction, and to co-design, with the learners, appropriate activities which will promote that development. That relationship is not centrally about fun and enjoyment, though both may be by-products of ‘training’. Nor is it purely about creating ‘engagement’ as an end in itself. Muscles and muscular skill grow through demanding activity, and engagement is the state of being willing to be stretched. If you do not like and trust your coach, you are unlikely to be willing to exert yourself, and to become vulnerable to failure or fatigue, especially if the requisite activity is not obviously or intrinsically pleasurable. So, to put it crudely, a roomful of busy, happy children is not enough, because they might well be busy and happy but not stretching themselves to the point where their capacity is being expanded.

This analogy obviously applies also to the relationships between headteachers and their staff. Learning to become a dispositional teacher is both demanding and rewarding. It involves changing habits that may, over several years of teaching, have become deeply engrained and largely unconscious. So one major factor in culture change, as Stoll and Williams point out, is the role of the school principal in designing and orchestrating the kind of teacher learning, coaching, mentoring and support that goes on within the school. But as well as being the ‘head pedagogical coach’, principals need to be honest and trustworthy. The rewards of changing these habits only accrue over time, so to be willing to experiment and adapt, you have to ‘take it on trust’ for a while. Habit change also involves being able to tolerate uncertainty. When you behave differently from usual, the consequences of that behaviour are, to begin with, somewhat unpredictable. In order to be willing to take the risk, teachers need to trust that their managers and leaders will genuinely tolerate a moderate increase in noise from the classroom, for example, or even some resistance for students (especially those who have been doing well under the old dispensation). So, yes, relationships matter, but they are relationships with a purpose that is not merely liberal or humanistic. 

Kyriacou chides us for trying to make children ‘fit the system better’, and for running the risk of blaming children for their ‘lack of resilience’ in coping with the excessive demands of school, instead of laying the blame at the feet of the meddlesome politicians where it belongs. It should be clear from a reading of Educating Ruby, as well as our other work, that these criticisms, while well made, do not apply to our position. Children need resilience not just to plough through schoolwork but to be willing and able to engage with difficult and challenging things throughout life, both those that are unbidden or imposed, and those that inevitably crop up in the pursuit of their own interests and projects. It is important to remember, especially in the current fad for shrinking the notion of character into a narrow concern with ‘grit’ and ‘growth mindset’ on the one hand, and a moralistic concern with probity and sobriety on the other, that we are talking about a much wider set of strengths and inclinations that empower individuals to resistance and social action as much as to the completion of disagreeable tasks (see e.g. Peterson and Seligman 2004).

Broadfoot quite rightly reminds us how powerfully the tail of assessment wags the dog of teaching and learning, though we find her prediction that ‘the culture of schooling, and its curriculum and pedagogic priorities, will not change…until ways are found of radically changing current approaches to assessment’ somewhat pessimistic. Because (as we argued in our lead article) the best approaches to character development also have the effect of raising student achievement on conventional tests, they are often valued by students and their parents alike. However Broadfoot is surely right (along with Hattie and Clinton, and Cremin) to stress the importance of developing ways of tracking the growth of character strengths and learning dispositions. We agree, but note that this issue is as vexed as it is important. All methodologies, including, and perhaps even especially, quantitative methods, have weaknesses and pitfalls as well as strengths and benefits. Much as the bean-counters might welcome its neatness and show of objectivity, a summative judgement that Ruby left school with a B+ in resilience but only a D in empathy would be the stuff of nightmares. Yet much progress is being made in evolving baskets of methods, both quantitative and qualitative, including (as Thomas and Broadfoot advocate) ‘technology-enhanced assessments’ (TEAs). Robust questionnaires, such as Burden’s (1998) MALS, Myself as a Learner Scale and Deakin Crick et al’s (2004) ELLI, the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory, are already widely used. In general we would strongly endorse Stoll and Williams’ call for a stronger research base in this area, and Entwistle’s plea for the development of new and innovative research methods that do justice to the character agenda.

The problem of scaling up, raised by Thomas, is another thorny area that needs further thought. He quotes Diane Ravitch’s (2010) pertinent observation that ‘What is stunningly successful in a small setting, nurtured by its founders and brought to life by a cadre of passionate teachers, seldom survives the transition when it is turned into a large-scale reform’. We share their impatience with the slow and faltering nature of education reform, and attribute much of it to the pusillanimous attitude of politicians and the simplistic headline-grabbing reportage by the media. Our view is that scaling won’t happen until a substantial fraction of the electorate is clamouring for it: that is why we wrote Educating Ruby as one attempt to influence and inform parents.

Finally, we have to agree, up to a point, with Volker’s cautionary reminder that ‘what goes around comes around’, and that there is much in our article that is familiar, especially to those who lived or taught during the 1960s and 70s. But we think that what has come around this time is more robust than it was 40 years ago. Then, ‘progressive education’ was largely underpinned by a liberal philosophy of child-rearing (often citing Rousseau’s Emile as its justification). Now, the underpinning is provided by good-quality cognitive scientific research, by an increasing body of evidence for the efficacy of the ‘And’ approach we are advocating, and by a rapidly growing bank of practitioner-tested practical ideas for adapting learning design. No longer can a concern with the deeper possibilities of education be dismissed as ‘woolly’ or ‘romantic’. It is a hard-nosed curriculum that is carefully and precisely designed to develop a range of attitudes and habits that are demonstrably correlated with a successful life. Slick attempts to rubbish it as ‘trendy’ or ‘dangerous’ no longer carry any weight. They are simply ill-informed.

References

Burden, R.L. (1998), Assessing children’s perceptions of themselves as learners and problem-solvers, School Psychology International, 19(4), 291-305.

Carr, M.A. and Claxton, G.L. (2002), Tracking the development of learning dispositions, Assessment in Education, 9(1), 9-37.

Claxton, G.L. (1999), Wise Up: The Challenge of Lifelong Learning, Bloomsbury: London and New York

Claxton, G.L. (2013), School as an Epistemic Apprenticeship: The Case of Building Learning Power, 32nd Vernon-Wall lecture, Education Section, British Psychological Society, BPS: Leicester

Claxton, G.L., Costa, A. and Kallick, B. (2016), Hard thinking about soft skills, Educational Leadership, March.

Deakin Crick, R., Broadfoot, P.M. and Claxton, G.L. (2004), Developing and effective lifelong learning inventory, Assessment in Education, 11(3), 247-272.

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. and Clark, R.E. (2006), Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential and inquiry-based teaching, Educational Psychologist, 41, 75-86.

Krautz, T., Heckman, J.J., Diris, R., ter Weel, B, and Borghans, L. (2013), Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success, OECD: Paris.

Lucas, B. and Claxton, G.L. (2010), New Kinds of Smart: How the Science of Learnable Intelligence Is Changing Education, Open University Press: Maidenhead.

Lucas, B., Claxton, G.L. and Spencer, E. (2013) Expansive Education: teaching learners for the real world. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Lucas, B. and Hanson, J. (2016), Learning to be Employable: practical lessons from research into developing character. London: City & Guilds.

Murdoch, K. (2015), The Power of Inquiry: Teaching and Learning with Curiosity, Creativity and Purpose in the Contemporary Classroom, Seastar Education: Melbourne.

Peterson, C. and Seligman, M.E.P. (Eds) (2004), Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York.

Ravitch, D. (2010), The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Basic Books: New York.

Notes

1. The Psychology of Education Review is available here and the introductory essay by Guy and Bill is available here.

2. We are enormously grateful to professors Patricia Broadfoot, Janet Clinton, Teresa Cremin, Noel Entwistle, Christine Folker, John Hattie, Chris Kriacou, Luke Rowe, Louise Stoll, Gary Thomas and Robert Williams and to our editor Katy Smart.