Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

A brighter outlook


The Leading Learning series of conferences hosted by the SSAT and ASCL is intended to broaden discussion among practitioners about the deeper purpose of learning. To kick off the debate, Professor Guy Claxton proposes eight virtues for the modern age.

We seem to live in a morally bashful age. Perish the thought that anyone might try to 'impose their values' on anyone else. Yet education is unavoidably value-laden. The moral heart of education is a vision of the kinds of character our society wants. What kinds of adults do we want our children to become - not just with what skills, but with what dispositions and interests and concerns, do we want them to grow up?

Education policy today, it seems, pretends that the only serious questions are technical ones. How are we going to raise standards? What are the most appropriate methods for testing students, and when, and how much? But words like 'standards' and 'appropriate' merely finesse the underlying moral questions.

Actually, there are signs of a resurgence of interest in character. From Australia's 'new basics' (Queensland) and 'essential learnings' (Victoria, Tasmania) to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's 'Curriculum for the Future' in the UK, the world is now buzzing with fine-sounding phrases like 'respects the environment' and 'plays an active role in the community'.

However they are often phrased so vaguely that no one could possibly disagree - and no one knows what they really mean. Does 'respecting the environment' mean lobbying the G8? Or merely not dropping litter and making trips to the bottle-bank?

Children are bombarded daily with conflicting models of what to value and how to live, and their communities often offer little strong, unanimous guidance about how to choose wisely - or little they are willing to heed.

It is also increasingly obvious that young people (especially in the UK, according to the recent Unesco report) are not coping well with this freedom and diversity. Classic symptoms of stress are high - escapism, drug abuse, depression, self-doubt.

Modern age virtues

So in the spirit of positive psychology, let me offer for debate a set of strengths and virtues for the learning age. I propose eight: curiosity, courage, exploration, experimentation, imagination, discipline, sociability and thoughtfulness.

Curiosity is the starting point for learning. If you are not interested in things that are difficult or puzzling, you won't engage. Curious people wonder about things: how they come to be, and how they work. They live in a wonderful world, not a world of dead certainties and cut-and-dried rules.

Young people surely need courage; not necessarily physical valour but the courage to engage with uncertain things, 'to boldly go' where they are not yet sure how to respond. Courageous learners have the determination to stick with things that are hard, even if they turn out to be harder than they thought. (Though it is also a virtue to know when to quit, not because you are feeling stupid, but because it really isn't worth it.)

Exploration is the active, inquisitive counterpart of curiosity. Inquisitive people are good at seeking and gathering information. They can attend carefully to situations, taking their time if needs be, and not jumping to conclusions or producing slick answers just to 'look good'. They enjoy the process of finding things out, of researching, whether it be footballers' lives or particle physics. They like sifting and evaluation, not just reading or surfing the net uncritically, and their exploration usually breeds more questions.

Experimentation is the virtue of the practical inventor, actively trying things out to see if they work. Experimenters like tinkering, tuning and looking for small improvements. They don't have to have a grand, ostensibly foolproof, scheme before they try something out; they are at home with trial and error. They don't mind making mistakes, and, as Billie Jean King said, they "look on losing not as failure but as research".

Imagination is the virtue of fantasy, of using the inner world as a test-bed for ideas and the theatre of possibilities. Imaginative people are at home in the world of 'what if' and make-believe. They have a mixture of healthy respect and scepticism toward their own hunches and intuitions, even if they can't justify them yet. They use imagery and metaphor in their thinking.

The creativity of imagination needs to be yoked to the virtue of discipline; of being able to think carefully, rigorously and methodically, as well as to take the imaginative leap. You need to be opportunistic - but you also need to be able to plan.

The virtue of sociability, and of judiciously balancing sociability with solitariness, also seems essential. Effective learners seem to know who to talk to (and who not), and when to talk (and when to keep silent) about their own learning. They have the knack of being able to give their views and hold their own in debate, and at the same time stay open-minded to and respectful of others' views.

Finally there is the virtue of thoughtfulness, not in the sense of being considerate to others (though this is a virtue too), but of being disposed to reflection, contemplation; taking time to mull things over, take stock, consider alternative strategies and possibilities. Not paralysed by self-consciousness but capable of self-awareness, reflective learner can take a step back every so often and question their own priorities and assumptions.

Encourage uncertainty

Dealing with the real-time uncertainties of modern life, and developing one's own passionate interests and vocations, is usually not at all like school. The carefully planned, pre-digested, sequenced and graded kinds of bite-size learning which the conventional curriculum promotes is not the kind of learning for which young people need to be prepared, and an apprenticeship in exam-passing leaves even the most successful with a skill for which there is little call once they have left university.

We need to focus on developing qualities of mind that do have real-life currency, and to design a curriculum that offers an effective, systematic apprenticeship in those qualities and virtues. How do you teach courage, or inquisitiveness, or sociability? The first thing is to realise what doesn't work, and not do it. And what doesn't work is stand-alone lessons on those virtues. Mere knowledge does not create disposition.

I believe that schools need to do three things. First, they must use the language of the learning virtues all the time. They must find multiple and continuous ways to notice and acknowledge students' 'virtuous' development.

Second, they have to create frequent, genuine, attractive opportunities for students to discover for themselves not just the power of these virtues but their pleasures. That means creating sizeable chunks of time where they can, both alone and in collaboration, get their teeth into real hard learning challenges that engage and intrigue them. And that means trusting them more.

Finally, the school and all the adults in it need to model the agreed virtues in their own professional lives. Teachers need to let the students know that they do not have all the answers, and that the school as a whole is being curious, inquisitive and exploratory about its own operation, tinkering its way imaginatively, thoughtfully and courageously towards improvement.

None of these three requirements is impossible. None of them need jeopardise hard won levels of control or of examination results. None of them means - God forbid - that we all have to chuck out Shakespeare and start doing a new subject called 'the learning virtues'.

What it does mean, as a first step, is that we all start experimenting with thinking and talking about young people and their development in a different way. I've offered a first shot at a 'primer' for that conversation. Now, please, help me improve it.

Professor Guy Claxton is a keynote speaker at the joint ASCL and SSAT Leading Learning conferences in October

Leading Learning Conferences: Deep Learning and Support

  • 4 October in Birmingham

  • 12 October in London

ASCL and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) are holding a series of one-day conferences on meeting the challenge of personalising learning.

The Deep Learning and Support conferences will centre around how to embed assessment for learning through new models of CPD, summative assessment, testing when ready, learning guides, parental involvement, effective intervention strategies with other services and additional support for those students who need it.

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