What is your approach to promoting learning skills?

Written by: Frances Robertson | Published:
Learning skills: The RESPECT philosophy is pictured on display at Our Lady Immaculate Primary School. Detailed below, it sets out the ‘keys to success’ as identified by pupils

As a headteacher, what are your priorities when beginning at a new school? For Frances Robertson, the focus must always begin on children’s learning skills and the school’s teaching and learning ethos...

When you arrive as headteacher in a new (to you at least) school, it is a challenge to know where to start: Meet the staff. Meet the parents. Meet the children. Meet the governors? And in what order?

In the past five years, I have arrived as a new headteacher at two schools and both times on first arriving I made sure to ask the children some clichéd yet pertinent questions, especially about the language of learning (that’s learning, not doing). These include:

  • What are you learning?
  • What have you learned today?
  • What new learning have you taken part in today?

Subject to the answers you receive, I feel you can begin to get an idea of the journey the school needs to go on. And by school, I do mean the whole community it serves: governors, parents, staff and children.

Should the answers consist of children telling you what they are doing – such as in one art lesson where children told me they were drawing optical illusions – then you know that metacognitive learning is not happening in your school.

These children when pushed for what skills or art techniques they were learning looked at me blankly. How can they reflect on their learning if they are unaware of what it is they are learning? How can they transfer the skills learned in this art project to another area if they are unaware of what they are learning?

Transfer this to a literacy lesson where they are learning about rules of making a list – if they are not told explicitly that this is what is being taught, how do they recall how to write a list in a different context?

Children being able to talk about their learning and the challenges they experience and where their successes are is crucial for good progress.

The Education Endowment Foundation reports from research-based evidence that metacognition and self-regulation strategies can move children’s progress forward by an additional eight months over the course of a year. Importantly with budgets being so tight for us all it produces “high impact for very low cost” based on extensive research.

This approach fundamentally builds upon the child’s resilience, which is a key life skill as well as crucial for cognitive development. So how do you take the whole community on this journey of reflection or metacognitive learning?

To begin I believe that you do need to take all the children and staff. I have always begun with whole-school collective worships/assemblies (whatever word you give them). Interestingly when I first joined as headteacher neither school ever had a whole-school assembly which included all the staff and all the children. This is a really good place to get your messages across to everyone working and attending the school.

The first message I give is “Can you change the world?” – I begin with letting children see pictures of individuals such JK Rowling, Elvis Presley, Walt Disney and Malala Yousafzai. We discuss how they were told they couldn’t achieve and yet did. What is it like to be told to stick with being a trucker when you have the voice that later becomes the king of rock? How does it feel to receive rejection letters from publishers?

This is a message to both staff and children. As educators we have a lot of power over a child’s self-esteem and ability to cope with setbacks. Do we decide early on that child is “naughty” or that the “shy” child couldn’t possibly stand in front of an audience and talk?

The message I am giving is twofold: to the children you can achieve and you matter; to the staff don’t prevent or limit them from achieving.
Sue Roffey (2015) comments that “The strongest factor in resilience is having someone in your life who thinks you are special and shows you that they care about you.”

I build on these assemblies and talk about less well known people such as Isabel Gratton, who at the age of nine wrote and read aloud in front of 100 people a letter to prevent the building of 100 houses on her favourite park. I continue to build on this adding further names as the weeks, months, years go by.

You may have children in your own school who have achieved a change. For example, in one school some children met with the PTA and produced a case for not releasing balloons in the air as part of a fundraiser (a tradition that had been going for years). The children’s view was that this was not an environmentally friendly thing to do. After some discussion the PTA agreed with the children and a different event was organised.

The key to this occurring was that the pupils felt confident enough to approach the headteacher because they knew their thoughts would be listened to. Their voice is important in our school and in life.

After the assemblies the next stage for me was to get some staff involved in moving this forward. At one school, two members of the senior leadership team set up a working party and openly asked which staff wanted to join.

However, I did not attend these meetings. I was kept updated on what was happening and how it was moving forward. I was able therefore to “monitor” it without it being “done to them”. They developed a code with the acronym of “TEAM” that set-out skills to help learners develop. Before being launched to children, parents and governors it was shared with all staff at INSET. Here all staff were able to comment on it, suggest changes before the final version was ready to launch. It was eventually shared with children at a whole-school assembly. The TEAM skills were:

  • Think: ask questions, explain, reason, problem-solve.
  • Explore: creative and innovate, imagine, make links, take risks.
  • Adapt: reflect, learn from feedback, think flexibility, share ideas.
  • Motivate: persevere, be positive, have a go, make good choices.

As we know, this is just the beginning and creating the simple acronym does not mean that all staff were on board, nor that they were using it to drive children’s ability to think about their learning.

I, during future assemblies, revisited this and spoke to the children about their thoughts on TEAM skills. It became very obvious which classes were using them and which were not. Hattie (2009) is clear that next to student characteristics, the teacher is the strongest factor in a student’s achievement. Hence the need for the senior leaders in the school to keep revisiting this.

Fortunately for the school and children, teachers that were not using the TEAM skills approached me to ask how they could implement them more effectively. Class teachers then began sharing ideas on how they could do this. Classroom displays began to show these skills and children were proactively demonstrating when and how they were using these skills.

This shift in thinking moves towards a student-centred approach to learning. Cornelius & White (2007) identified that the more student-centred teacher-student relationships are, the higher student achievement is. I can only say that the floor target before I arrived was 66 per cent and at the end of my first year it was 77 per cent, moving to 84 per cent the following year. In the first year of the new SATs, the school was at 77 per cent (against a national average of 53 per cent).

At the next school, the approach to developing a whole-school undertaking to resilience was slightly different. While the introduction was the same in that whole-school assemblies took place with similar messages being given, the next step involved the children from the outset.
Experience had taught me that children get on board quicker if involved – no great surprise there. Coupled with which the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2004) have stated that highly successful schools actively engage students in learning by promoting autonomy and self-regulation as well as maximising student expectations for their own success.

So the students were asked for what they thought made the school special. What key words/phrases did they feel were needed to make the school a great place for learning? These words and phrases were then taken to whole-school INSET and the team, in groups, worked on this.
I presented what they produced in a whole-school assembly in order to get further feedback from the children. Children and staff worked collaboratively on this. Children actually named it their “Keys to Success”.

The senior leadership team then collated all this and the “RESPECT” Keys to Success code was born. The word “RESPECT” actually came from one of the classes and the staff decided to use it and build on it. The “RESPECT” keys are shown above.

Once this was agreed upon it was shared with governors and parents. A series of assemblies was then planned and delivered by me – looking at each letter individually.

A member of the senior leadership team then followed this up with designing certificates which are handed out each week after assembly. These are based on the keys to success. It is an opportunity to celebrate when children are using these. All of this is then reported on in the parent newsletter. All the children in the school know and understand what the RESPECT code means.

  • Frances Robertson is headteacher of Our Lady Immaculate Catholic Primary School in Surbiton.

Further information

Education Endowment Foundation, Teaching and Learning Toolkit: Research summary of metacognition and self-regulation approaches: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/meta-cognition-and-self-regulation/

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