Learners at the Centre II

October 26, 2013
Stephen Tierney

Post is reblogged from Stephen Tierney’s personal blog as Leading Learner

In the first part of what now looks like it will be a trilogy, Vision 2040: Learners at the Centre I, I put forward the idea that as we move towards 2040 we will see various power shifts in education including from teachers to students, where the learner takes centre stage in decision making about her/his learning both its direction and process.

Take a moment to think about the best learners you have ever taught, not necessarily the most able, articulate or brightest but the learner who impressed you most with her/his approach to your lessons … now imagine a whole class full of these learners sat in front of you!  This would fundamentally change what happens in schools, for the better, but we have a responsibility to explicitly develop these learners.  Tom Sherrington (Chair of the SSAT Vision 2040 Redesigning Schools Group and tweeting as @headguruteacher) effectively pre-empted the first part of this post with his comment on my previous post:

Learners at the Centre II

“The blend of these ideas … rather than pitting them against each other.”

As I think about schools and learners of the future then three aspects of learning have to be put into place.  We need to see these as interrelated, summative and synergistic as we work with all three elements together:

  • A cognitively and vocationally challenging curriculum
  • The habits of mind and procedural skills that enable students to be
  • Explicit development of students as learners - independent then interdependent.

We need students to have a cognitively and vocationally challenging curriculum.  They need to develop sufficient knowledge on which to build a conceptual framework of an area of study, a real deep understanding, and this conceptual framework is then the basis on which further knowledge and concepts can be built.  I’ve blogged before about the SOLO Taxonomy (Redesigning Classrooms: Using SOLO to Increase Challenge which has links to some other posts that might be of interest).  Lots of teachers at St. Mary’s have found the SOLO Taxonomy really useful to build challenge into their class room practice on in a sequentially and organised way.

We also need to build the habits of mind and skills that will allow students to be scientist, historians, linguists, technologists, mathematicians etc rather than simply doing our subject.  An interesting experiment pitted a group of history professors against some American history undergraduates.  The first part of the experiment tested knowledge and understanding focussed on a period of history studied by the undergraduates but not the specialist area of the professors.  The undergraduates outperformed the professors.  However when both groups were given materials about a period of history neither were familiar with the professors way outperformed the undergraduates.  The undergraduates had learnt about a period of history but the professors knew how to be historians - critically analyse sources, make hypothesise, draw out different inferences and come to a conclusion.  We need our students to be not simply to know.

Let me just turn this on its head for a moment as these procedural skills need to be placed in a rich and challenging curriculum not a vacuum.  About twenty five years ago, as a young Science teacher, I was asked to speak at a Science Conference about some work I was doing on Process Science – explicitly teaching scientific procedural skills.  There were a number of presenters and one was talking about a thirty minute observation homework where students had to observe the bubbles for half and hour and write about what happens to bubbles made with washing up liquid in water.  I don’t know about you but this would bore me stupid: process without a challenging context is superficial and a wasted opportunity.

Both these areas, whilst always accepting that we could improve further, are familiar to schools.  The real gap in many schools and in our curriculum thinking and planning is around the explicit development of a learner.

4Cs Interdependent Learner

We need learners who initially becomes independent but whose ultimate aim is for interdependence.  This is part of a natural process akin to the move from childhood dependency, to teenage independence and then an adult interdependency.  As we set our sights on 2040 we need to put the learner at the centre, a decision making highly able learner, who can personalise their curriculum both within any mandated core and beyond it.  Learning in 2040 will be more multi-faceted, distributed and personalised than it currently is or was in the 20th Century and this will be massively accelerated by technology.

The 4Cs Learner

4Cs Learner

The 4Cs Learner was first produced in Summer 2008 in response to a request from a member of staff to put a stream of different ideas and thoughts I was presenting and discussing with teachers, about the type of learner we should be aiming to develop, onto one side of A4.  Staff were interested in the various ideas but were really confused by my usual “box of frogs” thinking and needed a coherent picture to engage them.  However, the root of the 4Cs Learner goes much further back to fundamental beliefs about what education is about.  Part of this is how we build academic success for our students.  In my first presentation to staff at St. Mary’s, on Day 1 as a newly appointed headteacher in September 2000, I said that we would build our students’ academic success on three things: literate, numerate and ICT capable learners; learners with good interpersonal and social skills and learners with a wide range of thinking skills.  This pretty much still sums up what I believe now about developing learners.  My thinking was greatly influenced by Alistair Smith (@alatalite) who I first heard talk about developing learners and learning in the late 1990s in Leeds and the Cognitive Acceleration in Science (CASE) Programme, which is one of the few things I would make compulsory in schools if I was Secretary of State for Education for a day.

The link below takes you to a different view of the 4Cs learner which is a bit more dynamic and has some resources attached - it’s like looking into my mind, so carries a big health warning.

Brain 2


You cannot create the power shift in decision making required to personalise learning, at a micro or student level, without having highly confident, co-operative, connected and creative learners.  I want to focus on the Confident Learner, as this is the first stage of the journey, that takes the learner from dependency on a teacher to independence as a learner.

4Cs Confident Learner

The Confident Learner consists of a number of key elements, ensuring a learner has: the literacy and numeracy skills required to access an increasingly challenging curriculum; the attributes of a successful learner that we have based on Alistair Smith’s 5Rs and combined these with Social & Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) and the development of thinking skills and use of thinking tools.

In some ways I feel that we were doing better in realising the vision of a learner back in 2008.  A huge capital building programme has knocked the school sideways in recent years but we are approaching the end of that and I intend to help staff reconnect the 4Cs Learner with everyday practice.  However, here are a few things already going on to help us realise the Confident Learner:

Literacy & Numeracy

The development of literacy and numeracy has had its profile raised by the most recent Ofsted framework but it has always been there in most teachers’ minds.  Last year our Head of Learning Support, Paul Gillespie, started a pilot with paired reading between Year 11 students and students in Years 7 & 8 who had low reading scores, on standardised tests.  This was a real joy to observe, as you walked down the “street” you would see younger students being mentored in their reading by older ones during morning registration.  He followed this up with spelling tests for Years 7 & 8 also in morning registration.  Paul produced a list of twenty spellings for the week which were handed out to students in Year 7 & 8 forms by Year 11 students who would then administer the test and mark them before reporting scores back to Paul – a highly efficient system.  This year we want to move this on and look at the use of MangaHigh and Khan Academy to help develop students’ numeracy skills and mathematical understanding.

This September we will be implementing the National Mathematics Partnership’s “Passport Maths” programme which aims to move students who enter secondary school at level 3 or a weak level 4 to a secure level 4 in the first term of Year 7.  We have also just appointed a new Literacy Co-ordinator, in an agreement with a number of our associated primary schools, who will work primary co-ordinators to develop a coherent English and literacy curriculum across the later years of primary school and the early ones of the secondary.  In addition she will develop or find a literacy programme, similar to the Maths one mentioned above, to move students with weaker literacy skills to a “good level 4” as soon as possible in Year 7.

These developments all have real promise and collectively could be powerful agents in helping develop our students as Confident learners.  Our challenge is to pull this together into a coherent and consistent programme of literacy and numeracy development for all students in their early secondary years.  We have started but there is a long way to go.

Attributes (Traits) of a Successful Learner

5Rs - Responsible Learner

These are a set of soft skills that I hope we will develop in all learners – we want our learners to be responsible, resourceful, reasoning, reflective and resilient.

To help clarify, there was a great little “twitter dialogue” about resilience as part of #sltchat.  One line of thinking developed from “we need students to be resilient and able to keep learning particularly when they are struggling or find the work difficult” with the other developing from “we need cognitively demanding work first for students to develop the attribute of resilience in their learning”.  Within a few tweets love and fraternity broke out as it is clear these are mutually inclusive perspectives.  Resilience cannot be developed in a vacuum lacking rigour and challenge but if we want to increase the level of rigour and challenge then we need students to be resilient in their learning.

These are expected to be present in teachers’ planning, lesson objectives, success criteria when marking key pieces of work and we report on these to parents.  I say “expected” as we still have someway to go but this is about fundamental beliefs as a teacher and converting this into daily class room reality – do you believe it is part of a teacher’s role to explicitly develop students as learners?  If “yes” then all that needs sorting out is the what and how.  If “no” then who will develop the learning skills of those students who don’t possess them, often some of our most vulnerable young people?

Thinking Skills & Thinking Tools

To help develop young people’s thinking skills we use a range of different courses across Key Stage 3 particularly in Year 7.  Thinking Skills in History and Thinking Skills in Geography plus Cognitive Acceleration in Science and Maths.  A Learning to Learn Programme, co-developed by Alistair Smith at ALITE, is delivered by a number of departments: the RE Department teach “I Learner”, the Science Department “Team Learner” and the ICT & Computing Department “21st Century Learner”.  Most recently we’ve had a dynamic day with different year groups trialling the “I Thinker” challenges.

The thinking tools sound exotic but will be familiar to many teachers as graphic organisers which help students order and organise their thinking and ideas.  There are many really useful examples of tools that can be found on the internet - my current favourite is the “Lotus Diagram”.

Our challenge as a school is to develop the 4Cs Learner and the associated elements consistently and to a very high quality.  This is very much a work in progress, part vision and part reality, but it is an essential element of Vision 2040 if power is going to shift.

An explanation of the Co-operative Connected, Creative Learner can be found in Learner at the Centre III.

My first blog post on Vision 2040 was “Reflections of an Apprentice 2040 Visioner” but there are an increasing number of great blog posts coming in from Kev Bartle Part I and Part II and all the Vision 2040 Group - it would be great if you got involved.

Stephen Tierney

In September 2013, Stephen became the Executive Headteacher of a Blackpool federation.  He is one of SSAT’s long standing advocates and his contribution to the early System Redesign and Four Deeps research is valued highly.