Book review: The Learning Power Approach

The Learning Power Approach (LPA) proposes that teachers encourage learners to cultivate an array of traits which are seen as beneficial for lifelong learning. These traits, or learning dispositions, include various cognitive, metacognitive and behavioural strategies/processes/habits  – summarised on the first page of the book:

Claxton concedes that cultivating these dispositions may be nothing new and may just be considered good practice by some teachers. (Note, Claxton is clearly not referring to us EFL teachers! Or am I speaking for myself? Probably…). However, the fundamental difference between the LPA as opposed to other approaches, when it comes to developing these dispositions, is purpose. Referring to the work of John Hattie, Dylan Wiliam and others, Claxton stresses that the reason teachers encourage the development of learning dispositions is often because they facilitate academic achievement. He explains that…

“The mental habits of powerful learners are not seen as a set of learned, transferable strengths that are valuable in their own right.” (2018:14)

Claxton’s LPA is an alternative to this: “it declares that learning powers are valuable ends of education in themselves ” (2018:14).

The purpose of acquiring these dispositions (for me) is essentially readiness. Claxton sees the Learning Powers as preparing learners to deal with life and future learning and empowering them to do so – “confident and capable” are the keywords he uses (2018:40). This book explains the benefits of cultivating these mental habits, and offers practical advice/tips on how to do so.

The LPA book is general well laid out (wait for the disclaimer). Each chapter introduces part of the LPA (aims, practical examples, evidence, criticisms, and so on) in a concise, accessible way. There are reflection stages (or ‘wonderings’) for readers after each chapter which are really worthwhile, and the book builds to a call to action for readers – to join the ever-expanding LPA community of practice. This is a very readable book and at times I found the author’s passion genuinely inspiring.

It begins by framing the Learning Power Approach, referencing lots of researchers who have influenced Claxton in the development his concept. I won’t lie, alarm bells rang with the mention of both Howard Gardner and Carol Dweck – while I respect the impact that both have had in educational research, their theories have also been heavily critiqued (Dweck recently, see Sisk et al 2018). Nevertheless, there is an interesting list of influencers which is great for follow up reading.

In Chapter 2 Claxton explains his view of what learning actually is, and what learners do to learn (e.g. observe, read, critique, experiment, etc). He links this to Learning Power by explaining ‘Layers of Learning’. Knowledge and skills are more surface level traits which are prominent and familiar to teachers. However, there are a whole load of attitudes and dispositions underpinning the acquisition of knowledge/skills which shape or impact learning. Cultivating such dispositions, it seems, may have a transformative effect on learning; in one metaphor, Claxton suggests the elements of Learning Power are the accelerator pedal of learning.

Chapter 3 clearly outlines the aims of LPA. It does so in a 40-word statement packed with buzzwords you’d expect in a book on learning to learn. The author then elaborates on each term used and why it’s important. The key part of this LPA mission statement (for me) is a reference to developing learners ‘in school and out’. Claxton emphasises throughout the book that these dispositions are applicable to life beyond the classroom. While the approach on the whole seems to have a humanistic and student-centred feel about it (to me anyway), Claxton stresses pragmatism and broader purpose; we are equipping 21st Century learners with essential dispositions/traits/powers/tendencies(?) they will need to do jobs that don’t exist yet.

Chapter 4 is clever. Next, I expected some evidence that the Elements of Learning Power actually facilitate ‘learning’ (based on something other than academic achievement). Instead, Claxton provides some ‘quick wins’ – tried and tested ways to cultivate certain learning powers. While these won’t be new to everyone (choose your challenge, brain-book-buddy-boss, etc) there were a couple of tips in there which, had I more time with my learners in an EFL context, I would certainly implement. The risk-o-meter being a good example. This chapter is a good hook – it makes the goal of cultivating these learning powers feel attainable to the reader, and the examples provided emphasise that these powers are not something to explicitly teach, but to integrate into everyday classroom practice.

Apologies for the change of tone here, but Chapter 5 sucks a bit. It overeggs things and sets the bar low for readers. It introduces ‘10 good reasons for pumping those learning muscles’. This is where, again, I expected some evidence – by that I mean references to (lots of) research. Instead, the ‘10 reasons’ read like clickbait. Examples:

Because Learning Power Makes the World a Safer Place – the examples provided for this are loose at best.

Because Powerful Learners Do Better in School/College – I thought the focus of LPA wasn’t so much on academic achievement, yet here it is being used (quite prominently) to justify the approach.

Because It Makes Teaching Easier and More Rewarding – based on very little, anecdotal evidence…

*SKIP SKIP SKIP*

My advice to readers after (well about 3 pages into…) Chapter 5 is to jump to Chapter 9 – What is the evidence for the LPA? If the ’10 reasons…’ had made me a tad sceptical, the chapter on evidence went some way to get me back on board. That’s because Claxton concedes:

  • research into the efficacy of the LPA is in its infancy
  • it’s also not easy to research something this is so multi-faceted

Claxton provides evidence to suggest, among other things, that curiosity can (positively) affect learning, resilience can be increased, and it can raise achievement (if this is about achievement), imagination can improve learning, and we can get better at imagining, and so on. This evidence could have been cherry-picked, but I’m sure with more space Claxton would provide a richer insight into the findings in support of these learning powers.

Anecdotal evidence from teachers, students, and parents as to the benefits of the LPA is provided, and the case studies throughout the book also suggest that the LPA has an observable impact on learning. Is it essential that there is a solid body of research in support of the LPA? For longevity, I’d say yes. Chapter 10 (‘Distinctions and Misconceptions’) covers some of the concerns/questions about this approach, addressing the elephant in the room – are these dispositions actually measurable? Claxton provides examples (mostly qualitative) of evidence that could be gathered to measure the learning powers. This evidence will no doubt come about in time through communities of practice adopting the LPA and reflecting on its value. I’ve since read that there has been lots of action research into learning powers in general, which I’m now keen to review.

Back to the practical part of the book as far as teachers are concerned. Chapter 6 explains the elements of learning power (see image above) in more detail. This serves as a nice little glossary for reference. Chapter 7 and 8 are the most valuable in my opinion. Chapter 7 provides some excellent examples of the LPA in practice. The case studies and images are very informative and useful for teachers. Chapter 8 introduces the design principles of the approach. If these haven’t been made into an infographic by now to appear in staffrooms then Claxton is missing a trick, as these are a good prompt for teachers when planning. One tangible example of a design principle in action (‘Developing Craftsmanship’) was particularly useful – this link to Ron Berger’s EL Education video on Austin’s Butterfly:

More links like this would have been great for less experienced practitioners like me. I felt this clearly modelled the design principle. The case studies also modelled these principles well, but the video made things really clear to me.

Overall…

Well, that was pretty blow by blow – apologies!

The LPA is intriguing, and as a teacher I certainly feel there is value in cultivating these dispositions in learners. In an EFL context this is not something I apply comprehensively/ahem… much at all… (2 hours with each class a week!). However, there are definitely elements I could and should integrate into my practice. As I move into international school teaching later in the year I may find more value in this resource, and I look forward to experimenting with the LPA and reflecting on its usefulness.

Aside from personal gains from the book – this is worth a read for teachers with any level of experience, teaching any age group. The nucleus of the LPA comes from Claxton’s book Building Learning Power (2002) along with research well before that, therefore many teachers may be familiar with the LPA in some form already. As an EFL teacher, I cannot vouch for how much this approach is already commonplace in, say, UK or international schools, or how much impact Claxton’s 2002 work and that of other Learning Power advocates, has had. To those in the know, this book might read as a rebranding.

Is it an approach that will change education as we know it??? Probably not without more evidence. Is it a comprehensive learning theory? No. Will the book encourage you to engage more in your own practice and take time to reflect on how it impacts your learners? Definitely. Will it provide you with some classroom ready ideas? Yes.

Chapter 5 aside, it’s an engaging read.

ELTPlanning rating: 4/5

Claxton, G. (2017) The Learning Power Approach: Teaching Learners to Teacher Themselves is available through Crown House Publishing.

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