Broadening thinking on students’ learning

Broadening thinking on students’ learning

I am Director of Education for Bohunt Education Trust, a multi-academy trust of eight secondary schools, totalling approximately 10,000 students. Since March 2020 we’ve had significant involvement in England’s largest educational study of the impact of lockdown on young people.

A group of schoolchildren in uniform sat on grass
"This pandemic has issued us a call to action – to ensure that we all support our young people to be motivated learners." - Phil Avery, Fellow

We wanted to know how the lockdown was affecting our students’ wellbeing, persistence, attainment and metacognitive practices, which are essentially their ability to monitor their own learning and take appropriate corrective actions. The issues faced by pupils returning to school in September 2020 were summarised in the report succinctly: ‘The situation did not improve when these pupils returned to school, when anxiety increased for both Year 10 and Year 11 pupils.’ (ImpactEd report on lockdown lessons, Feb 2021, p.20).

The negative impact of Covid-19 on young people and their education has been well-documented:

  1. Falling rates of school leavers going on to ‘positive destinations’ in Scotland.
  2. Year 7 pupils being 22 months behind where they would normally be with their writing.

As an educator, I was confident that when students returned to our classrooms in September 2020, we would change the narratives hinted at by all those graphs. But that’s not what happened. In our classrooms, and in classrooms across the country, anxiety levels, especially for Years 10 and 11, kept rising. Learning index scores fell and students’ self-reported metacognition scores continued to drop. Frustrated, I jumped on my spin bike, opened up the Peloton exercise app, found the hardest session I could and hit play. It was during the intro to that horrendously painful 45 minutes of hill sprints that an idea germinated.

Every spin session on Peloton has the same introduction: what we get from the session will be determined by the resistance we set, by how well we work together as a class and by our cadence – challenge, interaction and flow. At Bohunt Education Trust, we were thinking hard about appropriate challenges and the teacher/student interactions that would create optimum learning, but we weren’t thinking enough about flow and motivation. The work of scientist and Professor Knud Illeris on how we learn explores a model of learning including two processes: an interaction between the individual and the environment; and an internal mental acquisition and processing, through which impulses from the interaction are integrated with prior learning. Importantly, the acquisition of learning always includes incentive.

A diagram demonstrating learning as competence development (Illeris, 2007, p.28
Learning as competence development (Illeris, 2007, p.28) Download 'Phil Avery_Blog2.png'

So, in schools, how do we focus more on motivation, ideally intrinsic motivation? How do we counter the depressing narrative of ‘catch-up’, tutoring and ‘learning loss’ that ignores working memory and motivation, and talk more about showcasing the power, wonder and importance of learning? Here are my suggestions.

  1. Collaborate with students to build a common understanding of the ‘why’ of the education we offer, which goes far beyond exam specifications and the national curriculum. Within Bohunt Education Trust, we talk of developing students who are Game-changers – young people who have the knowledge, skills and self-confidence to change things for the better. That vision colours what we teach (eg our extensive outdoor programme), how we teach (eg our ongoing work with alumni to further develop our teaching of diversity), and what we measure (eg monitoring the biodiversity of our schools’ sites).
  2. Ensure that how we teach matches what we value. Soon every child across all of our schools will have an iPad in order to eradicate the digital divide, give access to a greater range of teaching resources and ensure our students are digitally literate. We teach a number of languages through immersion, meaning students receive a third of their curriculum in the target language, so students are comfortable with challenge and failure. Our outdoor classrooms also help to develop the idea that we are nature, which is critical if the next generation is to understand the harm our current attitudes towards the environment are having.
  3. Prioritise our students’ mental and physical health. Writer and journalist Johann Hari, talks of humanity’s lost connections and how we can build our ‘tribe’. With just small tweaks we run lessons, co-curricular clubs and trips in ways that build not only academic understanding, but also mental and physical health. Research we conducted, which shows a near perfect correlation between involvement in our outdoor programme and academic progress, has led us to focus more on the outdoors. We can’t prove it yet, but we believe that the correlation between time outdoors and academic success is a causal one, with the outdoors developing character and competencies that translate into academic success.
  4. Track what is important. Earlier in this blog, I mentioned a quote from ImpactEd’s recent report into lockdown learning, the largest study of its kind in the UK. Bohunt was a key part of that research and the insights were fascinating. We now know, by child, who does or does not have support at home, a quiet place to work, access to IT or regular food. We also know how motivated they are about work, how persistent they are when things don’t go to plan, and how they would rate their wellbeing. Consequently, we have been able to act on that, through a range of interventions such as an outdoor learning programme, mental health workshops, ‘Game-changer days’ designed to get students outside and away from screens and literacy interventions.
  5. Reform assessment. The state assessment system is good at measuring a narrow range of academic competencies within subject domains, but there is so much about young people that it leaves uncovered and unvalued. We are part of the Rethinking Assessment movement, which is working on new models of assessment, and we are taking full advantage of opportunities for increased student agency such as the Extended Professional Qualification. We are also following with interest programmes that sit alongside existing systems, such as UNESCO’s Universal Learning Programme and the place-based Morecambe Bay Curriculum.

My 2014 Churchill Fellowship on STEM learning highlighted wonderful organisations that are ignoring perceived barriers and serving the needs of their students and communities in inspiring and motivating ways. At the time, I was too led by how these teaching techniques could meet the needs of the economy: now I see that they can best be used to meet the holistic needs of students and their communities.

The pandemic has led to a reframing of education in the UK. A system fixated on accountability measures and progression routes has instead started to focus more on the ways it shapes, and is shaped by, young people. Society, our knowledge of learning and the possibilities of technology have all been moving forwards, whilst our education system has stood still. This pandemic has issued us a call to action – to ensure that we all support our young people to be motivated learners.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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