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Impact Activities: Case studies

Project impacts: Across the lifecourse | Improving outcomes | Improving practice | Developing dialogue | Informing policy
Programme impacts: Public debate | Principles into practice | Westminster showcase | Electronic resources | Widening participation


The Improvement of Practice: Learning How to Learn – in classrooms, schools and networks

Project description

Directed by Mary James and co-directed, from 2002, by Robert McCormick, the Learning How to Learn project (2001-2005) pursued three main questions:

1) What can teachers do to help pupils to learn how to learn?

2) What characterises the school that successfully manages how teachers create the knowledge and skills of learning how to learn for both teachers and pupils? and

3) How can the knowledge and skills of learning how to learn be effectively transferred within educational networks?

The investigation was structured on three levels (classrooms, schools, and networks) and involved a mixture of quantitative and qualitative measures and indicators. A rich corpus of data was constructed from lesson observations (including 29 video recordings), two-stage staff and pupil questionnaires, teacher interviews, document analysis, case studies, administrative datasets, and the use of responsive electronic technologies. 40 infant, primary and secondary schools in five local authorities and two Virtual Education Action Zones were included in the original sample. 20 of these schools (the main sample) engaged more closely with the development and research processes introduced by the project. The project confirmed that deep principles, more than specific techniques, are central to teacher development and to the outcomes of teaching and learning in classrooms. It found that schools that best supported teachers in promoting learning how to learn were those that developed a clear sense of direction and supported networking, collaboration, teacher development, and active management of knowledge resources.

Responsive design

1) Electronic tools: the project team developed innovative electronic tools to support large distributed research projects in ways that made development and research materials accessible to various audiences and that enabled interaction, collaboration, and dialogue (see hppt:// The tools included, for example, a “knowledge base” and a dedicated “conversation space” on the project website, which enabled school progress logs to be developed jointly by participants and researchers. Some of the technological tools and community resources developed for the project were made freely available to stakeholders, such as LEAs, who were encouraged to continue to develop the work of the project after the end of its funding. Also, some of these tools were subsequently used more widely by the TLRP as a whole. Several project outputs analysed in detail the development and impact of these tools.

2) Feeding results back to participants: the research instruments used in the project were also “interventions”, as the results were fed back to respondents at different stages of the project. For example, the baseline results were fed back to the schools staff to stimulate reflection. Also, participants had opportunities to engage with the outcomes of the different stages of analysis; for example, the network maps produced on the basis of a mapping exercise (with headteachers and school, LEA, and VEAZ co-ordinators) and of a sub-sample of survey returns were used in follow-up interviews in schools.

Enabling development for better outcomes

1) Developmental “interventions”: development was central to the aims of the project, to the extent that it was described as “development and research”. The team deliberately refrained from using a control-group design to evaluate the effectiveness of specific project interventions. Rather, the “interventions” were developmental, of a similar scale to what a school might carry out as part of its development plan, and reaching the classroom level through INSET activities and network development (e.g. through meetings and web resources), rather than through direct involvement of the research team. Thus teachers and school leaders were encouraged to take responsibility for developments in their school, while the research team gained insights into the conditions that promoted effective practice and innovation leading to enhanced outcomes for the learners.

2) Better outcomes for learners: Four of the schools that had been highly engaged with the project had reported higher than expected value-added in 2004. The headteacher of one of these schools said:
“The LHTL project has enhanced the learning of us all. I have no doubt that our children are now better taught than ever before. It has been the best educational development of my career”.

3) Improvement of teachers’ learning and practice and of school management practices: evidence of change over time in the sample schools, gathered through questionnaires in 2002 and 2004, showed increase in teachers’ promotion of learning autonomy in their classroom practice; increase in teachers’ interest in classroom-focused “inquiry”; and, at school level, increase in the level of practices that supported networking, collaboration, and professional development.

Transferring knowledge and skills in educational networks

1) Reaching people: in total, the LHTL project involved approximately 1580 teachers and over 20,000 students. Further groups of people engaged with the project and its resources through the project’s website, at dissemination events, through media coverage (e.g. in The Guardian, 22 February 2005; The Times Educational Supplement, 25 March 2005), and through dissemination of projects’ outputs, including contributions to two TLRP commentaries (Improving Teaching and Learning in Schools, March 2006, and Principles into Practice Teachers’ Guide to Research Evidence on Teaching and Learning, June 2007). The project was instrumental to the development of TLRP’s 10 Principles into Practice, which were mailed on multi-media support to all schools in the UK.

2) Understanding networks: an important contribution of the project was the conceptual and theoretical development of knowledge about the overlapping networks in which a school and its staff take part. A specific set of questions addressed in the project concerned effective transfers of knowledge and skills about learning how to learn within educational networks. The project found that schools were embedded in multiple, overlapping and interacting networks, many of which were transient and informal. Successful schools supported the development of networks as mechanisms for enhancing teaching and learning.

3) Practical resources: the project team developed a “Knowledge Base”, i.e. a large collection of thematic resources for practitioners, managers, and policy-makers, including texts (e.g. accounts of classroom practice, transcripts, children’s writing), images, audio and video content, and metadata records of relevant published and unpublished research reports. Further practical resources were included in the TLRP “Improving Practice” book based on the project (Learning How To Learn. “Tools for schools”, James et al, 2006). An “Improving Learning” book was also produced.

4) Use and follow-up: the instruments used in the project and its results were made available on the website. They were subsequently used in policy evaluations, further research projects (including international projects), and development activities. For example, Welsh Assembly Government’s Evaluation of the Developing Thinking and Assessment for Learning Development Programme explicitly drew on the LHTL project. Also, the Cambridge Primary Review commissioned a report from Mary James and Andrew Pollard, which drew on the LHTL project, alongside other TLRP Schools projects. In the USA, Professor Eva Baker, Director of the Graduate School of Education, UCLA, obtained federal funds to carry out collaborative work with the project’s team. She was also a TLRP visiting international fellow in 2004/05, taking up issues emerging from the LHTL work.


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