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James Mannion on Learning to Learn and Teachers as Researchers – PP101

The topic of the week is James Mannion on Learning to Learn and Teachers as Researchers!

Our very special guest this week was Pivotal trainer, James Mannion. James qualified as a Teacher of Science in 2006. Since then he has developed expertise in a number of aspects of school life, including Learning to Learn, Evidence-Based Pedagogy; Teacher Research; Behaviour for Learning; Assessment for Learning; Gifted and Talented Education; Widening Participation; Personal, Social and Health and Citizenship Education (PSHE); and Work Related Learning. He has an MA in Person-Centred Education from Sussex University, and is currently completing a PhD around Learning to Learn at Cambridge.

Learning to Learn

James’ research into Learning to Learn involves assessing the effectiveness of the programme his was involved with implementing. The students who had been exposed to the programme were outperforming the year before by about 10% . The programme was effective for all students but particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The gap in Year 9 between more disadvantaged students and the rest of the cohort was narrowed from about 25% without Learning to Learn to 2% with access to the programme.

James doesn’t see this is a surprise because the programme is based on a wide range of different evidence-based practices and each small gain from each individual practice is added together to create larger gains.

At GCSE, the students involved achieved the best set of results the school had ever seen and with the smallest achievement gap in the city.

How to implement Learning to Learn

Attempts to create reflective learners through teaching how to learn have been seen for several decades. Meta cognition and self-regulation are acknowledged to be some of the most important aspects of helping children to learn but James’ programme is the only one he knows about which has been applied to such a large group and with such consistency.

You have to give the approaches serious time. Most people agree Learn to learn approaches have to be embedded in everything you do rather than taught discretely but not all teachers feel they have the time to give to teaching study skills – they don’t all buy into it. So, in fact, James believes that both are needed – a discrete, taught component which is delivered by teachers who are fully committed to it and the following 4 ingredients:


  1. Oracy – paired talk, group talk, structured debate, public speaking
  2. Self-regulation – project-based learning with high expectations and less support than you might think is necessary
  3. Meta-cognition – daily input in learning the language of learning, focussing on the processes of learning, completing a learning journal
  4. Transfer – explicitly promoting the transfer of skills learned in one subject to another and into life beyond the school gates

What about Brain Gym and Learning Styles?

James mentions the unhelpful binary nature of parts of the education debate. The truth is always somewhere in between the polar opposites. For example, the Visual – Auditory – Kinaesthetic learning styles concept is now widely lambasted but James points out that it was a well-intentioned idea based on the observation that people do learn in different ways and have preferences. He is puzzled by those who get angry that teachers were encouraged to use these approaches. There is little or no evidence that VAK approaches work but he points out that there is little or no evidence for a lot of things teachers do – school uniform, homework in Primary Schools, setting and streaming (which actually is seen to cause harm in studies).

Brain Gym was ‘pseudo-scientific’ and people were making money out of it so it needed to be taken down but even there there were useful concepts that children really latched onto.

Teachers and their own research enquiries

To me, teachers as researchers is a no-brainer.

How can you know you are getting better at your job in the absence of some kind of systematic enquiry?

People see research as a big, scary word – it’s the thing which is done by odd teachers like James for huge, long studies leading to PhDs. In fact, James has done research enquiries in an hour which are really valuable and can transform practice.


  • Think about what’s happening in your practice with those students in front of you
  • Do some sort of baseline evaluation
  • Do some sort of intervention
  • See how it went


James sees it as ‘sensible, structured reflection’.


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(Creative Commons Sound clip by Johnny Pixel Productions, Inc. –

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