10 key lessons from the Learning Futures programme


The phase of working intensively with schools on the Learning Futures programme has ended (for now) and we are busy producing tools that teachers and school leaders can use to bring about change. In our own way, we’re trying to move forward the ‘learning revolution’ that the TEDx London event recently called for – but I hope, with a sense of pragmatism, based upon the reality of schools and the structures, and strictures, they operate within.

Today, I was working on a manual we’re producing for schools, that offers support in making innovation happen within the high-stakes culture of accountability that hangs over schools. It’s been an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve all learned on the initiative. I have found it a privilege to work with the 40+ schools and the international partners – the learning has been deep and profound, and I pay tribute here to the school leaders, and teachers, we’ve learned from. Some of them are featured in this sneak-peek of one of a series of films we’ve produced on leading innovation in education:

The interviews deal with operational and cultural challenges, but all of these are secondary to the primary goal of creating pedagogical change. Changing the teaching and learning paradigm is what our project is about, and we have all come to realise how tough a challenge that can be, even in our most progressive schools. Whilst we all had different start points, and different end-goals, we saw, at our last gathering in July, that a consensus had emerged on what we’d learned about great learning experiences.

So, whilst it’s impossible to condense two year’s experiences into 10 bullet points, I’m going to try to summarise our key understandings:

  1. Getting students immersed in purposeful projects leads to engaged learning and builds relationships  – the 4 P’s of designing engaging learning activities have provided a useful check-list for learning designers (aka teachers): Placed locates the activity in the students life; Pervasive means that they can continue their learning independently, when there’s no teacher around; Passion-led just makes sense as students learn best when they care about the issue. Purposeful gives the learning meaning and relevance.

  2. Authentic learning experiences benefit from real world connections  – so much of what is learned reinforces the notion of School as Enclosure, detached from community and local enterprises. Ron Berger’s ‘Ethic of Excellence‘ shows how compelling real world connectivity can be. Yes, it’s a lot of extra work to cultivate sustained external partnerships, but your students will love you for it. 

  3. Simple structures and project designs facilitate complex and deep learning – and complex schedules/timetables, learning plans and assessment criteria too often lead to superficial learning. Minutely detailed individual learning plans might comfort adults who are under pressure to show student progress in every single lesson, but it often only demonstrates that the teaching is progressing – learning progress is often a series of peaks and troughs, set-backs and breakthroughs. It’s astonishing how complicated schools can become, and it’s often because their structures are there to make the organisation work for the professional’s benefit, not the student’s. Turning that oil tanker around, and keeping it simple, requires the kinds of radical vision expressed in the video clip.

  4. The expectation of quality products leads to purposeful work and deeper learning – encourage students to consider their learning as work – judged by experts in their field. Then it has relevance, meaning, and provides a sense of agency for students.

  5. Great projects can be teacher-led, student-led or product-led – but are driven by passion and real world connections – the old process/product, student/teacher ownership issues will always be with us. There’s no one path to designing great learning experiences. But designs driven by passion always carry more impact than those driven by the need to ‘cover the standards’.

  6. Students have an entitlement to feel proud of their work. Pride results from multiple drafts and  peer-critique – our Art Schools have known this for decades. Having students responsibly critiquing each other’s work  gives power and depth to their learning, and continually raises the bar of their expectations. Too much of the work students submit is not valued, (by either teacher or student) as it was their first, and only, draft. Do less, but do it better, through multiple drafts. If the task has depth and meaning for the student, they’ll want to get it right – they’ll understand that caring about the outcome means repeatedly drafting it.

  7. Engagement results from modelling exemplary student work – great schools display exemplary student work, and use those exemplars as both  the focus of discussions around ‘what makes this great?’ and a hook to inspire and engage. Too often kids begin a task without knowing what a great outcome would look like.

  8. Public displays of student work demonstrate both the product and the process of  learning, provide entry points to engage parents and community, allowing the dialogue to shift from ‘grades’ to ‘growth’ – isn’t this what we’d all want parents evenings to look like? Present the learning to parents, have them interrogate the learners, show how the learning grew, and the grades no longer dominate. Your school becomes more of a Learning Commons, too.


  9. Don’t atomise the timetable: fewer blocks, fewer subjects and fewer teachers lead to better relationships and deeper learning – as more schools realise the fundamental importance of relationships, so we understand that less is clearly more. Students feeling ‘known’ by fewer teachers, through longer blocks of time, working across subjects where possible, all lead to more powerful learning and happier students. 
  10. Transforming engagement and learning cannot be achieved without transforming professional development –  this is perhaps the hardest realisation of all. If you’re serious about transforming learning, you have to make the time for staff to share, discuss and learn from each other, and from external experts. For the Learning Futures coordinators in our schools, the biggest catalyst to change was simply the regular opportunity to collaborate with other schools, to be inspired by visiting experts in learning, and to have the time to share with their colleagues in school. I know of no other profession, no other industry, that would expect its employees to carry our research and development on their own time, and we really have to get serious about professional development if we’re to break through the achievement plateau we’re on.

So, we now look forward to  translating these understandings into tools that can change practice. If any of this resonates with you, and you’d like to receive the tools when published, please contact Alec Patton: Alec.Patton@innovationunit.org


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2 Responses to 10 key lessons from the Learning Futures programme

  1. Dave Howard says:

    An enlightening read as usual. However, I’d like to know more about what is meant by point 9. Am I misreading it when it appears as a possible justification for the Ebacc? What am i missing?

  2. David Price says:

    Dave,Absolutely not justifying Ebacc. But why do we push kids through 10 GCSE’s? Wouldn’t 6 or 8 do? (not specifying which – choice is good!) And why separate learning into subject specific ‘boxes’ ? Students and teachers can’t form relationships when they see so little of each other, and deep learning is hard when it’s divided into 50 minute chunks.How many of your GCSEs would you say were really valuable to you in your futures study/work?

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