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Developing Epistemic Character

“I’m teaching better than you’re learning!” is one of the funniest lines I heard during a learning walk. Anyone who has ever taught can probably remember a lesson (or career!) where your resources were sharp, your monitoring and consideration of all eventualities, even your displays were on-point but the students didn’t really get it. As a secondary RS teacher, I often did hard-hitting Powerpoints to music (they were a thing I promise!) about euthanasia or animal testing with the aim of inspiring students to ask big existential questions about the purpose of suffering, dignity and the meaning of life. On one such occasion, the response was, “Sir, that song was a bit weird!” and “Can’t we just do a wordsearch like we do in History?” I was deflated.

With the ever-increasing and changing demands of a curriculum at every level, it is understandable that teachers feel there isn’t enough time to develop a desire to learn, unpick how and why people learn, or even to consider developing a resilient attitude towards learning in young people. Before the National Curriculum was even established, Prime Minister James Callaghan gave what has been seen as a revolutionary speech on the purpose of education:

“It is not my intention to become enmeshed in such problems as whether there should be a basic curriculum with universal standards - although I am inclined to think there should be... The goals of our education, from nursery school through to adult education, are clear enough. They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other but both... Both of the basic purposes of education require the same essential tools. These are basic literacy, basic numeracy, the understanding of how to live and work together, respect for others, respect for the individual. This means requiring certain basic knowledge, and skills and reasoning ability. It means developing lively inquiring minds and an appetite for further knowledge that will last a lifetime. It means mitigating as far as possible the disadvantages that may be suffered through poor home conditions or physical or mental handicap. Are we aiming in the right direction in these matters?”

I find it amazing that the consideration here was that children need to be educated to be equipped to play their part in society and so they can do a job. The phrase, “developing lively inquiring minds and an appetite for further knowledge that will last a lifetime” seems almost a throwaway requirement. It’s as if literacy, numeracy and respect (almost the 3Rs of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) were first and foremost, basic knowledge, skills and reasoning came next and then this might develop curious minds and a desire for lifelong learning. I am not sure this is what we have got; indeed, if this was the package we were expecting, I hope there is a free-returns policy!

Guy Claxton defines the concept of epistemic character - an attitude or disposition towards learning and knowledge - as part of his Building Learning Power approach to teaching and learning:

“The ways people characteristically respond to difficulty, frustration and novelty... You cannot learn curiosity, resilience, ingenuity or thinking on your feet (learning agility) by reading and filling in a worksheet, nor can you teach it just by sticking up what Tom Sherrington calls those “cheesy growth mindset posters” and hoping for the best. Whether you have adventurous or timid learners, dependent or independent ones, reflects the mood music – the cultural undertow – of the classroom”

Students around a table

Indeed, it is in Claxton’s most recent book, The Future of Teaching: And The Myths That Hold It Back, that this idea about developing attitudes to learning are addressed:

“A good cultivator of character has to create a classroom climate in which her students feel both safe and motivated to exercise their attitudes of resilience, curiosity, scepticism, independence, collaboration and so on… To achieve the goal of cultivating epistemic character, a teacher’s pedagogical style is of central importance. She has to use a certain vocabulary, encourage and coach certain kinds of talk, mark in a particular way, design activities that allow all the students in the room to experience wrestling productively with tough problems, create certain kinds of displays, layout the furniture in certain ways (and not others).”

Based on this, what are the key elements of developing epistemic character in young people?

  1. Involve them in their learning - This isn’t saying that we should throw out a curriculum or exam specifications and let children learn whatever they want. It is saying that there is a benefit in giving students choice and a level of autonomy in their learning. This is how to stimulate curiosity and indeed, the best educators harness this with aplomb.

  2. Make their learning ‘sticky’ - As educators, we all want the learning to ‘land’ the first time. However, sometimes the development of character requires there to be ‘breadcrumbs’ of knowledge that sticks and then the learner has to show this resilience of finding a way to remember and apply what they have previously learned.

  3. Keep the learning fun - If young people (or learners of any age) are interested and engaged in the subject matter and the activities on offer, there is a much better chance of positive achievement.

  4. Allow learners time to reflect on their learning - In order to further develop resilience, scepticism and independence, learners must be given time and space to critically assess what they have learned, how they learned it and what that means for future development. Pauses in teaching are often undervalued as we have “so much to get through.” My suggestion is you can save time on re-teaching topics by taking the time to embed and consolidate the learning in the first place (and then at critical junctures throughout the cycle.)

Explicitly train for failure - Make things hard for learners so that they don’t always get things right the first time. The learning that happens in getting things wrong if the conditions are set in the classroom (by parents, school leaders, teachers and peers) to allow learners to “fail early, fail often and fail forward,” as encouraged by the wonderful Will Smith.

As we look to learn the lessons of the last two years and address this idea of 'lost learning,' let's make sure we ask ourselves the big question of why we teach and help students achieve more than grades.

Ben Whitaker's headshot

Ben Whitaker is a Google Certified Trainer & Innovator who delivers training across the UK and Europe on behalf of a number of providers. In June 2019, he was appointed as a Curriculum Manager at Burnley College after working as Chief Education Officer for Project Digital, a dynamic partnership between Burnley College and +24 Marketing to deliver digital apprenticeships in the North West. Their aim is simple: to plug the digital skills gap. Ben was previously Assistant Principal: Head of Sixth Form, having taught Religious Studies & Sociology for 12 years. He is an experienced examiner for four of the main examination boards and writes articles across the education spectrum. Ben is co-host of the Edufuturists podcast. One of his proudest achievements is that he trained his own parents on G Suite and they actively use this in their own classroom practice.

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