Colleagues in UK primary schools might recognise the reference, ‘Building Learning Power‘ which was another bandwagon that rolled by a few years ago. As ever, many leaped aboard without stopping to check just exactly what the evidence was. Yes, there did appear to be a definite correlation between the attitudinal aspects (‘dispositions‘ and ‘capacities‘) outlined in the promotional literature and pupil attainment, but sadly few of us seem to have learned the old adage that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Moreover we were faced with the claim that ‘it has a robust scientific rationale for suggesting what some of these characteristics might be, and for the guiding assumption that these characteristics are indeed capable of being systematically developed.‘. And who are we, as the nation’s educators, to question such an authoritative basis as a ‘robust scientific rationale’ (in spite of the apparent lack of references)?
So, instead of simply acknowledging these characteristics, we were expected somehow to teach them, present assemblies on them and unpick them to a fine degree. It didn’t sit comfortably with many of us – were we expecting pupils to use those dispositions and capacities whilst learning something else, or were we supposed to teach them separately and specifically? When planning lessons, we were told to list the BLP skills we were focussing on, but we were confused. It seemed like we would always be listing all the skills – inevitably, since they were the characteristics which correlated with attainment. But still, teachers do what they’re told, even if it ties them up in knots sometimes.
So it is with interest I came across this piece of research from the USA:
As I’m reading, I’m wondering what exactly ‘executive function’ is and why I haven’t really heard about it in the context of teaching and learning in the UK, but, as I read on I see that it is ‘the skills related to thoughtful planning, use of memory and attention, and ability to control impulses and resist distraction’ and it dawns on me that that is the language of BLP! So I read a little more closely and discover that in a 25 year meta-analysis of the research, there is no conclusive evidence that interventions aimed at teaching these skills have had any impact on attainment. To quote:
“Studies that explore the link between executive function and achievement abound, but what is striking about the body of research is how few attempts have been made to conduct rigorous analyses that would support a causal relationship,” said Jacob [author]
The authors note that few studies have controlled for characteristics such as parental education, socioeconomic status, or IQ, although these characteristics have been found to be associated with the development of executive function. They found that even fewer studies have attempted randomized trials to rigorously assess the impact of interventions.
Not such a robust scientific rationale, then? Just to be clear – lack of evidence doesn’t mean there isn’t causation, but isn’t that exactly what we should be concerned with? This is only one of a multitude of initiatives that have been thrown our way in the past decade, many of which have since fallen into disuse or become mindlessly ritualised. We are recently led to believe, however, given the catchphrase bandied about by government ministers and a good degree of funding, through such bodies as The Education Endowment Fund, that there is an increased drive for ‘evidence-based education’, which of course begs the question: what’s been going on – what exactly has underpinned the cascade of initiatives – up to this point?