Effective learning needs a positive dynamic between teacher and pupils

Many of us have fond memories of comics like the Dandy and the Beano. Fans of the latter will doubtless have enjoyed reading about the mischievous antics of the Bash Street Kids and their fun and games with Teacher. The worldview was a static one; the portrayal of school life timeless. Indeed, a quick glance at some recent storylines suggests that nothing much has changed even today, more than 60 years after the Bash Street Kids first appeared.

The wooden desks and blackboards depicted classrooms as they were in the 1950s. I remember three adults who appeared regularly. One was the headteacher, who was (of course) male. Another was Cook, who was (of course) female.

The third was Teacher, as much a lead character as the Bash Street Kids themselves. Although Teacher himself was a figure of fun, his mortar board and cane symbolised an approach to learning that was also very much of its time: the omniscient authority figure dispensing knowledge to pupils who were expected to silently take it all in. It was, literally, ‘chalk and talk’. To question the teacher was to cross a line. The cane was not just part of the costume. It had a real and painful purpose.

You might argue that the last few sentences are as much a caricature as the Bash Street Kids comic strip itself. Of course it is the case that many children in the past benefitted from wonderful teaching delivered by caring, humane and inspirational practitioners. Sadly, however, what I described really was the reality for many of us. I still remember one particular teacher terrorising the primary school class that I was in. We were just 9 and 10 years of age, and we lived and learned in constant fear of her strap.

Education, of course, isn’t static at all. I explored in a recent post how teaching has changed over the decades. Part of that change is the growing awareness that the emotional dynamic in the classroom really matters. Progress in learning depends on children feeling safe, welcomed and valued by the teacher.

Life-based learning fully embraces the idea of establishing the right emotional climate for learning so that children are relaxed and ready for learning. It is one of six brain-targeted teaching strategies I wrote about here.

Teachers need to model the way we want children to interact with each other. This means unconditional positive regard, taking a calm, consistent and collegiate approach in the language used, tone of voice and body language.

The consultancy Pivotal Education offers training for teachers in consistent and calm adult behaviour. The Pivotal approach includes scripted interventions to help manage difficult situations calmly and restorative follow-ups to help repair and rebuild damaged teacher-pupil relationships.

Relationships is one of the nine life-based learning themes through which the Forum for Life-Based Learning believes the individual subjects of the UK National Curriculum should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the challenges they will meet as adults.

The Relationships learning theme arms children with key skills as they begin to construct an ever-expanding web of relationships at home, in school and in the wider world, including — ultimately — the workplace.

Read More About Relationships

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Academics put outdoor play at the heart of children’s recovery

A group of child development experts have been in the headlines this week, asking the government to prioritise outdoor play over extra lessons and longer school days for children in the coming months as the country emerges out of lockdown and begins to return to something like normality.

In their letter to the education secretary, the academics, who call themselves PlayFirstUK, wrote: “There is understandable concern about children’s education but children will not learn effectively if their mental health is poor. Social interaction, play, physical activity and good mental health needs to come first.”

You can read the letter in full here.

The points made by the academics reflect priorities and concerns that life-based learning aims to tackle.

Dr Kathryn Lester, of the University of Sussex, said: “While there is an understandable focus on children catching up academically, we know that children cannot learn effectively when they are struggling emotionally.”

The Emotions and Mind learning themes are both predicated on the idea that emotional wellbeing is essential for effective learning, and that they are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

The letter also said: “As part of a wider recovery process, children should be encouraged and supported to spend time outdoors, playing with other children and being physically active.”

The Body learning theme focuses on children learning healthy habits for life and includes a whole-school activity programme so that regular physical activity is part of children’s daily lives. The social interaction that comes with outdoor play boosts communication and relationship-building skills, both of which are life-based learning themes. Meanwhile, recent posts on this website have highlighted the benefits of children learning about nature and the merits of outdoor learning more generally.

The Forum for Life-Based Learning believes that we need to reform the school curriculum for young children to meet urgent life challenges. Life-based learning addresses those challenges directly. It gives children the knowledge and skills to look after themselves, to create positive, long-lasting relationships in vibrant communities, and to live in an environmentally-friendly, sustainable way.

Life-Based learning

Find out more about what life-based learning is all about


More detail about what life-based learning is aiming to do


A framework for a proposed new life-based learning curriculum

Image at the head of this article by Marzena P. from Pixabay.

Brain-targeted teaching is a bold new approach in the classroom

Children are not progressing well enough in their learning either to maximize their individual potential as human beings or to meet the collective requirements of a modern economy. We need to see dramatic improvements in the progress that children make in their learning. This requires bold thinking and innovative approaches to teaching and learning. The Forum for Life-Based Learning supports one such approach that is centred on teaching children the way the brain learns — ‘brain-targeted teaching’.

An online article, 6 Targets to Teach the Way the Brain Learns, sets out the basics of the brain-targeted approach in an accessible way, linking insights from neuroscience to actual classroom practice. It summarises a framework developed by Dr Mariale Hardiman, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the USA.

The six targets (in simplified, non-technical terms) are:

  • Establishing the right emotional climate for learning so that children are relaxed and ready for learning
  • Paying attention to the physical learning space
  • Designing learning so that children connect old and new information
  • Teaching for ‘mastery’ of a topic so that children begin to store information in long-term memory
  • Encouraging children to be creative, especially with new information they have acquired
  • Helping children to evaluate their learning, particularly through assessments that give them useful and timely feedback

Although we may agree or disagree on the particular ‘targets’ (something that I will return to in future posts), it is the overall approach that I wish to draw attention to here — one that is informed by the way that the brain works.

The Forum for Life-Based Learning believes that we need to reform the school curriculum for young children. The Mind is one of nine learning themes — each with equal priority — through which we believe the individual subjects of the UK National Curriculum should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the challenges they will meet as adults.

By harnessing learning to the way the brain learns, life-based learning brings a crucial new dimension to children’s education. It is by working the way the brain learns that children will make accelerated learning progress.

The Mind

Click to read more about the life-based learning Mind theme

Brain-Targeted Teaching

Visit the brain-targeted teaching website

An Urgent Priority

Why we need a long-term strategy around learning and the brain

Image at the head of this article by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

Change children’s school education and you change the world

Life-Based Learning, focus of the Forum’s most visited webpage, gives meaning and purpose to education.

The central idea of a life-based approach is that young children’s learning is delivered through nine life themes. The context of the proposal is England where life-based learning (LBL) was developed. The reference for LBL is the National Curriculum in England for 5- to 11-year-olds. However, LBL is an alternative in all countries which run similar curriculums across a similar age range.

LBL talks about ‘nine life themes’. Teachers will know — and I have a lifetime experience as a teacher — a ‘theme’ has connotations of a ‘topic’, or a ‘project’. A topic is where you bring together aspects of different subjects, without fundamental change to the purpose of education, as a bunch of subjects to be learned.

A typical example of a topic is ‘Fairtrade Fortnight 2021 bringing together National Curriculum subject aspects of geography, science, environmental studies, food and nutrition (part of the design and technology subject) and the theme of citizenship.

The topic approach to learning is a great way of learning and the theme ‘Fairtrade is engaging and important learning.

However, LBL is much more than the word ‘theme’ implies.

LBL is a shift of curriculum focus to children learning about themselves and looking after themselves [Self]; interacting more effectively with other people [Society]; and improving their understanding and sensitivity to the environment, leading to sustainable living [World].

This adoption of the three areas of life as the principal purpose of education requires reviewing all content, learning and assessment in a fundamentally different way to the establishment National Curriculum view of education.

A major feature of LBL is the determination of curriculum content by the life purposes attached to it.  

For example, the key life theme of society/citizenship gives greater purpose to children learning the history of what makes Britain today, how communities functioned in the past and how communities function now. The content of the history curriculum would be adapted to reflect the change in emphasis. Children’s understanding of community would be enhanced by the learning.

For example, the key life theme of sustainability gives greater purpose to children learning science in the context of the environment, such as the properties of water looked at in the context of global warming. Children’s learning and motivation to learn would be enhanced by children seeing a purpose to the learning.

For example, the key principle of children learning how the brain learns has implications for teacher training and teachers’ ability to facilitate learning. The implications for children are considerable as the brain is unlocked by the application of cognitive science learning.

Full consideration of the child’s physical, emotional and thinking life would additionally impact on the current norm-referenced examination system and first-past-the-post syndrome. The current system of assessment squeezes the initiative out of learning. It acts against society’s best interests to have an educated population for the contribution it can make to society more broadly and to meet the increasing demands of commerce and industry.

I have attempted to set out the study action areas for the nine life-based themes in an indicative curriculum that I have referred to as MAC (Merged Action Curriculum).

I have to say, the key word is indicative. Much more work has to be done to flesh out what a life-based curriculum would look like.

I’ll finish with this point:

LBL is not about doing away with the subjects of the National Curriculum. It is about realigning the subjects into more relevant ways that meet not only children’s learning needs in our rapidly changing world, but also the urgent challenges facing societies and environments at home and around the world.

The opportunity to take a life-based approach to learning is there for the taking. The country that truly does this will be a world leader, a beacon of light for the rest of us.

Your comments, points for discussion and disagreements are welcomed and needed.

Thank you.

Michael Mac
Author, ‘Life-Based Learning’

Life-Based learning

Find out the list of the nine Life-Based Learning themes

The National Curriculum

Find out the list of subjects making up the National Curriculum


Proposed new curriculum – indicative study-action areas for development

Let’s not squander young children’s natural love of reading

Children's love of reading is depicted by the image of the young child in bed using a torch to read under the duvet.

Children’s love of reading needs to be fostered and cherished.

Many of us doubtless have fond memories of hiding a torch under the bed covers at night — blankets rather than duvets, for those of a certain age. Off went the bedroom light as we pretended to settle down to sleep; after all, it was important to be bright and alert for school the next day. On went the torch as we used its flickering light to enjoy a few more precious moments with a favourite book or comic.

Nowadays, children are probably more likely to use the light built into a mobile phone rather than an actual torch. But the time-honoured ritual is the same and the reasons behind it are the same as well. Children love stories, they are innately curious and inquisitive, and they also possess a wide-eyed willingness to accept and embrace — rather than fearing and shunning — what is new and unknown.

That is why, from a very young age, children love to read.

And yet, when we look at reading or indeed other key aspects of communication — written, verbal, mathematical — we find that the evidence of the government’s own figures indicates that too many of our children are not meeting agreed minimum standards.

Something is lost somewhere along the way. We are letting our children down.

Proficiency in writing, numeracy and especially in reading is perhaps more important than ever in this digital age. For many of us, the internet is the go-to place for information, advice, opportunities for networking, shopping and work. We also have access to an inexhaustible supply of fiction and non-fiction reading material on every subject imaginable, much of it online.

Communication is one of nine learning themes — each with equal priority — through which we believe the individual subjects of the UK National Curriculum should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the challenges they will meet as adults.

Nurturing the ability of 5- to 11-year-old primary school children to read and write remains at the heart of the life-based learning approach. It harnesses the power of reading and writing across all subject areas, as well as developing skills in other means of communication.

Children’s learning is improved through vocabulary building, phonics and a structured and committed approach to teaching. Children are encouraged to delve into Britain’s rich literary heritage and historical narrative for the social understanding and sense of belonging such reading provides.


Find out more about the life-based learning Communication theme

Life-Based Learning

Click here to read more about the life-based approach to learning

An Urgent Priority

Why we need a long-term strategy to improve communication

Image at the head of this article by Amberrose Nelson from Pixabay

Sport England survey shows the benefits of childhood physical activity

Childhood physical activity is emphasised by the image of two children walking in the countryside.

Sport England’s latest survey suggests that, despite lockdown and other restrictions, childhood physical activity has continued, but to a lesser extent due to Covid social restrictions. It also shows the wider benefits of being physically active.

The Active Lives Children and Young People Survey covers children and young people in years 1–11 (ages 5-16) in England in the academic year 201920. It merits careful study.

It suggests that there has been a reduction in activity levels, particularly for children in years 1–6, but the overall picture is perhaps not as bad as feared. Some activities were unavailable because either schools or facilities were closed, or both.

This is reflected in the drops in swimming, team sports and gymnastics, trampolining and cheerleading compared to 12 months ago. Active play and running, athletics or multi-sports also saw a decline in participation.

Active Lives Children and Young People Survey, Academic year 2019–20

However, children have found other ways to stay active:

… more children and young people have been walking, with an increase of 4.3% going for a walk (up by more than 340,000) and an increase of 10.0% walking to get to places (up by more than three-quarters of a million).

Active Lives Children and Young People Survey, Academic year 2019–20

The survey also shows a strong link between children who are physically active and individual development, good mental health, and rates of volunteering and wider community development. It also suggests that young people who engage in sport and physical activity are less likely to feel lonely.

Sport England’s message reflects one of the aims of life-based learning:

Developing children and young people’s physical literacy is essential in creating a positive and lifelong relationship with activity and without it many will not enjoy the health and social benefits associated with living active lives.

Tim Hollingsworth, Chief Executive, Sport England

The Body is one of nine learning themes through which we believe the individual subjects of the UK National Curriculum should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the challenges they will meet as adults.

Its improved learning programme ensures that children meet ambitious targets for daily physical activity and learn healthy habits for life.

The Body

Find out more about the life-based learning Body theme

Sport England Survey

Read the full January 2021 survey produced by Sport England

An Urgent Priority

Why we need a long-term strategy to improve activity levels

Image at the head of this article by MaBraS from Pixabay.

The UK Primary School National Curriculum needs an urgent reboot

National Curriculum reform: The gap between what is known and what is delivered to children in the National Curriculum is every widening. 

For example: children learning about and looking after their bodies (1), their emotions (2) and their minds (3).

(1) Physiology scientists know more about the body, yet the National Curriculum focus is not on the knowledge and the skills children need to be genuinely supported in learning about and looking after the body. 

(2) Psychologists know more about how to develop emotional resilience (EQ if you like), but the knowledge is not applied to the learning set up in a consistent and intentional way so children are not getting the emotional development they could be getting.

(3) Cognitive neuroscientists know so much more about how the brain learns and therefore, how teachers can facilitate learning so that children can learn the way the brain works – it is not happening

Given the urgent challenges facing individuals in today’s fast moving and everchanging society, the sooner the National Curriculum gets its act together the better.

Let’s go for change as we move into the 21st year in the 21st century

A change in the focus by the UK government in the education of primary school children — aged 5 to 11 years — is long over due to meet the urgent challenges of the 21st century.

It is clear our children need to learn to speak, read and write English, be proficient in mathematics and have an all=round education in all the other subjects that make up the National Curriculum in England — science, history, geography, art and design, computing, design and technology, a foreign language, music, physical education and PSHE.

But must the curriculum be taught as individual subjects that have little or nothing to do with each other?

How is it that we have not moved on since education was first rolled out to the masses in Queen Victoria’s 1870s in the expression of learning as no more than a bunch of subjects to be mastered?

The Life-Based Approach to Learning brings meaning to the education of our children by teaching the subjects through vitally important themes: children learn to know about and look after themselves in areas critical to their development; acquire the communication, relationship and community skills to meet the social challenges the country faces; and gain a grounding in the how and why of living sustainably, as we must all surely learn to do.

Oh! … and by the way: children’s progress in the core subjects of English and mathematics [and all the other subjects] will be the better for a fresh approach to education that is more than a jobs market competition.

Fern Britton’s brilliant interview with Linford Christie

Teachers need to learn from Fern Britton’s excellent use of para- and body language in her recently shown BBC TV interview with Linford Christie.

I was as much taken by Fern Britton’s interview technique as I was fascinated by Linford Christie’s personality and achievements.

Fern oozes oodles of empathy in her body language with her warm and engaged facial expressions, positive gestures and body movement.

Her tone, pitch and speed of voice is spot on.

She gave the impression she knew Linford well. Whether she did or not, she was certainly very relaxed in her interactions with Linford – the mark of a true interviewer.

Not once did she falter in her interview technique, even when asking Linford about difficult times he faced in his life.

Of course, teaching a class of school children is not the same as interviewing. However, unconditional positive regard for children, positive voice, positive body language and use of language to obtain the best response from children still applies.

The Life-Based Relationship Learning Theme includes children knowing about and practising how to communicate positively in their relationships with others.

Image credit: What Is Paralanguage? by Ashish Arora

History in schools can heal divisions and create a more tolerant society

Children learning from history such as the Empire Windrush bringing people from the Caribbean to help the British economy.

It is crucial that children learn about what makes British society what it is today and their place in it.

The Guardian reported in October on research from the education charity Teach First, which found that children could complete their GCSEs without having studied a single literary work by a person of colour.

The same article quoted from the ‘lessons learned’ review of the Windrush scandal, which spoke of “the public’s and officials’ poor understanding of Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration, and the history of black Britons.”

Black History Month, which runs every October, is now well established in Britain. ‘Themed’ days and weeks (and even months) can play a part in highlighting important issues, raising public awareness and galvanising people into action — provided that the message is not all but forgotten once the occasion is over. On the other hand, if a ‘theme’ is of such importance that it merits its own week or month, it is surely a legitimate question to ask why it is not embedded in the curriculum rather than being an add-on.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, touched on these issues in remarks introducing Ofsted’s 2019–2020 annual report. She spoke of “efforts to commandeer schools and the curriculum in support of worthy social issues and campaigns.” Arguably, neither ‘commandeer’ nor ‘worthy’ are neutral terms in the context of her remarks.

With regards to growing calls for a more diverse curriculum, she posed two questions:

Is it because there is a fundamental issue with the national curriculum that limits exposure to diversity in literature, history, or geography? Or is it because there’s a widely held and justifiable assumption that changing things in school is the key to changing wider social attitudes?

Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools

Life-based learning was first developed as a response to weaknesses in the National Curriculum. Community is one of the nine learning themes of life-based learning. It is an attempt to deal with our lack of social cohesion, with too many young people alienated, lacking a sense of purpose in their lives and contributing little to society in consequence.

At the Forum for Life-Based Learning we believe that the study of history should give children a sense of what makes British society what it is today and their place in it. They should learn that they are part of a country with a rich and vibrant history.

The use of the ‘community’ concept to frame learning in history, social geography and citizenship deepens children’s understanding of — and strengthens their commitment to — society.

You can read more about the community learning theme here.

Image at the top of this post credited to Contraband Collection/Alamy, retrieved from this page on 19 December 2020