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Creating Learning without Limits Project


In 2005, a second phase of research, Creating Learning without Limits (CLwL) was set up to explore the process of whole-school development driven by the core idea of transformability: the conviction that all children (not just some children) can become more powerful, committed, successful learners given distinctive supportive conditions and generous opportunities for learning.

CLwL builds on the Learning without Limits study by exploring the wider opportunities for enhancing the learning capacity of every child that become possible when a whole staff group works together to create an environment free from the limiting effects of ability labels and practices. What happens when staff members jettison officially prescribed practices of predicting or pre-judging what any individual children might achieve? When they work, instead, to identify and lift limits on learning? When they replace the fatalism of ability labels with a more hopeful, powerful and empowering view of learners and learning?

Creating Learning without Limits, the book based on the research, was published in May 2012 by  Open University Press, co-authored by Mandy Swann, Alison Peacock, Susan Hart and Mary Jane Drummond. Drawing on compelling accounts of everyday life in the school, it describes how, in just a few years, the school (once in special measures) grew into a thriving community, with distinctive views of learning, curriculum and pedagogy, monitoring and accountability, that found expression in every aspect of school life.

The research team

The Creating Learning without Limits project was based at the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education, in collaboration with colleagues at The Wroxham School, Hertfordshire.

The research was funded by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Hertfordshire Local Authority.

Research team Title and Location
Mandy Swann Lecturer, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education
Alison Peacock Head teacher, The Wroxham School, Hertfordshire
Susan Hart Inclusive education, formerly University of Cambridge, School of Education 
Mary Jane Drummond Early years education, formerly University of Cambridge, School of Education

Research approach

We documented the work of the head teacher and staff group as they developed their thinking and practice. Through interviews and observations, we explored the work of the head teacher as she implemented her distinctive approach to school development, drawing on Learning without Limits values and principles. We observed and interviewed teachers to capture their experience of learning to work within a learning without limits ethos, and we provided methodological support to teachers who undertook individual enquiries focused on specific significant aspects of their practice.

We wanted to understand processes involved as:

Teachers were helped to shape and evaluate their classroom practice in accordance with their growing understanding of how they can strengthen and transform children's learning capacity

Children were helped across the school to become active agents in the development of their own and each others' learning capacities

The school became a professional learning community working within the framework of government requirements  and committed to fostering pupils' learning capacities

Parents and the wider community (e.g. governors, local politicians, LEA, other LEA schools) became involved in and commited to the process of fostering the learning capacity of all young people.

For detailed research questions, click here.

Key Findings: A transformability approach to school development

For the full analysis, please see our book, Creating Learning without Limits.

Support for professional learning

A core leadership task at Wroxham was to create the conditions for professional learning to flourish across the whole school. This was an absolute priority: the process of building a school environment inspired by Learning without Limits core ideas and principles was dependent upon the ongoing learning of the whole staff team. It was a process of continuous development and constant renewal, as staff deepened and enriched their understanding of what liberates or limits children's capacity to learn, and reshaped their practices accordingly.

A particular kind of professional learning

As clear patterns emerged in the choices of structures and strategies introduced to support and foster this process, it became apparent that they promoted a particular kind of professional learning, recognising colleagues as active thinkers in their own right, who can and must do their own thinking if worthwhile learning is to take place. Strategies were chosen for their capacity to nurture key dispositions, for example openness, questioning, empathy and inventiveness, that feed and sustain autonomous professional judgement and enable people to do the kinds of thinking upon which teaching for learning without limits depends.

The same principles apply

These same patterns also provided extensive confirmation of the head teacher's initial conviction that the pedagogical principles (co-agency, trust, everybody), derived from the original study, applied just as much to staff's learning as to children's learning. Strategies were chosen to enable colleagues to stay in control of their learning and develop their practices in their own time and in their own way (co-agency). They demonstrated the head teacher's belief in people's capacity to learn independently - and from each other - without being told what to do (trust). They provided significant opportunities for every member of the teaching team to participate in on-going discussions about learning, to share expertise and learn from each other (everybody).

Harnessing the power of the collective

These strategies played a pivotal role not just in supporting the learning of each member of the teaching team individually, but in building a powerful sense of community, a sense of pride in belonging to a group of professional learners, who - by working together - could strengthen the learning capacity of everybody. The sustaining power of the collective gave individuals the confidence to take risks as they explored new possibilities. It both supported them in their endeavours and generated ideas to help. The capacity of individual teachers to make transforming choices was enhanced by the growth of shared understanding across the whole team.

The power of passion

The ultimate test of these strategies was whether they helped to strengthen people's sense of passionate endeavour, to increase their sense of their own agency, their ability to imagine and bring about worthwhile changes through their own efforts. The school-wide culture of learning helped to surture and sustain their passion, cultivating shared energy and hope within the team. And this energy, passion and hope were harnessed to a shared sense of what they were striving to create together: a school environment in which everybody's learning could flourish, free from the damaging effects of ability labels and ability-focused practices.

With kind permission of the publishers, two articles providing a more detailed examination of the findings are accessible online.