Public examinations now have very high stakes for everyone involved in education. In lessons, a close focus on what is to be tested, and how, must be a key focus of the curriculum. Good schools have become adept at preparing their pupils for this annual marathon.

But how much do we really know about the qualities of even the most outstanding students? Universities increasingly deplore the fact that new undergraduates – even those with outstanding A-Level grades – have become accustomed to spoon-feeding; that they expect to be told what to do and are unaccustomed to thinking for themselves.  As a result, many universities have introduced study skills courses designed to help students acquire the skills they need to be independent learners.  As well as the obvious practical skills such as how to use the range of study resources available, such courses also aim to help students develop the dispositions that characterise independent learners such as resilience, creativity and being able to manage their personal learning needs.  Universities recognise that not only are these the skills that are needed to be a successful undergraduate; they are also key to future employment success.

The ever-increasing pressure on gaining examination success has been brought about by a combination of intensifying competition for places and the decisions of successive Governments to use examination results as a proxy for education standards.  One unfortunate side-effect of this trend has been a corresponding lack of emphasis on the more generic aspects of learning that will be needed in the work place and through life more generally.  This is why many schools are now actively using other means to help their pupils to become more expert learners.

One such intervention is the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI).  The research on which ELLI is based identified seven elements that are central to effective learning.  These dimensions include critical curiosity, resilience, creativity and working with others.  They are the combination of  ‘thinking, feeling and doing’ which underpins every learning setting. The individual profile that is produced from the ELLI inventory provides the basis for teachers to help their pupils understand their strengths and weaknesses and to work on improving them.

ELLI has now been used by tens of thousands of individuals in a variety of educational environments around the world.  It heralds the beginning of a revolutionary new approach to education at the heart of which is the recognition that individuals can be helped to become more effective and more motivated learners through appropriate interventions.  Not surprisingly, the value of this kind of approach is also now being recognised by employers who see the potential of ELLI for staff development.  Research has consistently demonstrated that the ELLI inventory can be the basis for helping people of all kinds, including individuals in particularly disadvantaged communities, to develop the key attributes for effective learning. That insights derived from ELLI provide the stimulus for them to become more confident and motivated to learn, to be more reflective and self-aware and more effective at working with others.  Not surprisingly, it has also been found that developing high levels of ‘learning power’ as measured by ELLI, is also associated with higher levels of attainment on more conventional tests and examinations.

Schools that have already adopted ELLI have done so because they recognise the importance of building the capacity of their pupils to be successful learners at all stages of their lives.  They see in it the beginnings of a new language of learning that does not compete with the focus on examination success but is a complement to it.  Instead of question-spotting or last-minute cramming for the exam, ELLI helps to build the confidence and motivation that is key to longer-term success.  So while ELLI may help to improve examination results, more important is that pupils will be much better equipped to fulfil their potential and to navigate successfully the next stage of their learning journey.

Building a new ELLI platform from scratch presented an interesting challenge. ELLI had grown from a small, primarily research-focused initiative within the University of Bristol to a much bigger endeavour, and the technical platform needed to reflect the demands now being placed upon it – that of volume, flexibility and ease of use, as well as balancing data accumulation for subsequent analysis. We also wanted to look at more ways we could make data visually available to end users, whether in the form of spidergrams, distribution graphs or other graphical formats.

Faced with these challenges we have been working closely with the Birmingham based company Co-operative Web. Co-operative Web had built somewhat similar systems before – at least from a structural perspective – but ELLI presented its own unique challenges. As a lifelong learning system, we actively encourage teachers to use ELLI along with their students. As a transformative and long-term process we see ELLI as a journey rather than a quick fix.  So, not least among the challenges was the fact that ELLI exists in several versions, most notably the adult and student versions, and also the fact that in school settings both students and teachers use the survey – a fact which needed special consideration when building the platform. Ed Russell, MD of Co-operative Web, remarked: ‘Initially we hadn’t realised the extent to which teachers themselves use ELLI; we’d assumed it was more a case of the students using it and the teachers acting as admins. So we had to make some structural adjustments to allow for that.’

The first phase of the new platform went live in January 2014, and not only had to account for future proofing and unanticipated developments, but also the seamless transfer of data from previous systems. Not only did it need to be simple enough for students and teachers managing large cohorts, we also wished to make more meta-cognitive data available and visually accessible to administrators.

Of course, ELLI is no longer only used in schools but is developing amongst Higher Education and corporate users too – an exciting development that means, as we look to the future, we can use ELLI to draw lines of continuity and commonality between schools and communities, businesses and universities. The challenge for us is to allow the continual evolvement of the platform to keep up with demand…! As such we are working on some very exciting new developments.

So do watch this space!


(Image top: Ed Russell (MD of Co-operative Web) and our very own admin manager Keira McGarva discuss functionality issues…)

ELLI teachers’ workshop, Marjon January 2014

Having only been a member of the Vital Partnerships team for a short time, it was not until the end of January that I attended my first ELLI workshop for teachers at the University of St Mark and St John (“Marjon”) in Plymouth. It was a fantastic and inspiring couple of days led by two of our very experienced consultants, Mannie Burn and Bill Houldsworth, who made a great training duo (a ‘dream team’!). We also had an excellent host in Marjon and the training space was fantastic. The participants were teachers from seven primary schools in the South West and Sweden plussome staff from the University which meant that there was both peer learning and cross-cultural sharing of experiences and ideas.

The first day explored the Seven Dimensions of Learning Power, understanding what makes aneffective learner and the research behind ELLI and the language of learning. The workshopwas very experiential and participants were encouraged to draw upon and share their ownexperiences as learners, often working in small groups and then sharing with the group as a whole.

Participants took the ELLI survey and working in pairs shared their spidergrams and coached and mentored one another, asking their partners questions to encourage and elicit deeper self-reflection. Mannie was always on hand to listen, guide and support as participants considered their surveys and dealt with any revelations! It was all good practice, giving the participants the insights and tools necessary to take ELLI into their classrooms. Participants were also asked to look at a dimension of learning power that was of notable importance to them and explore it further by creating a picture or a model. Some found this exercise quite challenging (in terms of both the self analysis and having to create something to represent their findings!) but everyone produced something quite wonderful and had a great insight and story to share.

The second day focussed on strategies to increase learning power in the participants’ schools and also looked at the practical matters concerning ELLI online. Groups of teachers worked on topics that were important to them, such as focussing on a particular learning dimension, or devising strategies for a particular group of their pupils. By the end of the day, participants left the workshop not only refreshed, invigorated and inspired, but confident and equipped to take ELLI into their schools.

We hope to return to Marjon again soon…

New discoveries often happen by chance. When Guy Claxton and I started a conversation about the lack of a suitable assessment tool that could identify an individual’s generic strengths and weaknesses as a learner, we could not have known that from this small beginning, a substantial international enterprise would develop. But one thing so often leads to another and it wasn’t long before we were designing our own inventory that we hoped would fill this gap in the market. more