Review of Expansive Education by Bill Lucas, Guy Claxton & Ellen Spencer

10th July 2014

This review was first published in Teach Primary Magazine and is re-published here with their kind permission.

It is tempting to think of the education debate as a battlefield. Two sides locked in mortal combat, fighting a never-ending war of ideas. Both convinced beyond doubt they are on the side of the angels, while their enemies are at best, misled, at worst, hell-bent on destroying all that is good.

I exaggerate of course. Nevertheless, the dispute is real and bitter, and both sides are reluctant to concede an inch, let alone listen.

But, what does it matter, you might ask? Isn’t the war so old, the battles so repetitive, the intransigence on both sides so ingrained, that it has become an irrelevance, a sort of war of mice that rumbles on behind the skirting-board, occasionally heard, but easily ignored by those of us who just get on with the job of teaching children?

Maybe. But ideas matter and all of us are a product of the values and principles we hold. These are our theoretical models, the bedrock of our practice, and they influence everything we do. I guess we take them for granted most of the time and are unaware of the way they influence our thinking. Nevertheless their impact is real and we do well to be aware of them.

This is particularly true when we come across a new idea. The temptation is to match it with an old existing one. This saves us both time and effort.

But, if you find yourself doing this then be careful; its lazy (battlefield) thinking, it closes the mind, and stops it listening to alternative views. Demagogues are particularly keen on channelling people into making lazy associations. They use clichés to besmirch the views of those they oppose (‘Gradgrind education’and ‘Trendy teaching’ to name but two) in an attempt to shut down the debate and force people to follow their path, as if they offer the only right course.

While the authors of ‘Expansive Education’, Bill Lucas, Guy Claxton, and Ellen Spencer are very clearly positioning themselves on the progressive side of the education debate, it would be very easy (lazy thinking) to read ‘Expansive Education’ as representing just another reiteration of an old familiar idea.

Certainly ‘expansive education’ shares many of the same principles of progressivism – the importance of authentic tasks; collaborative learning; students learning from each other – but it goes beyond a simple child-centred view where learning happens predominantly through discovery, and attempts to offer a new model of teaching and learning that places inquiry and reflective thinking at the centre.

In fact, the authors are at pains to distance themselves from the past: “if this sounds like a charter for loosely structured progressive, student-centred education, nothing could be further from the truth.” Their approach, they maintain, is much more focused on developing dispositions to learning through an active process of study, feedback, and reflection. While discovery does seem to play a part in this process, so does direct instruction, and inquiry. Teachers, they argue, should think of themselves as ‘change agents’, changing students from where they are to what they can be.

While the authors acknowledge the ‘giants’ of the past: Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky, they are keen to put their ideas into the context of current thinking, drawing on the work of Dweck (Mindsets), Ericsson (10,000 hours), and Hattie (Visible Learning). As a consequence while some of their ideas do sound like old school progressivism, others are much more up to date: developing growth mindsets; using inquiry; and making learning visible.

Of course for some on the battlefield this will represent nothing more than window dressing, a repackaging of old stale ideas: a slap of lipstick on the pig. For the rest of us though I think it is worthy of consideration. There is much in this book to think about. The authors do a good job of encapsulating wide areas of current thinking on education and give a number of examples from around the world of interesting experiments going on in pedagogy and curriculum. While I’m not entirely convinced this all adds up to a movement as they claim, I do find much in their writing that encourages me to find out more.

For me, the term ‘expansive education’ doesn’t quite capture the complexity of ideas they are trying to convey. After all isn’t it the aim of all education to expand the mind, whatever our approach to teaching and learning? Nevertheless, I do find much that is interesting and challenging in this book. They are certainly offering a radically different view of education from the one that predominates in our current system.


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