Learning to learn: am I changing my mind?

A few years ago I chortled away at the idea of learning to learn. My colleagues and I sat sullenly through training sessions as we were taught how to get our pupils to ‘learn how to learn’. We cringed at the sorts of activities we were expected to do that constituted early-2000s learning to learn. We picked apart the logical inconsistencies inherent in the models we were being given (is thinking about metacognition meta-meta-cognition??). We suggested that the time spent off timetable ‘learning how to learn’ could perhaps better be employed learning things. And yet, a few weeks ago, I found myself giving an assembly to a hundred Year 12 students on how best to learn. Have I changed my mind?

To be clear, I still think pretty much everything that was bundled under early-2000s learning-to-learn was hopeless. It generally consisted of vague ideas that were mostly about getting pupils doing project work, group activities and independent learning. The error can pretty much be summed up as follows:

  • we want pupils to be able to learn independently
  • therefore we should let pupils practise learning independently

I think this is why a lot of ‘learning to learn’ programmes in the 2000s were focused primarily on creating independent learning opportunities for pupils: if you want them to learn to learn, you create an environment in which they can practise learning independently. It is remarkable how many learning to learn programmes focused not on teaching methods of learning, but on creating contexts in which independent learning could happen. This of course mirrors a theory of pedagogy that was popular in the 1990s and 2000s. Put simply (or perhaps simplistically) the theory runs that rather than explicitly teach children something, it is better to create a context in which they learn by themselves.

More recent approaches have however tended to focus more on the precise techniques and strategies by which we might learn independently and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they are the same strategies that are likely to be successful in the classroom. The evidence base from cognitive psychology is gradually being communicated to teachers, and some of the core ideas are summarised nicely on the Learning Scientists website. These include strategies such as retrieval practice, interleaving and elaboration. Strangely, these sorts of strategies were usually completely overlooked by the learning to learn programmes of the 2000s. Collectively, these strategies might be called ‘learning how to learn’: if you want to teach yourself something, then these strategies are those which are most likely to bring success.

So where do I now stand on learning to learn?

I am persuaded by the research base that we learn best, particularly as novices, when we receive explicit instruction and are then allowed to practise under supervision so that our mistakes can be identified. Once the main mistakes have been ironed out, we can then practice more independently. This said, for most of life we cannot rely on having a teacher, and, as adults, we quite frequently have to teach ourselves things. For this reason, I can see why it makes sense to learn how to teach oneself effectively in the future.

This means that I do not have a problem with schools teaching children learning strategies. I am happy for schools to teach children about retrieval practice, interleaving, elaboration, spaced practice, and so on. It probably makes sense to teach these things explicitly to children on several occasions over the course of their time in school, and to get children practising the strategies, especially for homework. I think teachers need to keep their finger on the pulse: we have been stung before by bogus theories, but the evidence base for these strategies seems very strong, although I am sure there will be further refinements in the future.

Picture: Evangelist portrait of Mark, Cologne Gospels, Cologne, Germany, last quarter of 11th century, 280 x 205 mm. Harley 2820, f. 78, c7793-05. http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/TourBib3.asp

4 Comments on Learning to learn: am I changing my mind?

  1. Tom Burkard // 30 December 2016 at 10:37 // Reply

    All the strategies you list are more aides to retention than learning, but I seriously doubt that many pupils could learn to use them independently to any good effect. However, they can and should be used by teachers–they are all integral parts of teaching at Michaela.

  2. We just gave workshop to Year 11 students at various schools, giving them guidance on how to use spaced practice and retrieval practice (as well as some of the other strategies) for their GCSE revision. Do you seriously believe that a 16 year old can’t put away their study materials and retrieve something from memory once every few days? That seems like a low bar.

    • Including in the previous school in which I worked! I’m not sure I follow the comment however – I definitely don’t think 16 years olds can’t put away study materials, and indeed I frequently encourage my pupils, and the staff in my school, to place a far greater emphasis on doing things from memory.

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