Kate Wall and Elaine Hall explore some of the commonalities and difficulties with concepts associated with learning to learn

Learning to learn is one of those terms which, having been used in various forms for over 30 years, now has become prevalent in common discourse about schools, education and employability. It is probably only because of its alliterative qualities that we use learning to learn rather than learning to think, learning to study, thinking about thinking, thinking for learning or many other possible variants which exist out in the world. Even on this page there are several which appear in the discourse as interchangeable though we will discuss how they are in some ways distinctive. It is enough to say that it is a term that draws on ideas of metacognition, thinking skills, self-regulation, self-efficacy and self-esteem in relation to learning. Its current popularity could be because it is an idea which meshes well other key trends: with the development of more personalised approaches to learning; the growing movement towards a more flexible and creative curriculum and the strongly expressed belief that every individual should be supported to be a lifelong learner.

Different perspectives

Yet there is no general consensus about what a learning to learn approach might consist of. There are a diverse group of educational experts working in this field who have fundamental agreement about improving teaching and learning under the umbrella of learning (how) to learn but who cheerfully disagree about how to pursue these goals in different classrooms and contexts. Meanwhile, teachers are very aware of the need to talk about the ‘elephant in the classroom’ that is learning. Where can they go for a framework to work with?

Emerging from the ESRC’s flagship Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP), the Learning How to Learn team have produced 10 key principles of effective learning and teaching (reported in issue 6 of LTU), which brings together an adherence to valued forms of knowledge with a promotion of informal learning; the role of the teacher in scaffolding with the active engagement of the learner and congruent assessment with lifelong learning. However, the breadth, complexity and scale of this programme of research may mean that the teacher who is seeking guidance may find the translation of these broad principles difficult. The TLRP provides case studies from the research programme which are organised under thematic strands (including assessment for learning, pupil voice and ICTs) and focus specifically on the questions from those strands with a more implicit link to the fundamental principles.

Teachers who are searching for a holistic understanding of learning to learn principles as well as a sense of how they translate to individual pupils and classrooms may find inspiration in a project based in Australia. This collaborative research and development project (www.learningtolearn.sa.edu.au) has generated an understanding of learning to learn in social constructivist terms: their key idea is the transformation of schooling from a teaching to a learning paradigm by engaging teachers directly with research and encouraging an inquiry structure in which learners take an active role.

Back in the UK, a similar project funded by the Campaign for Learning engages schools as communities of enquirers, producing yearly case studies (currently 85 available online) to explore and extend what learning to learn might mean from a starting definition of: ‘it is a process of discovery about learning. It involves a set of principles and skills which, if understood and used, help learners learn more effectively and so become learners for life. At its heart is the belief that learning is learnable.’

This approach is based on the dispositions of the learner as described by the five ‘Rs’: Readiness, Responsibility, Reflectiveness, Resilience and Resourcefulness. This framework has associations with the work of Guy Claxton though he has only four ‘Rs’. Teachers can decide for themselves how many ‘Rs’ they need.

Another perspective comes from Chris Watkins who turns his attention to the reflective power of the individual: ‘[learning about learning] denotes a learner learning more about their lived experiences of learning’. He makes an important distinction between work and conversations which are really about learning and those which are performative or managerial and should be called ‘being taught to be taught’, not learning about learning.

A social process

What these varying perspectives have in common is that learning to learn is a social process: everyone involved has to talk openly about their experiences of learning, the purposes of learning activities, the advantages and disadvantages of learning and teaching approaches for different subjects, contexts and individuals. These are often hard conversations to start and harder ones to control: teachers have to be prepared to confront their own understanding of why they teach their classes in the way they do, learners must explore why they are less engaged in some lessons than others and schools must look beyond administrative reasons for organisational structures to reconnect with their pedagogic goals.

For each teacher and each school, learning to learn could be as little as a strategy to support assessment and target-setting, through an explicit set of criteria and it could be as much as developing skills and dispositions for lifelong learning. The key lever for change, whichever ‘brand’ of learning to learn is subscribed to, is the clarity of intent that the teacher brings and shares with the learners.