“I have come to see that the real and pressing issue underpinning an effective school system is the recognition that learning is learnable. In this article, I want to persuade you that you can actually teach pupils how to learn (and watch their performance and confidence levels soar as a consequence)”.

It was while I was running the Campaign for Learning that I began to realise just how unimportant many of the current educational initiatives are. First there was the ‘standards agenda’; an attempt to help pupils do better at exams (as if any teacher ever tried to help them do worse!). Close on the heels of this came new approaches to literacy and numeracy; special ‘hours’, lots of additional training and ‘strategies’ bearing their names. And latterly all the talk is of personalised learning (not a concept with which it is easy to disagree in abstract, but currently very vague and lacking in substance).

But I have come to see that the real and pressing issue underpinning an effective school system is the recognition that learning is learnable. You can learn to become a more effective learner just as you can learn to speak French more fluently or learn to drive a car. I say ‘just as’, but of course it is not quite that simple. Nevertheless, I want to persuade you that you can actually teach pupils how to learn (and watch their performance and confidence levels soar as a consequence).

Defining learning to learn

There are three elements to being an effective learner:

  • first, you need to have an underpinning model of what is going on as you learn;
  • secondly, you need a set of strategies to help you improve;
  • and finally you need to be able to describe what is happening as you learn, so you can constantly reflect on your performance.

Let’s start at the beginning, with the need to under-stand what is going on when you are learning.This is particularly challenging, because in the vast majority of situations you cannot actually see any-thing happening. It is easy to forget that you are learning. Indeed, much is going on without us really being aware of it. Consequently, there have been some strange attempts to describe the process. In the past, learners were pictured as empty vessels waiting to be filled up with knowledge by their teachers or as blank slates waiting to have life’s experiences ‘written’ on them. Then, in the first half of the twentieth century, psychologists first began to map out some of the key developmental stages and processes involved. Subsequently, various thinkers have suggested helpful models for what is going on, each drawing on different areas of research and opinion. Many researchers have shown how important a positive mindset is to any learner. We need to be open, receptive and engaged. Or, put another way, we tend to learn best when we are both relaxed and alert.

Each of these models has something to commend it. The first one, sometimes credited to W C Howell, applies very well to something like learning to use a computer keyboard. The second, created by David Kolb, works well where the focus is on experimentation and discovery and where a degree of conscious processing is helpful. While the third, popularised in schools by Alistair Smith and others, is often referred to as an accelerated learning model. It is distinctive in its emphasis on learner engagement and practise.

Schools whose focus is on creating effective life-long learners, increasingly use my own model. It has three components:

Ready/Go/Steady

Ready

You need to be emotionally ready and able to see both the big picture and set yourself smaller, achievable goals.

Go

You need to have a range of strategies that work for you as a learner. These need to recognise that we all learn in different ways and also that different kinds of learning require different methods.

Steady

Effective learners see mistakes as the essential building blocks of their learning because they build in time to reflect and adapt their methods.

My point is simple. Provided it is a credible one, which model you adopt is less important than the benefits you will reap from having a model of some kind. Even if you do not explicitly advocate one, children will of course, deduce what you believe, mainly through their ‘reading’ of you as their teacher. Presented with a teacher who clearly loves reading books, is curious and questioning and makes time to keep a diary, pupils will easily piece together what they think about the process of learning. I have seen children being taught about atomic structures and charged particles – big ideas

The 5Rs

One of the main difficulties I find when talking about learning is that it can become vague and confusing. I once found myself debating this issue with Chris Woodhead on the Radio 4 programme Start the Week. I was trying to describe the set of processes or strategies that can help pupils learn more effectively and he was concerned that we should be focusing on hard facts and knowledge.

The argument descended into unnecessary over-simplified positions, him defending ‘know-what’ and me arguing for more ‘know-how’. Of course you need both.

But, more importantly, there is a curriculum underpinning the process of becoming a better learner. There are some things you can do which will help you to flex your learning ‘muscles’ and emerge stronger from your workout.

I have called this curriculum the 5Rs (not to be confused with the 3Rs of wRiting, aRithmetic and Reading!). These are:

  • Resourcefulness
  • Remembering
  • Resilience
  • Reflectiveness
  • Responsiveness

Resourcefulness means having a good range of techniques at your disposal. Think of yourself embarking on some DIY with a full bag of ‘tools’ suitable for any situation you may find. You might want to search the Web or ask for advice or draw a diagram or have a chat about it with a friend.

Remembering, as its name suggests, involves get-ting the best out of your memory. But it is more than just remembering facts. Of far greater importance is your ability to recall ways of doing things and to be able to use something you have learned in one place, in other situations.

Resilience is a special kind of persistence in learning. It involves being able to deal with all the difficult emotions you experience when things get tough so you can see things through. Resilient learners have a number of different tried and test-ed ways of seeing things through, from ‘taking a breather’ to ‘sleeping on it’.

Reflectiveness is the key means by which you extract meaning from an experience. It involves reliving and processing what you have learned and asking yourself questions to help you judge how effectively you performed in any situation. The capacity to reflect is at the heart of what it is to be an effective learner. Indeed, there is a sense in which the difference between living and learning is reflecting. Through reflection you extract meaning from your experience of life.

Responsiveness is about putting into practice what you have learned. You find something out about yourself or about the world around you and, as a consequence, decide to do things differently in the future. Responsiveness often involves you in changing the way you behave and can consequently be very difficult, as ingrained habits are hard to budge.

I have recently published a new book, ‘Discover Your Hidden Talents‘, which for the first time, seeks to provide a comprehensive guide to learning theory and practice and which outlines the many ways in which anyone can become a better learn-er in much more detail.

Describing what’s going on

Even if you have a clear model and a good set of strategies to help you, if you cannot communicate what you are doing it will be difficult for you to make progress. In the last few years the initiative that has done more than any other to help teach-ers help pupils to learn more effectively is Assessment for Learning. One look at the dramatic improvement in grades achieved by schools practising Assessment for Learning techniques should persuade you that this is a key element of the mix.

We learn by making mistakes and improving our performance as a result. Consequently, we need to create learning environments that are rich in opportunities for feedback. Feedback can come in three main ways: from pupil to pupil, from teacher to pupil or from parent to child.

It is a key element of the teacher’s job to help pupils to get better at giving and receiving all kinds of feedback.

Finding out more:

Learning really is learnable. And teachers really can help pupils to learn how to learn. If you want to find out more then why not dip into some of the books below.

  • Black, Paul et al, Out of the Black Box
  • Claxton, Guy, Building Learning Power
  • Claxton, Guy, Teaching Children to Learn
  • Greany, Toby et al, Creating a Learning to Learn School
  • Lucas,Bill, Power up Your Mind: Learn Faster,Work Smarter
  • Lucas, Bill, Discover Your Hidden Talents
  • Lucas, Bill et al, Teaching Pupils How to Learn
  • Smith, Alistair, The Brain’s Behind It
  • Stoll, Louise et al, It’s About Learning and it’s About Time

Ten tips for helping pupils to learn more effectively

  1. Start a lesson by getting each pupil to list five things that they have done well in the last week.
  2. Get your pupils to imagine that they have finished their learning. What will it look like, sound like, and feel like? Get them to picture themselves having successfully completed it. Visualising success is a proven way of helping you to be more positive.
  3. Get each pupil to set a modest goal for his or her learning in your lesson.
  4. Check that you have really got the big picture of what you are about to teach. Maybe you cannot see the wood for the trees! Your mind is constantly trying to make connections, so giving the big picture in advance gives it time to make sense of things and ‘gather’ all it knows about a particular subject. See how many ways you can connect what you want to teach with what you know about your pupils’ interests.
  5. Before you start a learning activity, cover a blank piece of paper with notes on what you already know about the subject.
  6. Make a list of good questions about any learning topic in which you are interested.
  7. Get the class to make up a simple rhyme to help them remember something they find difficult.
  8. Get pupils to describe out loud what they are doing when they are undertaking a task.
  9. Encourage pupils to share their mistakes and analyse where they went wrong. Reward them for doing this.
  10. Stop using marks or grades when marking your pupil’s work and give specific written or verbal feedback instead.  

Bill Lucas is a bestselling author and motivational speaker who works with organisations in all sectors. A growing number of schools and local authorities are adopting his ideas.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, April 2005.

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