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Learning to learn: A school-wide approach

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"Having a focus on learning to learn raises the level of what a teacher has to do. No longer is the teacher able to be the person who has all the knowledge, they have to enable the students to be reflective."

Gregor Fountain from Wellington College has found that the focus on learning to learn has de-centered the teachers a little as they need to be able to stand back and help the students develop the capacity to find their own answers. He also challenges us to think about what learning to learn might look like in different learning areas. 

Professional learning conversations

These questions and suggested actions encourage you to reflect on your own school context.

Encouraging reflective thought and action

The NZC (p9) states that:

"Students learn most effectively when they develop the ability to stand back from the information or ideas that they have engaged with and think about these objectively. Reflective learners assimilate new learning, relate it to what they already know, adapt it for their own purposes, and translate thought into action. Over time, they develop their creativity, their ability to think critically about information and ideas, and their metacognitive ability (that is, their ability to think about their own thinking). Teachers encourage such thinking when they design tasks and opportunities that require students to critically evaluate the material they use and consider the purposes for which it was originally created."

  • In what ways do you teach and encourage metacognitive thinking in your school?
  • What kind of professional development would the staff at your school need to help them de-centre their practice?
  • How could you make learning to learn a greater focus in your school context?

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Assessment for learning in practice
The Assessment site has a wealth of information and resources examining the inter-related capabilities deemed crucial for making a difference to student learning. Use the powerpoint to guide staff discussions, and choose an element to examine more deeply.


I guess the thing about having a focus on learning to learn, is that it raises the level of what a teacher has to do. Because no longer is the teacher able to be the person that’s got all the knowledge, and just giving the knowledge out - they need to be able to stand back and enable the kids to have some reflections on what they’re doing. 

So I think the focus on learning to learn, what we’ve found, has de centred the teachers a little bit. Because they need to be able to stand back so that kids can have the opportunity to develop those capacities to be able to say, “What am I doing?” And if you keep giving the answers to the kids round that, then they don’t have the space to learn those things for themselves. So, no longer is the teacher the person who has got all the answers, or all the knowledge - they have to be someone who is an expert, I guess, on pedagogy and be able to stand back and allow the students to develop those reflective skills. 

In a secondary school you’ve got a vast range of ages - I mean that’s the same in primary schools as well, but the development of learning from year nine to year thirteen there’s quite sophisticated leaps that kids have to take. And of course we’ve got the extra pressures of external assessment in the senior school, and then we’ve got all the subject divisions. So what’s really important is that teachers work out what these things look like in their subjects. So it’s not necessarily about having a generic approach and learning to learn looking the same in every class. It’s actually about saying what does learning to learn look like in this discipline? In this area that we’re looking at. 

I guess there’s different ways that you can look at professional learning. There is the usual, whole staff, professional sessions which can be really good for introducing big ideas. For introducing initiatives to whole staff. But we’ve found that as well as the ‘gate’ if you like, (everyone being fenced in) being a good model - we’ve also found ‘the well’ as being a good model for attracting people in. We’ve a group here called wine and pedagogy. And we put on wine for the group of staff that come, and we talk about pedagogy, and we support each other in developing our teaching and learning - the teaching that we do around key ideas.  

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to win a fellowship, and visited some schools in the UK. One thing that really struck me about this handful of schools that I went to was that they had a very distinct focus on learning to learn. A really explicit focus, at the real forefront of their curriculum. So when I came back I decided - thought with the group - that that would be a really great focus for us. So we looked at learning to learn and assessment - particularly assessment for learning. Out of that we came up with some ideas about what that might look like in our own classes, and we each did little action research projects, then we reported back. So we’ve found that community of activist teachers in a range of subjects that are prepared to try things - we’ve found that the wine and pedagogy group has been a way of bringing those people together and helping us talk about those issues and do things in our classes. 

We’ve developed things like school wide approaches to inquiry. We also got a learning wall in our school which maps the year nine and ten learning, which allows us to say well what learning is happening at certain times in certain subjects and could we work together in order to bring about - in terms of focussing on student learning. So maybe if you’re doing a graph in social studies you could do it at the same time as you’re doing graphing in mathematics. So that those things can have a context. That breaking down of subject barriers is a really important part of learning to learn as well. As teachers we think ‘subject’ but as students they move between different subjects. If we can develop the capacity of students learning to learn in one subject and they can take that with them to another learning area then that’s helping develop all their learning. And of course the vast majority of the learning that students do is not in class. That’s why learning to learn is so important because if they don’t develop those skills and have that opportunity to develop those learning to learn skills, then what we’ll find is that those students aren’t self starters, and therefore when the structures of the school aren’t round them they’re not going to be able to continue to be lifelong learners.

So although learning to learn might look different in different subject areas, they key thing is that the teachers have got - are able to prioritise learning to learn. The curriculum demands that of us through the principles of the curriculum. When you have a focus on learning to learn you find that many of the key competencies come to the fore of the programmes especially for students in managing themselves.   

Published on: 28 Feb 2013