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Guy Claxton: Learning to learn

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Guy Claxton explains that learning to learn is a deep seated attitude to your own mind. He explores the difference between expecting that our ability to learn is fixed, rather than being able to grow our capacity to learn.

Professional learning conversations

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

"I think the crucial shift for teachers is to begin to get used to this idea that they are coaching the expansion of mental confidence and capacity. And that this is a possible thing and that this is something that is highly desirable."

Consider this statement in your own context. How could this crucial shift be made in the classrooms in your school?

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Learning to learn
This section draws together research, digital resources, and examples to support teachers as they consider the learning to learn principle. 


I think the essence of learning to learn, for me, is a deep-seated attitude to your own mind, in a way. It’s having believed and become interested in the expandability of your own capacities. Often in everyday language we either have a very crude language or we have a belief that you’re just kind of born, you know, ‘I’m lousy at Maths’ or ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I’m good at French’ or all that way of speaking implies fixity. Like, you know I’m just lucky or unlucky with the amount of mental ability and different kinds of mental abilities that they gave me.

But what’s now come to be called, I would prefer this terminology, what’s come to be called the emerging science of learnable intelligence, that’s David Perkins phrase, is really showing that there may be fixed limits, there may be some limits for each us which are different about how much we can expand our mental capacity and skillfulness. But those limits are set broadly. And within those, all of us - just like our physical limits - some people are never going to be able to run 100 metres in under 10 seconds - I’m certainly not - but that doesn’t mean I can’t run faster, I can’t expand my capacity to move swiftly through space, and exactly the same applies to our minds. And once you’ve got that idea then it becomes really interesting. How could I stretch my ability to think? How could I develop the craft of learning itself? And then that opens up a whole journey of personal development. Although sometimes that phrase gets associated with more psychotherapeutic approaches but this isn't about therapy this is about understanding the malleability of mind. The expandability of mind. And it’s that understanding I think that underpins the whole approach, as I take it, the whole approach to The New Zealand Curriculum. 

I think the crucial shift for teachers is to begin to get used to this idea that they are coaching the expansion of mental confidence and capacity. And that this is a possible thing and that this is something that is highly desirable. What that’s asking of teachers is not just to sprinkle a little bit of new something over what they do. A mindmap here, or a learning styles inventory over there. It’s actually asking them to do something a bit more difficult. But entirely possible. Which is to adjust their habits. And habit change is a different kind of learning from merely implementing an initiative or doing what you’re told like, ‘Oh now I've got to do it this way.’ Habit change is about realising that the way you’ve talked to your students has been encouraging an attitude of instrumental ‘I’ve got to get the right answer, I’ve got to get this task done’ the very way you’ve talked to them has been fostering that attitude and that you can talk differently. But learning to talk differently, to encourage kids to become more interested in difficulty, to think about where and how they could stretch themselves and that’s a good thing to be doing. That’s a habit change for teachers. And any kind of habit change needs understanding, needs commitment, needs support, needs time, needs exemplification, needs self-forgiveness because habit change is always a process of forgetting. One step back and two steps forward. That doesn’t mean ‘Oh forget it, I’m never going to be able to do it’ it means, that’s the process of habit change. And to help teachers understand the kind of learning which is being asked of them when we introduce something like a learning to learn philosophy or a key competencies curriculum, I think is really necessary. 

If people don’t have that understanding of the kind of learning they want to do then people get dispirited or over enthusiastic and then fed up that it’s not happening as quickly as they want it. So thinking about their own learning and becoming more inquisitive and experimental in their whole approach to teaching and learning I think is at the heart of what we’re asking teachers to do.       

Published on: 09 Aug 2012