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Learning to learn in English

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Thorsten Harms from Wellington College discusses some of the strategies he uses in his English classes to help students to learn how to learn. These include accessing prior knowledge, feed forward, and emphasising the 'how' of learning - strategies other teachers can easily adapt. Along the way, he teaches students that it is the process of learning, the journey, that is more important than the end result.

Professional learning conversations

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

Learning classrooms are classrooms where:

  • all students are able and motivated to self-assess and manage their own learning
  • individual learning pathways for students respect and support their differences and motivations
  • increased student achievement outcomes are linked to improved assessment for learning practices
  • teachers use a variety of assessment activities and rich assessment information to affirm learning and provide direction for future learning
  • teachers reflect on their own practice and increase their assessment capability to support student learning.

Ministry of Education Position Paper: Assessment (2011)

  • Reflect on the Ministry position paper and the film - how does Thorsten Harms create a learning classroom? How could you use these strategies successfully in your own learning context?
  • What kinds of metacognitive approaches are you using in your classroom?
  • How do you make time to be able to have explicit learning conversations with your students?

Have you seen?

Teacher and student reading.

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


The students generally want to get from A to B as quickly as possible. So it’s about results, it’s about the end result. Quite often that is in a summative assessment. I want to get an excellence, I want to get an A. What I’m trying to reinforce though is that the learning is not in the excellence - the learning is in the process to get there. That it is the process, the journey that is important.

One of the strategies that I do with any new unit (whether it’s reading a novel, or reading a poem) it’s at that stage of pre-reading, prior knowledge stage where you ask those questions about what do you actually already know? So they actually don’t go straight into a poem they actually think back and say this is a poem about a war experience, or we did a poem about the role of women. So I give them that topic and I say okay what do you actually know already? The second stage is okay now that you’ve assessed your own prior knowledge, now you write down what aspects of that topic you actually want to find out. It’s the kind of what you call KWL chart. Which is nothing new but it’s a way of actually bringing to surface a more, dare I say, metacognitive approach to it. The students are not directed to the what do I need to learn? But actually how do I need to learn? What is the process here? They then go back and say OK this is what I knew, this is what I wanted to find out, and this is what I actually found out. So retrospectively the students are encouraged as individuals to charter back the journey of that learning process. Some students do that anyway so there are about maybe three to five per cent of the student population who are actually doing it because they’ve been modeled to do that quite early on. They are quite future focused. But the bulk of us, I think, are sort of living in the present. They just want to do that, and they want to do it well, and then they move on to the next bit. So it is about connecting the dots, it’s about feedforward, or thinking forward from a student point of view. And at the same time having enough data locked in so that they can actually retrace their steps. By doing so, hopefully the idea is that they can then say - hey that worked really well for me. That didn’t work at all. Then ask the important question: Why?

I know this is effective because the students tell me so. At that point when a student can, with confidence, and with evidence talk, about their own learning I know I did a good job.      

I mentioned before that it’s both a collective exercise in that I give them task and I all ask them to do a thinking about their learning prior to the task, during the task, and after the task. But of course also dealing with individuals. On that level if I go round and say OK did that work for you? Did this exercise work for you? Yes, great. Why? No? OK, why not? I open up a dialogue, and it’s within that dialogue where the kind of metacognitive approach of a student happens. Where they actually say hey I did this really well because I could connect it to something I’ve learned beforehand in a different discipline, or something I experienced outside the classroom, outside the school environment. They can bring these experiences in.

Published on: 09 May 2013