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Michael Absolum: What is learning to learn?

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Michael Absolum explores the New Zealand Curriculum principle learning to learn.

Professional learning conversations

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

In this interview, Michael Absolum states that:

"If a student knows how to learn then the role of the teacher must change from teaching, to one where the teacher leads the learning, to one where it is a matter of engineering an effective learning environment that supports students to learn."

Consider this statement in your own school context. As a school, where are you at now? How could you get to a place where your school environment was effectively supporting independent learning behaviours? 

Have you seen?

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


Learning to learn is a bigger challenge for us than we might think. Learning to learn is a term that's easy to say and sounds like an obviously good thing. But actually it’s not a concept that most people over the age of 20 really understand because they’ve come through a compulsory education system that’s not encouraged the sort of learning that happens when students have really learnt how to learn.

As adult educators we think we understand that term because each of the words has meaning for us. Learning. To. Learn. But the implications for teaching a class full of students who have really learnt to learn can be profound. If a student knows how to learn then the role of the teacher must change from teaching, to one where the teacher leads the learning, to one where it is a matter of engineering an effective learning environment that supports students to learn. 

So this is what it might look like if students really have learnt to learn. There’s a number of things that you would notice. The first is a sense of self-confidence, of self-efficacy. They exude a sense that they can learn, that they’re going to learn, that they know how to learn. That they’re in control of their own learning. They’d be able to very easily tell you what they’re learning, why they’re learning it, what the relevance of that learning is.They’d be able to tell you where they’ve got to with their learning, where they are going to go next. So they see themselves in partnership with the teacher and with their peers in the classroom. So there’ll be lots of checking in and renegotiating of what was to be learnt when and how. Students opting in and out of teaching sessions depending on whether they felt that that session was pertinent to their learning. Whether they could better learn from accessing some other resource. Students setting and monitoring their own goals of course. That’s what they’d do if you’re an active learner, if you’re a self-regulating learner. And of course students accessing their own assessment data. If you’re really in charge of your own learning then you do know where you’re at at any one point in time. You’re carrying out your own self assessment. It’s a vital part, essential part of being on top of your own learning. 

So a self-regulating learner is going to have high expectations of the learning environment. They’re going to actually be a demanding learner. They’d expect that the environment would allow them to exercise agency as a learner. To be able to access information and resources that would support their learning when they needed to support their learning, not when it’s convenient for the teacher or anybody else. They’re unlikely to view a classroom in which the desks are set out in rows with students sitting individually as these days in any way relevant to the way in which they’d like to learn. Because the desks in rows really restrict your opportunity to access other resources that you may want. So they wouldn’t expect to see the teacher delivering lengthy lessons from the front. They’d expect the teacher to explain concepts, to maybe at times the whole class, to maybe at times small group or individuals and they would expect to be able to opt in or opt out of that depending on its relevance to them. 

I was in a school, in a large variable space classroom last week and talking with a year six student about some work that he was doing. Talking with him about, he was talking about the contrast between this school, that he’s just been at this year and his previous schools. And he said, “What I love about this school is it’s so collaborative. In my previous school we were put into groups and there was an expectation that we would work together. And I agree with that because five minds is better than one. But here you’ve got choice about who you collaborate with - that’s very important to me.”

In the background you can sense the relationship that he has with his teachers in a variable space (more than one) and that he’s absolutely focused on learning. Learning in the collaborative co-constructive way. With his peers as well as the teacher. So there’s no sense in which the control is an issue. It’s just working together and that the school offering him that opportunity to be collaborative is something that he’s grabbed hold of and really loves.   

Published on: 08 Aug 2012