• Guy Claxton

Learning to Learn: Alive, Well and Too Big to Brand

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

It is time to emphasise the generic commonalities that bind our kindred initiatives together, not brand apart.

Photo by Josh Calabrese

The idea of learning to learn – L2L – has had a chequered history, and accumulated many meanings. It first saw the light of day, according to James Mannion and Kate McAllister in their excellent book Fear is the Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn Deserves Lesson Time, and how to Make it Work for Your Pupils, in the 1960s when a giant of 20th century psychology, Jerome Bruner, edited an influential report called Learning about Learning. Since then L2L has come to be associated with a host of ideas and practices, including hints and tips on how to study, learning styles, brain gym and ‘teaching thinking’, none of which has stood the test of time, and many of which have been roundly discredited.

However, rumours of its death, as Mark Twain once remarked, have been greatly exaggerated. The field has both strengthened and deepened over the last twenty years or so, and it is now firmly established that yes, it is possible to help people – especially young people – to get better at learning. You can teach them mnemonics and other techniques to improve memory. You can encourage them to ask themselves questions - such as ‘What would someone who believed the opposite say about that?’ - that make their thinking more rigorous and critical. There are deliberate strategies for practising things like piano-playing or chess that reliably make learning more effective and long-lasting. And there are effective ways of challenging dysfunctional beliefs and mindsets that demonstrably help youngsters become more resilient in the face of difficulty.

All around the world, people have been coming up with slightly different vocabularies and frameworks for talking this more mature approach to L2L, but despite the differences these groups share 90% of their DNA. They include:

And there are many others that also share the view that schools can and should be teaching students to develop a broad capacity for critical, creative, sustained and independent thinking at the same time as they are mastering the content of the curriculum and performing well on conventional tests. L2L, for all of us, involves the creation of a particular culture of the classroom. The key realisation is that it’s how we teach that matters, not so much what we talk about. (Some explicit discussion about learning can be helpful, maybe with some displays as reminders, but the explicit markers of L2L are adjuncts; they don’t do the job by themselves).

I think the time has come to emphasise the generic commonalities that bind all these kindred initiatives together. There is enough evidence now to talk not of individual brands led by charismatic pioneers or commercialised by for-profit organisations, but of a general school of thought about teaching and learning that offers a coherent and persuasive approach to 21st century education. It has a philosophy (the purposes of education), a pedagogy (the climate and activities that fulfil those purposes), a curriculum (guidance about what content supports those aims), and assessment (how we tell if we are being successful). This is too important to ‘belong’ to any one individual or group – that’s why I no longer exclusively promote the brand with which I myself have been associated (Building Learning Power). It’s time to band together, not brand apart, and to proclaim a powerful alternative to the extremes of either traditional or progressive ideology.

To consolidate your understanding of learning to learn, I recommend these resources.

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