Learning to learn is crucial for success in our complex, unpredictable and data-drenched world.
This new book from members of the Learning Emergence Network explores learning to learn from theory and practice around the world. See our people pages for many of the authors.
Learning to learn is both a process and an outcome of formal education, along with other trans-disciplinary and life-wide competences. It goes deep into pedagogy and practice and is influenced by culture and context. As an outcome, it is a competence we aspire to measure and celebrate.
Learning how to learn is a crucial competence for human flourishing in 21st century conditions of risk and uncertainty. It is one of eight key competencies identified by the European Union as a key goal within the Lisbon and the 2020 strategies (European Council 2006). The European Union maintains a keen interest in this topic as demonstrated by the European network of policy makers and several working groups on key competencies, including the creation of the European Network on Learning to Learn (Hoskins & Fredriksson, 2008). Internationally, learning to learn is emerging as a focus for school improvement and as a foundation for lifelong and lifewide learning. UNESCO includes approaches to learning as a key domain which should be an entitlement for all children, and one which needs to be assessed.
There is a real need for serious debate about the term ‘learning to learn’ which is frequently used in different ways and in different contexts without clear definition. Often it is used within a conceptually narrow framework, limited to “measurable” study strategies and learning styles (OECD 2009) for which there is little evidence of success. There is an urgent need for a research validated foundation for learning to learn and what constitutes it.
Practitioners, university lecturers, teachers and schools around the world are interested in their students becoming able to take responsibility for their own learning and achievement – and for this they need to learn how to learn. Existing funds of knowledge are all ‘out there on the internet’ and what matters is how individuals and teams make sense out of and utilise the mass of information which bombards them every day. Dialogue between research and practice is crucial to underpin this movement, generating a discipline of research-informed practice which frames and informs both commercial and policy interests. In the absence of a ‘pensee unique’ the global community of scholarship in education provides an important voice which should make a healthy, collaborative contribution to the formation of policy and practice.
Assessment of competence in learning to learn is a critically important policy ideal – one which the European Union embraced and embarked upon with Learning to Learn working group. After some serious effort we came to the conclusion that there are so many different approaches to learning to learn from across the EU, that it was impossible in 2007 to arrive at a consensus in its measurement. Before we can ever effectively assess something we need to know exactly what it is we are measuring – as a matter of professional ethics. We also need to know what measurement models are most suitable and what is the purpose of the assessment before we develop our assessment technologies. This book was conceived by people who participated in that EU project and, we hope, in an important way it keeps the dialogue alive.
Complexity and Learning to Learn
Learning to learn is a complex process rather than either a simple or even a complicated one. Demetriou’s chapter explores an architecture of mind that incorporates four inter-related systems all of which may be relevant to learning to learn. Each contributor proposes a complex mix of processes that coalesce into learning to learn – including affective, cognitive and dispositional factors. All agree that learning to learn is about the promotion of self-directed learning, the cultivation of intrinsic motivation for learning and the development of intentional agency on the part of the learner. All agree that contextual factors – such as pedagogy, assessment regimes, quality of relationships and socio-cultural factors – together interact and influence the ability of an individual to learn how to learn and to become an agent in their own learning journey. Learning to learn is messy and complex.
The implications of this complexity are enormous. As Edgar Morin argues (and Jung before him), Western thought has been dominated by the principles of disjunction, reduction and abstraction. Engaging with learning to learn as a complex process requires a paradigm of distinction-conjunction, so that we can distinguish without disjoining and associate without identifying or reducing. In short we need to develop new and more holistic ways of understanding, facilitating and enabling learning to learn in our education communities, so that we can hold in tension the inner personal aspects of agency, purpose and desire and dispositions and the more measurable external and public manifestations of learning and performance and collaboration with others in learning to learn. We need measurement models that can account for quality of trust as a core resource, and story as a vehicle for agency as well as the more traditional and familiar measures of performance and problem solving.
Becoming self-organising agents in our own lives
If learning to learn is about human beings becoming self-organising agents of their own lives, as our contributors suggest, then it is clear that ‘top down’, transmission oriented approaches to learning, teaching and school improvement are no longer enough. The challenge is how to create the conditions in which individual students are able to take responsibility for their own learning over time. By definition, this cannot be done for them. It has to be by invitation, allowing learning to learn to emerge and fuel agency and purpose.
The establishment of the framework for international comparison of educational achievement provided by the OECD through the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the means for regularly compiling the data is a considerable achievement. It has provided an evidence base for Governments to inform domestic educational policy and against which to allocate priorities. What this data set is less effective at revealing are the reasons behind international and regional difference: we still understand too little about what drives these broad numbers. Furthermore the numbers continue to reveal deep, intractable challenges in education such as embedded disadvantage linked to geography, economics and ethnicity.
There is a pressing need to assemble an internationally comparable set of data which can better inform our understanding of factors such as learning how to learn and how this varies within and between different contexts. The academic and theoretical work that has been undertaken on these issues to date, while rich and deep, has focused on aspects of the problem, often failing to cross disciplinary boundaries. The real world challenge of educational improvement, meanwhile, is relentlessly trans-disciplinary, involving a complex interplay between social, institutional and individual factors. It presents a challenge both to theory and practice. The PISA data by comparison achieves comparability through the use of widely available proxy indicators but lacks the depth and resolution needed to provide an understanding of the mechanisms driving the patterns it surfaces.
What is also clear from this volume is the value of different cultures in the debate about learning to learn. Two chapters are written explicitly from an Eastern perspective – demonstrating how Confucian philosophy can enrich our understanding of learning to learn and challenging some deeply held Western assumptions. We have contributions from Australia, New Zealand, Finland, UK, Spain, Austria, China, Italy and the USA and uniquely, a set of case studies from learning to learn projects in remote Indigenous communities where the cultural differences are enormous. This is a ‘brolga’ a community metaphor for creativity for children in Daly River School, in Northern Territory.
However comprehensive, this volume does not address a number of research and practice themes or leaves unanswered questions for further research. Among these, perhaps the most relevant is the road towards the assessment of learning to learn which is a daunting endeavour – although it provides a foundation for this through its contribution in exploring what it is that should be assessed in learning to learn and why. Other open questions concern the deployment of learning to learn in school improvement; in the training of trainers, educators and educational leaders; in personal development and empowerment. The connection of learning to learn with other key competencies, such as active citizenship and entrepreneurship, also requires further study.
This book draws on a rich, global tradition of research and practice. It is written by researchers and practitioners who care deeply about education and about learning how to learn in particular. Our purpose is to generate debate, to link learning communities and to make a contribution to the ways in which societies worldwide are seeking to re-imagine their education systems. Our hope is that learning to learn will soon find a consistent place in educational policies worldwide.