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Is Your Child Learning to Learn?

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Lifelong Learning has Replaced Knowledge is Power

The requirements of an education have changed drastically in the last 20 years. Up to the 1990’s it was all about facts and methods, knowledge.  In those days, knowledge was power. Being armed facts and good math skills made you career-ready.  Knowledge was not at people’s fingertips and companies were run like the army — decision makers at the top, everyone else did training that lasted years.

That has all changed.

Knowledge is no longer power. It is ubiquitous, freely accessible to everybody everywhere.  Companies are pushing decision making further down the organization. Working from home is becoming more common. Start-up and small business growth has never been stronger.  And the world is in a state of constant change.

Now, it’s how you apply and advance knowledge that makes the difference.

Rather than memorizing facts (which is not learning) and methods, the ultimate career skill is to be an independent, self-directed learner capable of learning quickly, deeply and then creatively on the job, i.e., an enthusiastic lifelong learner. Curiosity and creativity — always looking for better, faster, cheaper — are the new mantras. Employers want employees who are always reinventing themselves, independent learners who never get tired of trying new things, not burned out or jaded learners who would are used to a limited set of facts and do a good job choosing from one of four options.

While this sea-change has been incorporated into education systems around the world, the good ship America is a hard one to turn. But it is happening now. The Common Core has introduced applied thinking, critical thinking and using subject material to develop “read to learn” and “learn how to learn” skills. While the Common Core seems to be losing traction, its ideas are probably here to stay, we hope. States are likely to take at least some of this new thinking on education and incorporate it into their standards.

The Role of “Read to Learn” in Learning to Learn

Learning to learn is all about figuring out how to find information, filter it, understand it deeply (by putting it in context and connecting it to prior knowledge) and then to apply or manipulate that knowledge, e.g., think critically, creatively or laterally.

Learning to learn is also about metacognition, being able to think about what you reading or listening to and self-correct and being a self-directed learner.  It’s fun once you have these learning skills mastered, and it’s at the core of a lifelong learning habit.

Of course, if your child is not good at learning, he will avoid learning to learn. At the heart of a dislike of learning in most cases is a dislike of reading.  The Common Core and other curriculum standards are heavily focused on “read to learn” early on.  They are pressing children to be good readers early, so that they can practice these other learning skills.

If your child is struggling with reading, learning to learn is going to be a painful process.  The difficulty with reading gets in the way of all of these other steps.  It used to be parents could wait until 4th or 5th grade to see if their child’s reading improved, but these new standards are raising the stakes and bringing “read to learn” into 4th grade at the latest.  If your child is not reading with automaticity, i.e., if he cannot decode fluently and accurately by the end of second grade, you should seek reading help such as is provided by Gemm Learning.

Expert Test Takers Need Not Apply

Very often it seems that schools are focused on the opposite of learning to learn. The grind and pressure of endless tests not only places value on memorize-test-forget-repeat (expert test-taker or professional student-hood), it also killing a love of learning. It crowds out time for curiosity and creativity and for helping students find their passion.

In our knowledge economy — where growth is dependent on the quantity, quality, and accessibility of information — children need to be able to find, filter and apply knowledge.

Time spent being
(1) lectured by the teacher (rather than researching) on
(2) curriculum that is an inch deep and a mile wide (no chance for deep understanding) with
(3) multiple-choice tests (were they ever a good idea?) every 2-3 weeks
is downright counter-productive.

This is not learning to learn. This is learning how to be an expert test-taker, a professional student, who knows how to pass tests and get good grades, nothing more.

In more progressive education systems outside the USA, learning to learn looks like this: students (1) conduct their own research and knowledge filtering to encourage curiosity and resourcefulness (rather than being spoon fed) on (2) a sparse curriculum that allows students to develop deep understanding (rather than a this-is-Tuesday-this-must-be-India curriculum), with (3) assignments that value creativity and critical thinking and show learning independence (rather than assignments that prove the student understands what the teacher spoon-fed).

Knowledge-filled professional students, the ones who can sit in class, take in screeds of facts and then accurately regurgitate these facts in a test are not in demand anymore. Employers have Google for that.

Sadly, this educational outcome (professional student-hood) describes what goes on in most schools across the US. Students receive lots of direct instruction on an inch deep, mile wide curriculum driven by the need for measurable test results, but get very little chance to practice deep understanding — connecting knowledge to prior understanding, putting in context, etc. — or critical thinking, let alone experience the joy of learning.

Employers need enthusiastic learners, but many arrive in the workforce burned out from the professional student experience. Furthermore, because of all the direct instruction at school and the parent homework help at home, they lack the capacity to think independently.

There may be even a negative correlation between good grades and career-ready. Good grades may indicate a good professional student and/or a good school of professional students who spend a lot of time focused on passing tests, indicating less time spent on curiosity, creativity, resourcefulness, deep understanding and critical thinking.

Knowledge Force Feeding Starts in Early Childhood

Slate recently reported two new studies that show the dangers of direct instruction for preschool children.

The projects consisted of two scenarios in which children were given a toy — one group was simply given the toy to play with, the other group was given instructions on how to use it, like a teacher would.  The findings of both studies showed that the group that were not given direct instruction ended up learning more about what the toy could do.

These and other studies raise concerns about the over-use of direct instruction in US schools.  No doubt direct instruction is a quicker way to download knowledge and in over-stuffed curriculum of most US schools, direct instruction is a necessity — there is no time to allow for researching, reflection or thinking.

There is no doubt however, that direct instruction is limiting particularly given the growing importance of a love of learning, curiosity and creativity as educational outcomes.

Helping Your Child Learning How To Learn

One obvious place a parent can help focus on learning to learn and love of learning is with homework. But actually, this requires careful treading. Children need to do their own thinking, to make their own mistakes, to go off track driven by curiosity or creative urges that parents see as unproductive.

If the homework is busy work, that’s one thing — the argument there would be to reduce the tedium associated with this kind of homework as much as possible.  However, if the homework requires research or creative thinking, parents are advised to steer clear, in particular to resist “researching” and “creating.”  Your child, and his first employer, will thank you later.

Ultimately, the best way a parent can help a child become a good learner is to make sure they are learning ready, i.e., that they have mastered reading, listening and attention, so that they are able to engage in the higher-order thinking that learning to learn requires. If reading skills in particular are not mastered, they will become a distraction and will hold your child back in learning how to learn. This is where Gemm Learning can help.

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