Learn How – Not What – to Learn

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Recently I saw a T-shirt that read: “Another day has passed and I didn’t use Algebra once.” At first I chuckled, recognizing the truth of the statement. A joke? Sure. But think about it. How many times have we heard (or said) the phrase, “Why do I need to learn this? I’m never going to use it again!” We’ve all had the experience of learning something in school because it’s the next chapter of the textbook. This is generally still how school is structured.

However, research over the years shows that successful learning isn’t just about knowing content. History, math, science, reading – yes, important skills and information to know. Learning how to learn is the key though. Learning doesn’t end once school is done. Therefore, the goal of education should be preparing students for lifelong learning. Providing students with the skills to know how to learn – and, perhaps more importantly, how they learn best as individuals – is what will make them successful in the future.

Professor John Dunlosky wrote an article recently in American Educator about student learning strategies. He said, “Curricula are developed to highlight the content that teachers should teach, so the focus is on providing content and not on training students how to effectively acquire it….Nevertheless, teaching students how to learn is as important as teaching them content, because acquiring both the right learning strategies and background knowledge is important – if not essential – for promoting lifelong learning.” Dunlosky summed up what all educators should know.

The information is out there too; all it takes is a little digging. I came across a blog post by Annie Murphy Hall that I think highlights some very critical points with regard to the topic. She looks at ways that students can assess their awareness of learning with strategies like, “I draw pictures or diagrams to help me understand this subject” and “I discuss what I am doing in this subject with others.” Hall also provides questions that parents and teachers can ask to encourage students to know how to learn (“What will be important ideas in today’s lesson?” and “What can you relate this to?”). In addition, there are articles that provide teachers with various ideas and tools for guiding student learning. For example, this blog post about inquiry learning on Mind/Shift suggests using Inquiry Journals to help students reflect on content and their learning process, as well as Inquiry Logs where students keep track of their learning decisions and journey.

There are many educators and researchers who have written about this idea of learning how to learn and the need to incorporate it into teaching. It’s not a new idea, but, in many places, it seems that the theory hasn’t quite transitioned into practice. So, as educators, let’s consider what being lifelong learners means for us and for students. Ask yourself, “How do I learn best?” Take a few minutes to think about shifting the education focus from content to how to learn. Then, let’s make it happen.


Education Research and Journalism Fellow, Bon Education

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