Do children need ‘learning to learn’?

The promotion of learning styles over knowledge is a recipe for ignorance

Toby Marshall

Topics Politics

Contemporary educational thinking is obsessed with the question of method. Hardly a month goes by without weary teachers being exhorted to adopt another brain-based, evidence-informed or student-sensitive technique. At the same time, the once privileged position of knowledge, and by extension the teacher, is being questioned. To raise standards in the future, it is said that the student and his learning must take centre stage.

One proposal that neatly encapsulates the elevation of method and diminution of content is the idea that schools should teach pupils how to learn. Advocates of the ‘learning to learn’ agenda have been warmly received within policy circles. Schools minister David Miliband has referenced the idea in a number of key speeches (1), and reports commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (2) and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) (3) have addressed the notion. Techniques associated with learning to learn have also been piloted in schools (4).

The learning to learn agenda can be broken down into two core propositions and one proposal. Proposition one states that the world in which we live is changing with such rapidity as to render traditional canons of knowledge redundant. Following from this, proposition two asserts that teaching that aims to transmit knowledge will fail to equip pupils for the world in which we live. Finally, the supporters of learning to learn propose that schools should adopt teaching techniques that encourage students to focus on their own learning. By doing so, they will develop the skills and attitudes required to adapt to an uncertain future.

If we address these points in reverse order, we will see that there are a number of reasons why educationalists might want to question this agenda.

A vast array of teaching techniques has been included under the banner of learning to learn. These include generic approaches to marking student work and providing them with structured feedback, as well as teaching methods which claim to be based on neuroscience. Strategies that attempt to modify directly students’ The promotion of learning styles over knowledge is a recipe for ignoranceattitudes towards learning, as well as methods of organising classroom activities using real-life problems and extended projects, have also featured.

Some of the approaches are quite sensible. In terms of assessment it is right, for example, that teachers should explain their grading and provide pupils with a sense of how their work might be improved. Equally, practitioners must take care that the messages they transmit, both formally and informally, do not encourage the less able to reach the conclusion that they are incapable of development.

But while some of these approaches have been tested with impressive results (5), a recent report produced for the DfES (6) makes it clear that there is nothing close to a unified, commonly accepted definition of learning to learn. Rather, there exists a miscellaneous set of attributes and approaches that have been grouped together on the arguably tenuous basis that they all encourage pupils to consider the how, as opposed to the what, of learning. A concept this baggy is unlikely to make for clear curriculum development.

While the overall coherence of the notion of learning to learn might be questioned, it is possible that it could become more focused and refined through the process of implementation and evaluation. This project would have a sound footing if the rest of the learning to learn agenda were valid. So is it true that existing forms of teaching ill-equip pupils for the future? And is the world in which we live changing so fast as to call into question the position of received knowledge?

The advocates of learning to learn evidently take a rather dim view of forms of schooling in which the teacher and their subject-knowledge have been the organising principle. The suggestion that teachers should address how students learn implies that this has not been a concern in the past. Some advocates of learning to learn seem to believe that many teachers exhibit a rather self-indulgent preoccupation with their own knowledge. Others argue that the dialogue between teachers and students has been frustrated by the lack of a commonly held educational vocabulary.

Certainly, there is some truth to the claim that our ability to make explicit the process of learning has been encumbered by the collective ignorance of educational ideas. But the suggestion that teachers have been so fixated with their knowledge as to have shown little regard for their pupils’ learning is little more than a stereotype. This might describe ineffective teachers, but the effective delivery of subjects necessarily draws teachers into a discussion of the means of education, be that study skills, revision techniques, or the procedures that are specific to their discipline. In doing so, teachers involve their pupils in a discourse about their learning, even if they haven’t dubbed it learning to learn.

This leaves us with the final component of the learning to learn agenda: the notion that rapid change is making received knowledge redundant. Advocates of learning to learn concede that some rudimentary areas of knowledge should still be taught, such as the practical elements of maths and English. And they acknowledge that most students only learn about their learning in response to significant content, even if it’s of little practical or lasting value. But no purpose is served, they conclude, by compelling students to engage with more challenging areas of the curriculum, such as Shakespeare, if this results in them developing negative attitudes towards learning in general.

I would suggest that advocates of learning to learn have got it wrong on both counts. If we accept the growing rapidity of social change – which is unlikely given the parlous state of contemporary politics – then knowledge in fact becomes more, not less, important. In a period of flux it may be true that past ideas provide no easy solutions to the problems of the present, but they enable one to frame these problems in their specificity. In contrast, ignorance leaves one lacking the perspective required to differentiate between problems that are old and resolved and those that are really new and require innovative thinking.

And while the proponents of learning to learn are right to suggest that many students find the more advanced areas of the curriculum remote and unforgiving, they are wrong to argue that we should organise on this basis. The fact that many students experience aspects of the curriculum in this way is a sad testimony to their diminished conception of themselves and the failure of the schooling they have experienced. Our response should be to make a more compelling case for knowledge and general education. And to make this case convincing, we need to do more than appeal to the past or to the notion of eternal truths (7).

Toby Marshall is a lecturer in further education. He is chairing a debate on ‘The Learning Styles Controversy’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in London, 29-30 October 2005.

(1) See Miliband’s speech at the National College for School Leadership

(2) Available from Demos

(3) Learning to learn, by Guy Claxton

(4) Leading in Learning: developing thinking skills at Key Stage 3, DfES

(5) ‘Inside the black box’ by Paul Black and Dylan William

(6) Available from Demos

(7) See speeches by the Prince of Wales

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Topics Politics


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