In this information-rich and fast moving world, learning about how to learn is an increasingly important capacity, one which should be every young person’s right. Knowledge alone is no longer the reliable source of advantage it once was: it must now be partnered by the development and application of an enhanced learning capacity or power — the ability to be selective, to make sense of what we learn, to apply it and to share it, throughout our lives.
But rather than preparing young people to be life-long learners, research has shown that the longer students stay in school the more dependent they become on teaching, on being told what to do. In Successful Futures Wales has developed a new forward-looking curriculum that aims to change all that.
The roots of new learning in Wales
Successful Futures aims to develop a set of valuable learning habits that are seen as essential for learning, life, work and citizenship. This has implications not only for ‘what’ is taught and learned but, more importantly ‘how’ it is taught and learned in a way that enriches students’ views of, and capacity for, learning.
Beneath the bold headline outcomes of Successful Futures lie the key, almost hidden, roots of this new curriculum. Here you’ll find words and phrases such as resilience, perseverance, making connections, play different team roles, use evidence, face and overcome challenge, manage risk, develop empathy. These are the descriptors of learning-how-to-learn capacities that go well beyond the idea of study skills and into the realms of what are known as learning powers, or learning capacities. They are the character traits of learning.
In other words making Successful Futures successful will rely on paying attention to and developing students’ learning capacities; firing up their learning energy, building their disposition or propensity for change; growing and ultimately developing those learning capacities into habits that will direct their willingness and capacity to learn throughout their lives.
Which learning capacities?
It’s easy to come across lists of learning capacities — or you might even make up your own! But there are some learning capacities that are particularly appropriate for 21st century learners. Building Learning Power, is an approach based on the learning sciences. It is dedicated to developing learning habits, that schools and teachers could profitably use to deliver the Successful Futures promise. Built around a constellation of learning capacities that first emerged from research at Bristol University, it puts at the heart of education the development of the psychological characteristics that are judged to be of the highest value in young people growing up in a turbulent and increasingly complex world.
The emergent powerful learners develop skills in monitoring and reviewing their learning, they pay attention to the diversity of practices that can be effective for learning more thoroughly, and become self-regulating, meta-cognitive learners.
From learning capacities to learning habits
Let’s explore the idea through just one crucial learning capacity, that of ‘questioning’.
Asking questions is partly a matter of skill, for sure. You have to know how to formulate good questions, and how to tell a scientific question from a religious one. But ‘being questioning’ is also a matter of inclination, of self-confidence, of a sense of occasion, and of entitlement. It is not much use being able to ask good questions if in practice you are very easily deflected from doing so. Asking questions makes you vulnerable: it might be a stupid question, or one that everyone else knows the answer to. The capacity to learn depends, in part, on being willing to run that risk, and to do so you need a sense of entitlement: the belief that you have a right to be curious, to ask questions, to discuss, to imagine how things could be different. Some students don’t feel that they do have that right.
So expanding the capacity to learn means creating a climate in which that feeling of enfranchisement and entitlement is systematically broadened and strengthened — not weakened, undermined or simply ignored. In such a climate, students’ questions are welcomed, discussed and refined, so the disposition to question becomes more and more robust; more and more evident across different domains; and more and more sophisticated. If you used only to ask questions with a teacher you liked, or only in English, but now you ask questions with more teachers in more subjects — and also when you are watching the television or talking with friends — you have expanded your capacity to learn. If schools are serious about helping young people get ready for a learning life, they have to think not only about what the skills of learning are, but about how, deliberately and methodically, to help them become stronger, broader and richer.
When people think only in terms of teaching skills or competencies, and neglect the need to cultivate dispositions, then they are probably doomed to disappointing results. They may be able to coach someone to display ‘communication skills’, or ‘the ability to collaborate’ under some conditions, but without the extra attention to coaxing the development of ‘ready’ and ‘willing’, they will probably find that any apparent gains fail to last, spread or deepen. And the idea that you can tick a list of boxes labelled ‘Can work well with others’ or ‘Understands the consequences of her actions’ is naïve. The mind is not built like that. Relevance and robustness have to be learned. And it is therefore the job of education not to assume that learning will take place, but to do everything possible deliberately to help it to do so.