Skilled to learn

6th January 2012 at 00:00

The very idea that children should "learn to learn" can divide teachers. To some, it's the ultimate aim of education: to send pupils out into the world eager and equipped to find out more. They see it as the best way to light fires instead of fill buckets.

For other teachers, "learning to learn" is pure codswallop.

A debate about it on our website saw one teacher say it was as ridiculous a concept as "eating to eat". Another whose school had tried it described it as "complete nonsense based on a superficial understanding of metacognition devised by some tool with an MA in education", which was then packaged up and sold on to "gullible heads".

If such comments do not seem sufficiently weighty, one might instead turn to the more academic critique by Chris Winch, professor of educational philosophy and policy at King's College London. He writes that learning to learn is "vacuous" if it means we need to acquire a capacity to learn, "since we necessarily have this if we are to learn anything".

"If we needed to learn how to learn before we learned how to read, write and count, it is unlikely that we would get anywhere," he adds. "Abilities are specific - we cannot just be able, we must be able at something or other."

It is easy to be dismissive about learning to learn. It is also easy to be sceptical about some of the different approaches used to teach it, including Building Learning Power (BLP), the subject of this week's special report (pages 4-7). Cynical teenagers - and teachers - may respond with raised eyebrows to requests to explain how their learning demonstrates "resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness or reciprocity".

But the steady growth in popularity of BLP in schools shows teachers are finding benefits in it. Like many approaches in education, simply plonking it in the classroom will not work - to paraphrase Bananarama, it's not just what you do, it's the way that you do it.

And, yes, we may all be born ready to learn, just as we are ready to breathe or move. But we can learn skills to control our breathing, and move with athleticism and grace. The skills behind learning require attention, too.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

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