Reflections on ‘learning to learn’

In a recent post on this blog, I set out my thoughts on how I think our education system has to change to cope with a future where increasing automation will change and, in many cases take-over, current jobs. In that piece, I made the point that we don’t know what we will need to know. Therefore, it is more important to teach people how to learn than to impart specific information.

I have spent my career in computing. As a discipline, it has gone through wave after wave of changes since I wrote my first program in 1970. Consequently, I have been and am still involved in a continuous learning process. I like to think that I have ‘learned to learn’ and I have been reflecting recently on what this means and how I now approach the issue of learning something new.

My first experience of learning to learn came about when I changed discipline from physics to computer science. I was fortunate after graduating to attend a project-based MSc conversion course in St Andrews rather than the more common topic/exam-based courses. The department that I worked in was small and MSc and PhD students and staff intermingled and had time to chat.

My initial impression there was that I had no idea what people were talking about. However, I now realise that by simply sitting listening to conversations about programming languages, compilers and operating systems I was becoming attuned to the area, learning vocabulary and working out who was an expert at what.

When you are learning about a new area, I think that this process of familiarisation so that you are comfortable about what words mean and what the area is and isn’t is important. It isn’t about specific knowledge but more about feeling comfortable to seek out that specific knowledge from some other sources.

Nowadays, this familiarisation process is easier than it used to be and you don’t have to be lucky enough to work in a friendly environment as I did. What you need is information fragments that you can assimilate and, luckily, there are now web pages, videos and blogs that present enough information for you to get a general feel for what an area is about.

Motivation is another key issue in learning to learn. Our general approach to secondary and university education has been that ‘experts’ decide what is worth knowing and deliver this to ‘learners’. These learners often have no idea why they are learning something. For the vast majority of information delivered this way, it is retained for as long as it seems useful (i.e. to pass the exam) then is almost instantly forgotten.

For me, I now only learn something when I see the point of doing so. I’ve been learning recently about the science underlying cooking because there are certain dishes that I think I will cook better if I have this understanding. This helps make the motivation concrete as I can test what I’m learning. This again, seems to me to be important; I don’t want other people to test me using their parameters, I want to be able to test myself.

I find it quite hard to articulate what, for me, is the next essential element to learning to learn. The best description that I can think of is ‘consequence-free mucking around’. It’s not experimentation as that implies a more coherent and structured process. Young children do this all the time and they are, by far, the best learners. For adults, it means learning in an environment where time pressures do not predominate and where there are no adverse consequences to getting things wrong. If you are learning about technology, it’s about working in a transparent environment where you can see the results of what you are doing, even if these are not the ones that you want.

The final element that has been important to me in learning to learn is external support. We will always come across barriers – things we don’t understand or, especially in computing, technologies that don’t work as we expect. One way of getting this external support is by talking to an expert who can help you solve your problem. However, unless they are attuned to learning, they will probably tell you the answer without telling you where you are going wrong.

Discussing a problem with peers who have encountered the same problem is a more effective learning technique than simply asking an expert to fix things. We are now fortunate that the web and social media makes this so much easier than it used to be and, in almost all areas, you can find people who have comparable problems and discuss how they addressed these problems.

However, I must admit there are some technology problems where rational thought and analysis are unlikely ever to lead to the solution and the best way is simply to ask an expert so that you can get on with something more interesting.

So, for me as a learner, the essential elements are:
1. Familiarisation
2. Motivation
3. Mucking around
4. Support

I certainly can’t claim that this is all there is to learning to learn but I think these are fairly general requirements. I’ll discuss how these might translate to a more formal educational environment in a future post.

I read around the area of learning to learn before writing this post and I anticipated that I would simply be restating what is common knowledge in the field. Most articles emphasised the importance of reflection in learning but the authors of these articles never seemed to back this up with examples where they reflected on their own learning. So, there was a good deal less common knowledge than I expected (although I accept that it could be that my learning about learning to learn was deficient).

I also learned that you should not waste time reading articles or tutorials on learning to learn (such as this one from the Open University). These are not about learning to learn but about learning how to do their courses which is not at all the same thing.

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