This is the title of a course I’ve just started on Coursera. We are in week 1 and I feel it is going to be interesting; we are on the right track. Education is all about learning, so it is most appropriate to start with a reflection on learning. Learning to learn is one of the 8 key competencies from the Lisbon treaty of 2010 and the challenge for European education.
Let’s start from how I learnt when I was in school. Definitely, I learnt in a traditional context. I must say I was quite a proficient and diligent learner; I could reproduce the content of my teachers and books quite faithfully; my scores were almost always top. Things changed somewhat in high school, when I started to learn philosophy as a school subject. I had a great teacher who stimulated our critical brain by asking us to contrast and compare different ideas and visions of the world. But this was just an episode. I gather later this type of learning helped me to become quite a successful freelance interpreter; I could memorize thousands of words and their correspondent in Italian and French, without knowing their meaning or having any insight into the domain to which they belonged.
Thanks to age and experience in various fields and mainly as a teacher I learnt other ways of learning. Now I’m quite a good “meta-learner”, I can make connections between different fields and ideas, I can exploit previous knowledge in new situations. I read a lot, but it is only when I have a chance of discussing my ideas or teaching strategies with my colleagues and friends that I feel to really own what I read. I’m more and more a social learner. I am very active in communities of practice, as Wenger would call them, such as eTwinning (www.etwinning.net) and in several groups of teachers on Facebook. I like to take part in Twitter chats and have also lead some. I like the opportunity to receive feedback from my peers and be kept up-to-date with their experiences, which can benefit also my professional development and efficacy as an educator. I take part in MOOCs like this one, where I have a chance of discussing with my peers. Unfortunately, this is not so easy in my working environment, I wish it were so straightforward to start a discussion with the teachers in my school. Some of them seem to think that if you discuss what you are doing you are not so sure of what you know and do.
Learning about learning
I started reflecting about how we learn when I took up teaching. The very first year was just hell! I was not at all in tune with the learning style and psychology of my students. I felt thrown in the arena among some 30 teenagers asking weird questions like “Should I use the blue, black or red pen for that?”; “Do I need to use an exercise book with squares or lines?”. I felt totally inadequate as a teacher. So I spent the summer trying to learn about my students and to reflect on some of their attitudes. The following year was a little better. But a person who definitely taught to me a lot about learning was my son, when he started primary school. He was only 5. The two first years of primary school were distressing to him. He could not understand what was the purpose of going to school. One day I took him to school and he asked the teacher to give him the worksheets he had to complete that day, so we could go back home. The learning environment created by the teacher and the interaction in the classroom were not adding to his learning.
Furthermore, he was terribly put off by having to fill in pages and pages about topics he felt the need to experience. Another day, the teacher complained he had refused to write the notes she had dictated about wood. When home he commented “She [teacher] has not even showed us a piece of real wood, let alone if we have touched it! She just wants us to fill in pages!”. On another occasion he did not want to write his physical description, because he could see no point in doing it: “Teacher knows very well what I look like! Why should I describe myself?”. What my son was trying to tell me was that school and learning were totally disconnected from reality. So, I understood that each person learns in a different way, and that you cannot learn outside a context that provides sense to what you are learning. It is this context that, particularly in young students, triggers your curiosity and motivation, which means your engagement.
Here comes another important element, engagement in learning as a result of motivation and curiosity. Motivation is definitely not the same as curiosity. Motivation is the ultimate goal of your learning effort, e.g. passing the exam, obtaining a job, etc. Motivation can be satisfied by traditional learning, as it is pointed out in the videos of the course. I regard at motivation as an extrinsic reward in the way Lepper would classify it (you can read more on extrinsic motivation in ChangingMinds.org) However, curiosity, in my opinion, is what makes you a meta-learner and allows you to be able to learn all your life long, in any situation, both formal and informal. Curiosity acts more like intrinsic motivation, that is an inner drive that leads you to do things, namely to learn, just for the fun or the passion of it. Curiosity should be fostered by education as the underlying condition for learning. As an educator, I’m not as sure as my teachers were of what my students need to know for their future success; nonetheless, I know that if I can teach them to be curious they will become good learners in real life. That is why I’m experimenting so much with gamification. I will discuss this in another post.