Set up your classroom so learners learn how to learn

‘Learning how to learn’ has become somewhat an overused phrase as education undergoes transitions into a paradigm that will prepare learners for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) futures. The phrase ‘learning how to learn’ has emerged as an essential focus for the school experience because the successful learner and organizations outside of education tell us that learning how to learn is an essential meta-skill now and in the foreseeable future.

Organizations like the World Economic Forum and private organizations whose focus is to study trends in human development, discuss the importance of ‘durable skills,’ skills that empower agile learners. These essential skills have been called soft skills – skills that are difficult to quantify, like communication, collaboration, empathy, resilience, and other non-technical skills that separate human from machine capacities. These skills have also recently been called ‘power skills’ as they seem to augment technical skills.

Sequencing, for example, is a technical skill that people transfer from a discipline that draws on ordering concepts, such as mathematical knowledge. The skill of sequencing contributes to complex strategies or clusters of skills. Strategies, like deconstructing a process or synthesizing ideas into categories, sub-categories, and specifications, are examples of applications of sequencing. Sequencing helps people complete projects because it is used in making plans, executing those plans, and monitoring progress toward completion. 

The power skills of affective states during the process of completing a project serve to augment the technical skill of sequencing. When the sequence is disrupted by glitches in the execution of production or performance, affective skills like practicing strategies to reduce anxiety and demonstrating persistence and perseverance and bouncing back after failures augment the performance of the technical production skills. 

Creating a culture of successful learning includes intentional ways that learners:

  • Familiarise with a skill
  • Rehearse the skill
  • Analyze the skill as an approach to understanding, proficiency, and conscious competence
  • Be able to demonstrate the skill when a task calls for it
  • Reflect on the quality of performance
  • Refine the skill and apply it in combination with other skills in increasingly complex tasks
  • Express a self-assessment of skill performance that includes nuanced knowledge of levels of effectiveness
  • Teach someone the skill
  • Coach someone else through an application of the skill

Proactive learners, or learners who learn how to learn, actively seek to learn when faced with situations or problems that are complex and open-ended with no apparent ready answer. These empowered learners ask for deliberately designed environments and processes in which they might develop these capacities.

We can design those environments and processes. 

Empowering learners in the classroom begins with the invisible structures and systems thoughtfully created to allow for skills to be explicitly learned, deliberately rehearsed, self-monitored, self-modified and self-managed. 

Some of the questions we might ask to create these supporting structures are:

How do we ensure that all students have opportunities to develop the skills in a unit of inquiry?

How will the skill be rehearsed, and how is this rehearsal embedded in the quest for learning?

What ways might the learner self-monitor? 

What skills might the learner need when they are stuck or off-track, so they can refocus?

What skills might the learner need to pursue lines of inquiry?

What ways might they learn to refine if they are already proficient in the skill?

How might they strengthen if they are at the stage of conscious competence to reach a higher level of mastery?

What ways might learners self-monitor their skill development?

What ways might learners use to modify when performance does not meet their expectations? How can we support them in finding ways to strengthen the skill through a targeted rehearsal?

How will learners learn how to assess the performance of the skill? What ways will those be documented so the data is useful for both immediate feedback and longitudinal feedback?

Featured Photo by Morgan Von Gunten on Unsplash

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    Author: alavina

    Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at

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