Learning to Learn

Learning to Learn

Jesse Martin 06/09/2018 4

We are born to learn, so how do we learn to learn? Learning begins even before we are born. Learning to learn in order to take advantage of our new cyber-assisted world isn’t really learning to learn but learning new skills that I call cognitive enabling skills.

Yesterday I wrote about higher order cognitive enabling skills. These are the skills that we are all supposed to learn while we are in higher education but, for whatever reason, we were never taught them. Things like critical thinking, complex reasoning, metacognition, higher order creativity. All higher order cognitive skills that we should be taught but are not.

What do these higher order cognitive enabling skills have to do with learning to learn? These are the kind of skills that are not yet, and I don’t believe will ever be automated. These are the thinking skills that make us uniquely human.

What is an enabling skill? An enabling skill is a skill that enables you to take information, turn it into knowledge (internalized information), and then transform it into understanding (deep or otherwise). When it comes to learning, if we are missing cognitive enabling skills or attributes, we are at a learning disadvantage when compared to others with these skills. All right, so now I have introduced attributes as well. What are all of these skills and attributes that I am talking about and why are they important?

If we are born with a reasonable amount of cognitive processing ability, we can learn all of these enabling skills – to a greater or lesser extent. The first cognitive enabling attributes are not learned, but come pre-packaged at birth – unless a person is born with a developmental disability. The first of these fundamental enabling attributes comprise our sensory input. In order to fully learn, we need to be able to sense the world around us. Ideally, we can see, hear, touch and smell the world around us. Sometimes people are missing some of these basic attributes either through a developmental disability or an accident. However, for the vast majority of people the basic sensory inputs are the first of the cognitive enabling attributes. We learn through our senses. Anyone who is missing one of these attributes will tell you that they are at a disadvantage when it comes to learning, but millions of people missing one or more of the sensory inputs learn to cope just fine. It is more work, but it is done all the time.

A number of other cognitive enabling skills emerge, at least in a rudimentary form, through normal development. The first, and most important of these cognitive enabling skills is the learning of language. Not just learning a language but learning about language first. Building on the ability that language endows us with, our early cognitive development provides us with the basics of logic, reason, and rational thinking. These skills help us understand the world around us, communicate with each other, and assist us in learning in our earliest years. Our basic sensory attributes and rudimentary enabling cognitive skills provide us with the capacity to learn and adapt to our surroundings. These skills make normally developing children resilient and adaptable. However, there is a major learning leap when we begin to formally teach more advanced cognitive enabling skills.

The most basic and fundamental advanced cognitive enabling skills are reading, writing, and numeracy. Acquiring these skills increases our rate of learning in an exponential fashion. Children who fail to properly gain these skills, for whatever reason, are seriously disadvantaged. Many go on to be marginalized in our society and fail to learn anywhere near their natural potential. As I study education at a primary school level, where most of the skills are acquired, I despair at the lack of understanding of how people learn by those charged with teaching these basic cognitive enabling skills. Science tells how people learn and we could do so much better – but we don’t. Anyway, that is another topic that I have written volumes about, so I’ll try to stay focussed.

These basic cognitive enabling skills are basic skills and would not be considered stuff. These skills are used to learn stuff (content). Children learn a great deal through reading and writing and being able to practice basic numeracy skills. However, these enabling skills are not really a subject to be studied in and of themselves – except for academic interest. These are skills that are learned and then the application of these skills leads to an explosion of learning stuff.

After these basic enabling skills have been acquired, formal education begins a shift away from cognitive enabling skill acquisition and development to learning about the world around us. Much of this education takes the form of memorizing the “right answer” and then regurgitating what has been committed to memory as a measurement exercise to see how well some bit of content has been memorized. In fact, there are very few students who complete even postgraduate education who acquire a usable full suite of other, higher order cognitive enabling skills.

These other, higher order cognitive enabling skills require significant frontal lobe myelination before they can be learned. These skills require the manipulation of complex abstract concepts. All of the cognitive enabling skills require abstract processing, but the basic cognitive enablers require less abstraction than the higher order enablers. Reading, writing, and basic numeracy, as cognitive enablers, require the ability to manipulate abstract symbols and concepts to represent concrete, tangible objects and concepts. Higher order cognitive enablers allow us to understand and manipulate abstract conceptualizations that may never be more than abstract, at least in a way that we can understand. Being able to predict the full effects on an organization of a cultural change in a management team is an extremely abstract task. Because of the general lack of these higher order enablers, the phrase, “Well, we never really thought of that…” is heard far too often.

So, what is learning to learn? It is simply the acquisition of the higher order cognitive enablers. Just as someone employed in the cognitive services sector (lawyers, accountants, administrators, managers…) would be seriously handicapped if they lacked the basic cognitive enablers (reading, writing, basic numeracy…), in tomorrow’s world the lack of higher order cognitive enablers will be the handicap.

If a cognitive services professional were to face the prospect of learning a complicated, new way of carrying out their job without the abilities encompassed by the basic cognitive enablers (speaking, reading, writing, or basic numeracy) the challenges would be all but insurmountable. There are some who can accomplish it (think of a blind lawyer), but they are the exception rather than the rule and stand apart as someone with extraordinary determination and persistence. These basic cognitive enablers have served us well and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. You could say that our very civilization has been built on them.

You could say that, except that, although the higher order cognitive enablers are rare, some people do have them and regularly use them. Arum and Roksa tell us that about 10% of university graduates have these higher order enablers and regularly use them. Another 50% of university and college graduates can demonstrate that they have some of these skills but their use is restricted, because of the problem of transference in learning, to the narrow fields of study that they graduate from. I would suggest that although the fundamental cognitive enablers have had an unimaginable impact on the development of our society, the higher order cognitive enablers, such as critical thinking or higher order creativity, have been the real catalysts of change and progress.

So, learning to learn simply requires the acquisition of these higher order cognitive enablers. Remember, simple does not mean easy, just simple.

The acquisition of these higher order skills is just as hard as the acquisition of our fundamental cognitive enablers. Don’t misjudge the difficulty in learning to read or write. Learning a second language pales in comparison to learning the whole process of understanding and producing language for the first time.

This is why teaching of these higher order cognitive enablers has all but disappeared. They are difficult to learn and difficult to measure if they have been learned. It is much easier to measure how well someone has memorized a right answer and regurgitated it when tested – even if it is measured by an open-ended essay.

The science of learning tells us how they can be taught. It isn’t that difficult to teach higher order cognitive enablers. The problem lies in what a senior administrative colleague said to me as we were discussing this one-day. He said,” You forget our unwritten agreement with the students. We don’t ask too much of them and they won’t ask too much of us.”

In the world where learning will play a central role in our ability to contribute to society, the learning won’t entail memorizing the elements of the periodic table. The learning that we will be expected to do will entail fundamentally restructuring our understanding of the way we do things – again and again and again. Although we will use the basic cognitive enablers, our very real success will depend on our proficiency with the higher order cognitive enablers, the higher order thinking skills that are so lacking in our society today.

None of these cognitive enabling skills are directly marketable. No one was ever hired because he or she could read, although there have been many who were not hired because they couldn’t read – being able to read is central to almost every cognitive services task.

Acquiring more cognitive enablers is learning to learn. We can teach enablers and we can learn enablers. All we have to do is decide to do it.

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  • Adam Shepherd

    We should teach students how to have selective attention, where they learn to ignore distractions and stay on task.

  • Owen Elford

    Thought provoking piece

  • Mark Keating

    If information cannot be retained long enough to remember it, then learning will suffer.

  • Ryan McCullough

    Our brain can be strengthened by challenging it frequently.

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.


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