Learning to learn

I was going to write about the various ways that people learn, and then my colleague Jeremy Stell-Smith wrote an excellent article describing one of my favourite learning models, so go and read that and I’ll see you back here shortly. Jeremy also alludes to Shu-Ha-Ri, another learning model based on repeating “cycles” of learning, found in Japanese martial arts (I haven’t linked to a single definition because there are a few subtly different ones around).

Ok, so why are learning models useful? To quote Edward de Bono, we should teach our children to learn. In other words, Learning should be on the school syllabus alongside all the regular subjects. I would go further and make it a core subject of every school year. There’s plenty of material about learning, memory and concentration to fill the lessons. But here’s the good bit: it would be an exponentially useful subject.

To start with, teachers would have to learn the syllabus material. As they were learning they would apply what they were learning to become better learners. At the same time as they were learning about learning, they would become intrinsically better teachers, because they would understand more about their role as facilitators to learning. Then they get into the classroom (or outside in a park, because they have learned the importance of physical environment to learning) and provide an exciting, engaging, varied and responsive introduction to learning.

But now it really gets exciting, because as the kids learn the techniques and principles of learning, they become more accomplished and voracious learners, and they understand the dynamics of how they are being taught. And not just in their Learning class, but in History, Geography and all the other subjects where we have traditionally learned and regurgitated reams of dull information by rote. They will have a vocabulary and an awareness about learning so they can communicate how they want to be taught. And their education becomes exciting and useful.

I spend quite a lot of my time teaching, whether in the form of coaching, workshops, conference tutorials (some poor Swedes had an entire day of me recently), internal training within ThoughtWorks, or on-site with a client, and I really enjoy it! I love creating an environment that encourages people to learn, and I love seeing the lightbulbs go on.

I’m lucky – I’ve had some amazing teachers and mentors, whether in school, my brief martial arts career or work – which has led me to invest in understanding the dynamics of teaching and learning, communication and rapport, feedback and change (particularly cultural or organisational change). Systems Thinking is another useful avenue to explore.

Studying how learning and communication works has definitely made me a better teacher. I’m still an enthusiastic amateur – I would never describe myself as an “expert” teacher, simply because there is still so much out there that I don’t know, and because I keep encountering people with different and inspiring teaching styles. I don’t believe it is an area you can ever fully “know”.

The best advice I can offer to anyone who finds themselves in a teaching role is this: learn to learn before you learn to teach. If your last experience of learning was History-by-numbers at school, then unfortunately that’s probably how you will end up teaching, and that would be a shame.


  1. Not sure you are aware, but this philosophy of learning to learn is one of the underlying tenets of Steiner education (named after the guy who ‘invented’ it, Rudolph Steiner). Although a lot of Steiner’s writing is absolute fluff, he did have his head screwed on right when it came to understanding learning. This is why kids who attend Steiner schools don’t actually start learning things like the 3 R’s until they’re 7 years old – they’ve spent the in-between time learning how to learn (through craft, stories, dancing, singing, exploring … all that good stuff).

    1. Jason Hamzy · ·

      Great comment. My kids go to a Waldorf school (another name for Steiner school), and that is what I love about it. I’ve always held the ideal learning is self taught. Thanks for your insights.

  2. BDD and nspec…

    Behaviour Driven Development can now be embraced by .net developers doing csharp thanks to NSpec. NSpec……

  3. Thomas Garrod · ·

    I was interested in the “excellent article” by Jeramy, but the link does not lead to an excellent article. On the other hand, I was very happy to see your comment about teaching children to learn. I’ll be attempting something very like that soon. I’ve been dreaming of creating a program for underachievers, and I’ll do that, or try this summer. Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

    1. Hi Thomas.

      It looks like Jeremy has changed his blog slightly. I’ve updated the reference so it should work ok now.

  4. Thomas Garrod · ·

    Whooops! I did not realize this post was so old. No wonder the link does not reflect that interesting article.

  5. I went to a Steiner school, and it drove me nuts. They don’t teach you how to learn, they tell you that they teach you how to learn. They teach you to hug trees and dye yarn and make you stay in the same class as everyone else your age because you were reincarnated at the same time. I was a problem child at the Steiner school because I taught myself things before they thought I was ready to learn them. I hated crafts, can’t knit to save my life, and none of their exploring taught us to explore the real world. They seemed afraid of the real world – science doesn’t seem to be spiritual enough.

    Many, many of the kids who didn’t teach themselves stuff just swallowed the fluff and were completely lost when the real world hit them and they had to actually learn about the real world and adapt to it.

    I love learning about learning – Edward de Bono, memory palaces, agile practices… I am a sucker for books that teach me how to think differently about things – I just didn’t get any of it from the Steiner school.

    I’ll be quiet and go back to my programming now.
    Sorry about the detour. I don’t want to start a religious discussion.

    1. Thanks for that Katie – so it seems it isn’t just the conventional schools that can leave you with a negative impression of learning. I haven’t had any dealings with any of the Steiner, Montessori or Waldorf styles of school, and to be honest I did have the impression that “the grass is greener”.

      I’m glad you managed to see past that experience to still be interested in learning – or was that one of the reasons you chose to find out what really works?

%d bloggers like this: