Saturday, April 21, 2012

I am more convinced than ever of the virtue, as well as the difficulty, of moving towards Learning to Learn.

I have recently moved to a senior housing program, and am in the company of many folks in their 70's, and 80's, just like me! They are charming and delightful, and seem very caring. But very solidly opinionated. They know. Scientists, they are not.

I am wondering if this rigidity and their very limited listening skills are a characteristic of this particular generation, or if diminishing communication and learning skills are a characteristic of aging? I surely hope the former, which would mean that as time goes on, we would all become better at interpersonal skills and at learning to learn.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, March 17, 2012


Learning is its own reward. The process of learning is inherently exciting, rewarding. But we seem to get in the way of kids experiencing the fun of learning, the joy of discovery. Make the assumption that learning itself is motivational, and that your child loves to learn.  (I’m speaking of learning now, not school. Two different things!) Then identify the ways that we make it demotivating, and eliminate them. And if we need to establish rewards, let’s make sure they are applied to the process, the problem solving skills, the “how” of learning, not just the product, the answer. I remember being really appreciative in a statistics course, when the professor gave substantial credit for the correct procedure, even if a mechanical mistake made the answer wrong. I don’t mean to say that it’s OK to have the wrong answer, but the answer is not the only useful outcome in learning. 
The greatest reward for many children is the learning itself, reinforced by an honest appreciative compliment from a parent.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Grades - Bah, Humbug

I’ve been convinced for years- as a student, as a parent of four kids, as an elementary school principal, and as a community college and university teacher - that grades are not only useless, but are often counterproductive. They interfere with real learning more than they help. But unfortunately they are a reality.
Listing problems caused by or associated with the grading system is not difficult: grades tend to push students toward competition rather than cooperation, and students begin to function as if the grade rather than the learning is the important outcome. The teacher's control in a hierarchical fashion is supported rather than heading toward a co-learning posture, and learning becomes more a matter of recall and rote. The assumption is fostered that all truth is known and the function of schooling is to transfer it to the mind of the student, rather than learning being a higher level process whereby new information and skills are gained by the student and applied in a useful setting. The very important function of the teacher in providing feedback for the student becomes simplified to the point of being ridiculous, with meaning being vested in one letter, an "A" or "B" or "C". Very clearly and simply, grading gets in the way of learning, especially if by “learning” we mean “learning to learn”. Kids don’t learn to think “outside the box”, nor to value discovery.
At least some of the problem with grading is because schools tend to grade the wrong things- strictly the content: accumulation of facts in math, reading, history, science. What if they forgot about that, and instead graded curiosity, skills in problem solving, asking good questions, ability to put things together, relating earlier learning to new, listening, being one’s own teacher, creativity and other skills of learning. Much better! And some schools are making headway in this direction.
Better yet, however, if rather than grading, which is pure evaluation, we learned to provide objective feedback to kids. Objective means non-evaluative information about our perceptions of the kid’s performance, leaving the child to do the “evaluating”, or adding to it “Gee, I did a good job with that”, or “I bet I could do better in the future if I....”. Ideas that are self appropriated are more meaningful than those that come from teachers or parents.
Here are a few thoughts about how parents can better deal with grades-
• Minimize the whole thing. It’s just not a big deal. Show some interest, but don’t let your child feel that the report card is what school is all about, or that grades are the extent of your concern and caring. There are many more important issues.
• Don ‘t reward or punish a child with respect to the report card or grades. Children are subject to behavioral psychology just as much as your pets are, but the more we use external rewards and punishments instead of reinforcing the native joy of learning for the sake of learning, the less effect we will have. Working for the reward, whether it’s a ten dollar bill or words of praise, tends to have the child learn for something extrinsic to himself rather than from the pleasure of learning.
• Try to substitute feedback for evaluation. Feedback is non-evaluative, not ending with “Therefore you were good”, or worse, “Therefore you were bad”.  Leave that to the child. Useful feedback might start with words like “I am very proud of you when you...”; or “I noticed that when you ....., the result was....”. Make sure the feedback is something under the control of the child, something that he can deal with. 
• Don’t be comparative, either comparing your child with another, or one reporting period with another, or with yourself at his age.
• Take every chance you get to support the teacher, so that the child is more connected with a sense of personal responsibility. I knew of a parent one time who was negative about the teacher to the extent that the child no longer sensed that learning was her own responsibility. She in effect was saying to herself, “My Daddy thinks that Miss Martin is not a very good teacher; no wonder I don’t do well.”
• Keep emphasizing that the important thing is to learn to be a seeker of learning, to be motivated, to be able to solve problems, to figure things out. “Wow, if you keep up like this, you’ll get to the point where you don’t need a teacher anymore!” (One definition of an educated person is one who no longer needs a teacher; not because he knows it all, but because he knows how to learn).
• Get the child involved in the reporting/grading process. You might ask “How would you have graded yourself if you had filled out the report card?” The purpose of a report card is ostensibly to report to the parents  how the child is doing. How about the child reporting too? Frankly, I’d be more inclined to believe the child rather than the teacher if there were a discrepancy. One of the most functional classes I ever taught at a university level was one in which I had the students grade themselves. It freed them to concentrate on learning, rather than satisfying me. I gave up some control so that they could have more control. It worked. Overall, the grades were just a bit lower than what I would have given.
• In any parent-teacher conferences, make sure that the teacher knows that you are concerned about the child’s learning to learn processes, not only the accumulation of information as measured by a report card.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Combination; What Do You Think?

I’ve been doing some thinking, and could use some help.
During recent years, even decades, I have been intrigued by two major ideas. I have done lots of reading, some writing, and a lot of thinking about these concepts and their implications and applications.
The first is in the area of the Supernatural; I am absolutely astounded, even now, about how intelligent, well educated and sophisticated people can believe in the Supernatural. That is belief in the existence of anything without a reasonable degree of evidence.  I find it amazing, and indeed unfortunate, that such an enormous amount of energy in our world goes to the ideas of supporting and promulgating the Supernatural. And by Supernatural, I  mean not only witches, magic, hobgoblins and Angels, but also God. I  have surely become an atheist, and find great satisfaction understanding that ideas such as God and  heaven, are myths; illusions. I have been exploring the idea of the effects worldwide of belief in the Supernatural, which are socially catastrophic; wars, murder, violence, torture, and more.  “My God is better than your God.” I feel an obligation to do something to soften the deleterious effects of Supernatural belief.
The second is the Learn to Learn idea, the subject of this blog. The importance of independent thinking, learning to be a bit skeptical and not simply accept values from an authority. Think of schooling as on a horizontal line.  On one end, let’s put almost all of our traditional approach, the general idea that “I know, you don’t; I’m going to tell you. On the other end, however, put the idea of Learning How to Learn. My point is that schooling  should move, at least a little bit, toward the Learn to Learn end. I’ll use a series of pairs of words to explain further. Education should be more democratic than autocratic, more collegial than hierarchical, more centered on how to think and feel than memory, more cooperative than competitive, more learning as a verb rather than as a noun, more the teacher as facilitator rather than the teacher as expert. The values, attitudes and skills associated with learning are not intuitive; but they can be learned and taught. (I recently wrote an article called “How to Help Your Child Become a Humanist” for the newsletter of the American Humanist Association. If you would like a copy, please e-mail me at
My recent musings suggest that these two concepts, learn to learn and atheism can be put together. The major effect of learning to learn is to help kids become independent thinkers, and as such they will tend to be a bit skeptical of the authoritarian handing down of, among other things,  beliefs and the relevance of faith, which means belief without the need for evidence, 
What you think?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Words, words, words...

In trying to explain what I mean by Learn to Learn, I have used the following. Think of each pair as a spectrum, from one end to the other. The left column represents the traditional, rather autocratic setting, where the teacher is the expert who transmits information to the student. The right column represents the more involving pattern, with the teacher-student relationship closer to equivalent. Please realize these words are at the ends of each spectra; undoubtedly the most appropriate spot is somewhere in-between.

Those of us who are teachers or parents might take look at each spectrum, determine where we fall in our parental or teaching role, then ask ourselves if any adjustments are in order which could lead to a more Learn to Learn setting.


Learn the content
Learn to learn
TAE; Deductive
EAT; Inductive
Comfortable with the supernatural
Very suspicious of the supernatural
I know, you don’t; I’m going to tell you”-
“Let’s learn together…”
Teacher as expert
Teacher as facilitator
Teacher as leader; boss
Teacher as colleague, partner
Learn about the sciences
Learn to be a scientist
Learning stops at the present
Learning transcends the present
Naive, ingenuous, unsophisticated
Worldly, artful, sophisticated
A sponge for learning
A discriminating learner
Learning as a noun
Learning as a verb
Leader or follower
Team member
Student as follower, underling
Student as associate, co-worker
Learning centered on memory
Learning centered on thinking skills
Learning leads to orthodoxy
Learning leads to change

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Rationale for Learning to Learn

The following is adapted from my booklet about Learn to Learn, "Fifty Nifty Ways to Help Your Child Become a Better Learner". Should you like to have a copy, please send me your name and US mail address and I'll send you one. Or, it is available as a e-book on Amazon. My e-mail address is
We are in the midst of the Information Age. The world is changing at a dizzying pace. Consider these issues:
• If an engineer or physician finished medical school or engineering school ten years ago, and has not substantially updated his skills, he is simply out of date. A competent physician needs to know how to learn from his experiences, how to analyze those experiences, and turn them into useful generalizations or theoretical inferences.
• I idly asked my pharmacist a few days ago what percentage of the medications on the racks behind her were not available ten years ago. She thought for a minute, and estimated 80%.
• Some pundit said that the amount of information available to humankind at the time of the birth of Christ doubled by the year 1750. Sounds reasonable to me. It doubled again by 1900, that time taking 150 years to do what previously took 1750 years. Again, this seems sensible. Then another doubling to 1950, again by 1960.... and now, knowledge is doubling about every five years. Doubling!
• Wireless communication, computers...the entire digital world, is changing so fast no one can hope to keep up.
• Our grandparents, maybe even our parents were able to live a lifetime on the information they got in school from the then adequate information transfer system of learning. You and I cannot, and our children certainly can not even approach it. We have to learn from experiences as we go along.

• When content is presented exclusively as a body of knowledge to be transferred, learners can justifiably conclude that meaning comes from outside themselves. Not true. Real meaning comes from within.
• Learning the processes of learning is exciting, and supports additional curiosity rather than merely treating the learner as a passive recipient. We are dealing with “living” wisdom, or understanding, rather than only dead knowledge.
• Learning to learn is dynamic. It carries the seeds of its own transformation.
• Simple knowledge can be transferred from teacher to student, but wisdom and understanding result only when the learner “processes” the knowledge. The learn to learn teacher or parent supports the student in translating knowledge into understanding.
• Tom Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, describes the schooling of Islamic boys and young men in the Middle East. Taught exclusively by clerics, the teaching style is a classic of learning by transmission only. We call it indoctrination. When they attempt higher education and a professor asks them to think about an issue they have no way to do it. They have never before been asked to think or feel, to solve problems, only to accept what they are told. They therefore revert to even deeper fundamentalism. Would a dictator like a learn to learn approach? Not at all. He wants and needs his subjects to be indoctrinated, not to think for themselves. Learn to learn can be considered education for democracy. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Learning Outside of School

I remember a good experience when I was a Boy Scout, many years ago. We constructed our own transit, using a piece of plywood and a compass, and made a map of our neighborhood. It was fun, I learned about scale and distance, about geometry and geography, and how to read a map, but mostly I learned how to figure things out for myself. There was a lot of involvement on the part of the leader, but it was really an orchestration of the resources, like help in building the transit, suggestions about how to pace off distances, how to ask questions of him and the materials. I learned how to discover the answers rather than expecting the answers from the Scoutmaster.
Be sure that your support of the process of learning is not limited to school work. Most of our learning, especially at an early age, occurs outside of school.
Examples abound - nature walks are opportunities for discovery, there is much to learn from caring for a pet; camping trips and other family outings provide many learning to learn experiences.

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