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February 2, 2016

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Key concern for educators: Learning how to learn

“Numeracy and literacy are important, but learning is also a vehicle to help people recover and regain what is most critical to them — their own dignity, self-esteem and respect for the other,” comments Secretary General of the International Federated Red Cross, Elhadj As Sy, guest speaker at the 16th Education Fast Forward Debate (EFF16), streamed live from the Education World Forum in London and hosted by Program Director Gavin Dykes.

As a continuation to EFF16 Learning Literacy by Design debate, The Global Search for Education is pleased to welcome EFF Co-Founder, Supporter and Trustee, and CEO of Imagine Education, Jim Wynn; Senior Education & Technology Policy Specialist and Global Lead for Innovation in Education at the World Bank, Michael Trucano; and Lecturer in Media, ICT and Digital Literacy from Volda University College, Jon Harman.

Q: How does the learning literacy that needs to be taught today compare to what was needed in the last half of the 20th century?

Wynn: We have never taught people how to learn. We have confused the teaching of soft skills as teaching learning, but it wasn’t. The so-called soft skills (communication, problem solving) were not important in the first half of the 20th century as people were not expected to think critically or ask why. And as the century went along, the capacity of technology drove a change in behaviors that raised the soft skill issue.

So we do not have learning literacy wisdom to fall back on and worse, we haven’t developed assessment regimes to match.

Harman: In many respects, the core aspects of learning have not changed, but education has become more systemic as more have gone through the system. That system needs to change and embrace some more basic learning skills.

Q: What are the most effective methods you are aware of to teach learning literacy?

Harman: Develop an inquisitive mindset. Design curricula that ignite curiosity. Create learning environments that enable experimentation. I have found applying learning design approaches to enable a rounded pedagogical approach works well.

Wynn: Throw away the shackles of seeing learning literacy, which is a set of behaviors, as being described using the same rubrics that we used to describe skill and knowledge acquisition. Being able to recall facts about learning is no substitute for living the learning ideas.

We have to find a new way of talking about behaviors and we need a new set of semantics also.

Trucano: It is worth noting that fundamental to learning of any sort is literacy, the ability to read and write. Without this basic competency, many types of learning are extremely difficult, if not inaccessible.

Experts talk about the critical inflexion point that occurs around a child’s third or fourth year in school, when things transition from exercises geared primarily to help children learn how to read to activities where students begin reading to learn.

In addition, we are learning more and more about the critical links between someone’s health and their ability to learn.

Nutritional deficits or health-related traumas in early childhood, and even in the womb, have been shown to have deleterious effects on someone’s ability to learn far down the road, and efforts to promote “learning how to learn” would do well to consider the critical importance of early childhood development and prenatal care as part of a larger conception of what’s needed to promote “learning.”

Whatever the various facts, perspectives or ideologies promulgated or taught in today’s schools may be, there can be little doubt that the development of processes and habits which promote critical engagement with such things will be of great importance to students as they go about their lives.

Whether related activities are categorized as part of efforts to promote “21st century skills” or something else, there can be little disagreement today that, for schooling to be effective, it cannot be about providing students with “the answers,” but rather in helping them to develop their own abilities and curiosity to ask the right questions.

Q: How will advancement of learning literacy translate into closing the gaps?

Wynn: I believe that a smart nation is a function of its learning capital and state of its learning society. Unless nations have a strategy to build smart human capital where every citizen has a learning ethos, then they will fall behind even further.

Q: What is the link between economic growth and a society’s capability to learn?

Wynn: This has been done by Joseph Stiglitz in his “Creating a Learning Society” book. He and his co-authors see learning — not as an activity but as a frame of mind – as being central to economic growth, and point to this as an explanation for South Korea’s huge success.

Harman: I have deep reservations on how the correlations of education policy and economic development have developed, particularly the “deliverology” mindset that when put under some scrutiny, doesn’t fully correlate.

Q: How significant is the gap in learning literacy today? How much impact can the advancement of learning literacy have on wealth distribution among nations and among individuals?

Wynn: Huge.

In the UK, the curriculum is so swamped, that creativity in all but the bravest schools is an afterthought. In emerging countries, however, there is a real movement to bringing learning into K-12 life.

Learning literacy is and will be a new concept to many, and a confusion to those that think it is about either life-long learning or 21st century skills.

A learning literate citizen is someone that always strives to do better in all they do and to learn from the best.

It isn’t a person that does a bee-keeping course on retirement or someone that hones their presentation skills: those are 20th century ideas about the 21st century. Learning literacy is an ethos, a culture and a way of life.

Harman: I am concerned that learning literacy or advancement of it can be a false promise to wealth distribution because it thinks we’re starting from an equal starting point. We have seen across so many spectrums that privilege is so much an enabler rather than meritocracy, so I have some reservations about the promises.

The 17th Education Fast Forward Debate (EFF17) will take place on March 7, 2016. C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the publisher of CMRubinWorld, and a Disruptor Foundation Fellow. Shanghai Daily edited and condensed the article.


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