Learning to Learn

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Yesterday I attended a presentation and tour of a private school for children with learning differences (everything from dyslexia and dysgraphia, to autism, ADHD, anxiety, and processing issues, etc.). I’ve written about my son’s issues with learning within a school setting before, in part as a means of processing my own feelings about standardized education, but also as a way to reflect on my own work as a teacher. It’s hard for my experiences as a parent of a child with different learning needs NOT to influence my approach to the classroom.

At this presentation, the school administrators stressed the importance of teaching students to learn how to learn. Because the school sells itself as a transition school–one where the typical student attends for 3 years before moving on to a mainstream public or private school–some parents were concerned about students’ abilities to catch up in certain subject areas. I was so impressed by the school administrators’ answer, and realized that is what we try to do (to varying degrees of success) with students in college. Yes, there is a focus on content; it’s what academic majors are, after all. But there is also an emphasis on metacognition and the development of students’ ability to self-reflect, organize, self-regulate, and solve information needs and problems.

For children with learning differences, success is about coming to terms with the self. Self: acceptance, efficacy, accountability, motivation, advocacy, etc. They’re often the outliers in their classroom, and the source of frustration for teachers. Their confidence is rattled, their anxiety is high, and they often feel alienated by learning at school. Their ability is there but it’s hidden behind a complicated puzzle that can only be solved with care, time, attention, and an understanding of difference. Affect and feeling are central to unlocking their potential (really all learners’ potential) and making learning more than just a meaningless slog. A holistic approach to education is critical for these learners.

In taking a holistic approach to teaching and focusing on everything that makes learning possible, educators facilitate a version of learning that is self-directed and empowering. Learners have the agency to learn about whatever they want to learn and have the strategies and skills to make that happen. That’s not easy in public schools where teachers are accountable to standardized testing scores and hundreds of learning benchmarks. It’s difficult in college classrooms where faculty feel pressured to cover more content than is possible in one quarter or semester. It’s challenging in the teaching we do as librarians, where we manage our own desires to teach processes and critical thinking with faculty requests and student needs.

What could it look like to put learning how to learn first? How would that change our approach to teaching in libraries? In information literacy programs? The common refrain about library school is that it doesn’t teach you all the answers, but it teaches you how to find whatever answer you need. What if our graduate programs focused on teaching us to ask questions rather than find answers? To study learning as a social process (and research/information as a part of that process)? How might that impact our own approach to information literacy education?