Friday, August 30, 2013

Keys to Learning Well

In the school’s mission statement is the phrase “Enabling youth to learn how to learn …” What does that mean? And how do you know when it happens?

Mission statements are notoriously imprecise and aspirational. But that is on purpose. The nature of a mission statement is to draw us forward, set us on a path, provide a fixed direction, point out the mountain we would like to reach. Some companies even have two mission statements, the official one and the unofficial one. For example, this is the case for Google. Their official mission statement is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." The unofficial one, officially recorded in its 2004 IPO prospectus, is “Don’t Be Evil.” The first statement is predictable and rather dull. But the second is quite interesting, because it causes the reader to think about what that phrase could mean in an organization.

Our own school’s mission statement has aspects of both in it. Schools are about youth and about learning. That much is fairly obvious. What is less obvious, but all the more important and perhaps worthy of reflection, is the fact that one part of our mission is to enable youth to learn how to learn. The focus of the learning is on learning. This focus is part of the educational environment, whereby not only are facts, figures, rules, systems, insights, relationships, etc. learned outright. But within that process there is an intentional effort to enable students to discover the ways that they are involved in the process of learning itself, are agents in the skill of learning, and thereby may become more deliberate about the learning that they want to accomplish.

The more we know about our own learning process, the better learners we become.  For example, I know that I need a quiet environment in order to learn well, and that I need to “ramp up” my learning process so that I can get to a level of engagement that puts things into a higher gear. The simplest example is from many years ago, when I delayed writing my PhD dissertation (as most candidates do at some point in the process) until deadlines loomed and something radical was needed. After thinking about my best learning process, the solution appeared. For six weeks, I put myself into a Trappist monastery in California, pictured above, where for five weeks (the first week was for ramping up) I worked calmly but intensely for many hours of the day in a profound, natural silence punctuated only by prayers and meals. At the end of that time, 80% of the dissertation was done, basically due to zero radio or TV, simple vegetarian food, a peaceful setting, and an inescapable personal regimen – no distractions possible – punctuated by good prayer and liturgy.

That’s only one example, and it may only apply to me. Your way of learning best is likely to be quite unique. But when you identify it, the more you may pursue it, and the better you will learn. A friend of mine who became the CEO of a large company showed me a room next to his third-story office that was empty except for a window overlooking the outside and two rows of airplane seats. He told me that he thinks best on airplanes, and so he had this little room built for his private thinking and planning time. He, in fact, had learned how he learned best.

When you learn how you learn, you will learn more quickly, deeply, and intensely. Each new insight about your own learning will add to your personal set of learning tools, ready to go into action when needed. How to start? Take a short but serious inventory after you have learned something really well. What allowed that to happen? Push, push, push for the reasons. Those results, in the long run, will be more valuable than whatever it was that you learned really well. Like a coach who is able to reflect back the small movements or behaviours that will lead to greater performance, by being your own “learning” coach, you will identify your own best behaviours for learning.

If someone told us that we could take a pill to help us learn better, as in the movie Limitless (2011), we would probably buy a year’s supply. Actually, we have those pills already inside of us. They just need to be identified and brought into the light of day. After that, it’s mostly “Take as needed.”