In the times of digital technologies and the vast potential they entail for ESL teaching, it is crystal clear that the formal setting of the classroom is no longer the only place where children can be provided with language experiences, practise English or be exposed to contextualized situations which become highly contextualized for young students. These rapid changes in the last few years, together with the teachers´ interest in new and active methodologies have led to the concept of learning to learn.
Before delving into theoretical aspects grounding new perspectives in this concern, I would like to share a fairly recent personal experience as an ESL teacher after 30 years career. Her name is María and she was ten years old when I first met her in my English lessons. It took me little time to detect her brilliant pronunciation and fluency, not to say about her great understanding level. Intrigued by this outstanding student, I kept a brief conversation in English with her in which I discovered that she loved music and spent her spare time searching for songs and lyrics on YouTube, just because she loved music. To cut a long story short, I realized that her musical intelligence and the possibility to listen and sing the music she liked was far more effective than the previous five years she had spent at school, in the formal setting of the English class. Put it that way: this “hidden learning” was for her much more “focused mode” than the classroom proposals.
The immediate questions for curious teachers may be: How do human beings learn? And more specifically: How do children learn? Does this process take place in the same way in all students? Or is it possible to find differences in the way students learn? Simple as it may seem, learning to learn can make the difference between success and failure.
However, let us start with the foundations of this indispensable key competence. Learning to learn regards to the ability to develop an efficient and autonomous capacity to learn. It requires the knowledge of one’s own potentialities and lacks, taking advantage on the former and overcoming the latter. Besides, this competence leads to establish reachable challenges and the possibility to produce diverse strategies to face problems.
Accordingly, the learning of a FL must include a reflection on it to enable the student to identify his or her strengths and emerging learning styles for a better learning. In an age of rapid technological change and shifting knowledge, children need to develop awareness, strategies, skills and attitudes that will enable them to constantly adapt to changes and meet new learning challenges confidently. Thus, the main aim of learning to learn at primary level is to start children off on their journey to self-knowledge, self-reliance and independence in their learning.
Moreover, learning to learn means being aware of what we know and what we need to learn, how to learn, and how the processes of learning can be controlled, guiding them to satisfy personal objectives. It requires knowing the own potentialities and lacks, taking advantage of the former, and overcoming the later; thus increasing self-esteem towards new challenges. Thus, learning to learn involves that the learner should develop the indispensable capacities for learning to take place, such as attention, concentration, memory, understanding and linguistic expression or motivation, amongst others. Besides, the learner must develop certain strategies and techniques to study, observe and register, co-operative work, problem-solving, and effective organization of activities. Similarly, autonomous learning is related to pose questions and search for strategies to take decisions. In this process, the learner must be able to relate new knowledge to already existing one, that is, integrate new information to transform it into knowledge.
The question now is: How to promote learning to learn strategies amongst students?
In order to advance in learning to learn, students need to develop both metacognitive awareness and learning strategies. The development of metacognitive awareness, that is, the knowledge and self-awareness the learner has of his/her own learning process, entails:
Language awareness: Consists in stimulating learners´ interest towards language, including a second language, to develop understanding and knowledge.
Social awareness: This strand is related to Vygotsky´s social learning theory suggesting that learning is enhanced through social interaction. Therefore, it involves engaging children in collaborative activities.
Cognitive awareness: Regarding FL learning, this would be related to explaining children what they are going to learn and why, establishing interaction and social cooperation as working strategies.
Cultural awareness: This aspect is concerned with developing openness towards others, seeing differences in a positive light.
On the other hand, the development of learning strategies is usually divided into:
Metacognitive strategies, used to regulate learning and to get children to reflect on their own learning process. Amongst them we may mention: planning strategies, hypothesizing, comparing, self-assessment and self-correction. To carry this out, the teacher must encourage active reflection by asking questions and get students to perceive progress through review or routines. Similarly, engaging students in self-assessment is crucial for them to take on responsibility for their own learning.
Cognitive strategies, which involve manipulating what to be learned. These include: memorizing, predicting, sorting, classifying, using a dictionary and the like. Similarly, these strategies involve learners in doing something with the language (i.e. listening for the general idea of a text or scanning for specific information in a written text). Cognitive strategies can be developed in different ways and at any stage of the lesson; we can get them to discuss and evaluate an activity, eliciting what they did and why; modeling, which involves demonstration and verbalization of the process of doing an activity; explaining, prompting and practising a strategy, etc. Modeling is not exactly telling children what to do; rather it is more concerned with guided discovery, getting them to work with the teacher´s help.
As for the benefits of learning to learn, it is very likely that the main impact in students is to be found in motivation. Apart from this, FL teachers know that learning to learn provides students with the necessary tools for future learning, whether this takes place in formal or informal settings. Moon (2000) suggests that if we share certain information with children (i.e. what activity am I doing?), they can make use of their previous knowledge to face that task and this may help them carrying out the activity. In this same light, if we inform students how we are going to assess their performance so that they have a clear criterion for success, they will know what to aim for. Some other potential benefits of learning to learn are: active involvement, an open and questioning attitude, improvement in working habits, better concentration, greater collaboration amongst peers, becoming more responsible, reflective and independent learner and a better organization to manage their learning.
On the other hand, putting learning to learn into practice requires the teacher´s reflection and planning; and this includes a procedural role to provide a framework to develop children´s learning strategies. In this sense, we need to consider the activities we have designed and why we are using them; the way we intend to organize children for learning (i.e. individual or cooperative work); and how will we know whether students have achieved the intended objectives, that is, devising clear evaluation criteria.
In practical terms, we know that children are very used to doing activities; however, their focus is usually on the activity itself and on the final result (i.e. doing a crossword or filling the blanks), not in the process. If we want them to develop more flexible ways of working, they need to know how they carry out learning tasks (i.e. which activities are subject to be solved with the help of a dictionary or the internet, etc). Similarly, the incorporation of learning to learn requires the establishment of aims and purposes for doing activities and review what children do. This means sharing with children what they are going to do and why. The final integral part of learning to learn has to do with self-evaluation, which can be implemented from simple statements of “can do” or scales of smiley faces, to more complex assessment sheets. Through self-evaluation, teachers may receive valuable information about the students´ perception of their own learning process, which is such relevant information to help teachers plan further lessons to meet children´s needs.
The students´ experiences in the FL, communication, culture and individual learning processes are essential for foreign language learning, but they need to be processed in a conscious way for learning to take place. In other words, learning requires an explicit awareness and understanding of what it is that needs to be learned (metalinguistic and metacognitive awareness), and why such learning is necessary. Seen in this light, learning is a process of creating new knowledge through the transformation of experience, that is to say, experiential learning.
According to Woolfe (1992), experiential learning consists of the following four components:
The student is aware of the processes which are taking place, and which are enabling learning to occur.
The student is involved in a reflective experience which enables him/ her to relate current learning to part, present and future, even if these relationships are felt rather than thought.
The experience and content are personally significant: what is being learned and how it is being learned have a special importance for the person.
There is an involvement of the whole self: body, thoughts, feelings and actions, not just of the mind; in other words, the student is engaged as a whole person.
Through these features of experiential learning, it could be defined as a cyclic process that integrates immediate experience, reflection, abstract conceptualization and action. As pointed out by Van Lier (1996), learning something requires that one notices it in the first place: “This noticing is an awareness of its existence, obtained and enhanced by paying attention to it. Paying attention is focusing one’s consciousness, or pointing one’s perceptual powers in the right direction, and making mental “energy” available for processing”. In a nutshell, experiential learning is based on the concept that children learn best if they notice what is being learned and are motivated to do something to learn through a conscious effort. As we can see, learning to learn is an active process in which the student plays a major role. In this sense, reflection is the essential element to bridge the gap between the learner FL experiences and the concepts designed through our objectives.
Following with our descending path from theory to practice, we suggest some specific activities to promote learning to learn and students´ reflection:
How I learn English: Students bring small photos of themselves and stick them to a paper. Then, with the help of models, they write simple sentences or draw pictures with information about the things they do well (i.e. I work hard, I like English, I´m good at listening, I´m good at finding words in a crossword, etc). Through this activity we get children to reflect on their strengths to foster self-confidence.
Picture Vocabulary: In groups, students gather pictures of vocabulary related to the lesson or unit, make a collage and relate picture to words; then, they report back to the class.
Vocabulary connections: (third cycle). We provide children with a blank network diagram for them to complete and thus developing awareness on word connections. This is particularly useful to develop memory skills. In the centre of the diagram we can place the word “animals”. They shall complete the diagram according to where animals live (i.e. dessert, jungle, arctic, etc); what they eat, etc. This activity implies meaningful review and encourages connections between words, so that vocabulary is not perceived as isolated units.
Sentences mind map would be a variation and more demanding version of the previous activity. It can be useful to work on verbs, tenses, etc. Using a similar procedure and materials, we can place in the middle of the map a photo of the student with a statement expressing preferences (i.e. “I really enjoy”) and then suggest different verbs for them to complete according to their likes (i.e. going to, playing, eating, watching, wearing, etc).
Activities selection: Instead of telling students what activity we are going to do, in groups, they are given a set of activities covering the same linguistic or communicative goals. Students get to an agreement and select two of them using English as the means to communicate (i.e. “I like activity one because it´s easy” or “I prefer activity two because I’m good at remembering vocabulary”). When students are given the opportunity to select the activities they want to carry out, we are encouraging reflective thinking, since they have to decide what they have to do and why. Besides, they are invited to take on responsibility towards their own learning and feel a greater sense of commitment.
My favourite style: Given a set of sentences related to things we do in classroom activities, students select which statements adapt best to their preferences and ways of learning (i.e. “I repeat words in silence”, “I translate the words”, “I play with word cards”, etc). This way, children become aware of the options they usually have available to them and reflect on their own preferences.
Learning diaries: Learning diaries are particularly useful at the end of a didactic unit to monitor progress and make students aware of the activities they found more difficult and why. They may include statements like: “in this unit I learnt…”; “I did well…”; “I found it difficult…” etc. By using learning diaries, students are provided with a simple framework to reflect on what has been done along the unit and how they managed with classroom activities, the strategies they used, and the like.
I met María a few weeks ago at her mum´s hair salon. She´s now in her second high school year. To her mum´s surprise, we kept a nice conversation in a fluent English. She told me about her new teachers and what she wants to be in the future: she wants to become an English teacher.
BURNET, G. “Learning to Learn. Making Learning Work for all Students”. Crown House Publishing Limited. 2002.
MOON, J. “Children Learning English” Macmillan. 2000.
VAN LIER, L. “Interaction in the Language Curriculum. Awareness, Autonomy and Authenticity”. Longman. 1996.
WOOLFE, R. “Experiential Learning in Workshops”. In “Experiential Training: Practical Guidelines”. Hobbs, T. Tavistock/Roudledge. 1992.
Participants in the video: Barbara Oakley, (Arizona State University), motivational speaker Greg Hammons and Neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski