Learning to Learn: Preparing People for Lifelong Performance & Results

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Ed's Ink


Many believe the way to improve our school system is finding and hiring the best teachers. Others believe the focus of our school system must be on learning rather than teaching. 

Unfortunately, it’s a false hope to get “better teachers” in quantity. Superior teachers will always be in short supply.

What we need is the proper usage of learning technologies to elevate the performance of all teachers.

Needed: A Systematic Learning Methodology 

Peter F. Drucker observed that teaching is the only major occupation for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance in the classroom:

In teaching we rely on the ‘naturals,’ the ones who somehow know how to teach. Nobody seems to know, however, what is it the ‘naturals’ do the rest of us do not do…

The only way we can get better results is by giving qualified teachers the right tools and by organizing their work properly.

Drucker contended that teaching involves artistry. Therefore he concluded that it is impossible for artistry to confine itself to the boundaries of routine and convention. 

Because there are so few truly gifted teachers, it is impractical to rely on the naturals. This reality of statistical probability dictates an inevitable gap between master and pedestrian teachers.

Without going into detail about the role of the teacher in motivating students to learn, it can be said that a mediocre teacher tells; a good teacher explains; a superior teacher demonstrates; a great teacher does all three.

Today’s learning technologies give today’s competent teacher a capacity to perform well beyond that of the ablest teacher of 50 or 100 years ago, and the technologies enable the outstanding teacher of today to produce learning miracles.

Learning Smarter

The world is changing. Developing countries are hungry for knowledge. They want to put new and old knowledge to work to become more productive and more effective competitors.

We all know this. This requires us to prepare students for tomorrow’s realities.

Today’s reality (and tomorrow’s) calls for continuous learning and training.

Students must be equipped with something that yesterday’s schools paid little attention to: They need to learn how to learn.

They will need this skill to economically survive. Schools must prepare students to learn again and again––to keep up in their respective fields and for second and possibly third careers.

Said Drucker: “They must be prepared to want to learn––to see it not as something they need to do, but as something they enjoy doing… they will have to learn how to learn… they will have to have acquired the habit of learning.”

Drucker pointed out, again and again, many students lose self-confidence. And that’s the greatest barrier to learning. Much of Drucker’s writing on the subject deals with overcoming this deficiency in our educational system.

In essence, Drucker proposed three principles upon which our school system must be based:

• Schools must focus on the student’s strengths (as opposed to their weaknesses)

• Schools must recognize that one of the best ways to learn is to teach others

• Schools must employ learning technologies to enable young people to work individually at their own speed, rhythm and attention span

Focusing on the Learner’s Strengths 

For starters, we know how people learn how to learn. All it requires is focusing on the strengths and talents of learners so that they will excel in whatever it is they do well.

Said Drucker: “Any teacher of young artists––musicians, actors, painters––knows this. So does any teacher of young athletes." 

But most schools are forced––understandably––to focus instead on a learner’s weaknesses. That’s the way the system works. As Drucker explained:

When teachers call in the parents of a 10-year-old, they usually say: ‘Your Jimmy has to work on the multiplication tables. He is way behind.’

They rarely say: "Your Jimmy should do a good deal more writing to do even better at what he already does well.”

Teachers tend to focus on the weaknesses of students, and for good reasons: The school has to endow students with the basic skills they need, no matter which way they choose to go. 

But––and this is a very big but––“one cannot build performance on weaknesses, even on corrected ones; one can build performance only on strengths.”

Schools are problem-focused. But that must change. In today’s society, teachers will have to learn to say: “I will focus on your child’s strengths and that will give him/her self-confidence and self-esteem. 

Children must be given a sense of achievement and that means building on their strengths.

When a student focuses on what they’re good at, whether they play computer games or writing, they tend to also improve what they’re not good at. 

In short: By focusing on what they are good at, they become motivated to overcome their weaknesses in other subjects.

Learning by Teaching Others 

“Just as no one learns as much about a subject as the person who was forced to teach it, no one develops as much as the person who is trying to help others to develop themselves.” 

This is a simple, but amazing insight into the learning process. Anyone who has taught/trained others immediately recognizes this Drucker truism. 

Simply put, the best way to learn is to teach. 

Indeed, observed Drucker, “One of the reasons why the one-room schoolhouse of a century ago was such a good learning environment is that the teacher with 70 kids from ages 6 to 16 had to use the older children to tutor and mentor the younger ones… And the older children learned.” 

The key question: How do we put more advanced youngsters to work teaching so that they not only learn but also discover learning and the joy of learning? Much research is being done to go from principle and practice to learning through teaching.

Technology-Assisted Learning 

The technology exists to produce and manage real learning. Electronic messaging, when professionally done, are an excellent way of teaching and communicating. 

Take, for instance, the 30-second television commercial. Every split-second counts; every word means something. As Drucker explained:

“Few teachers spend in their entire teaching careers as much time with thought on preparing classes as is invested in the many months of writing, drawing, acting, filming, and editing one 30-second commercial.” 

More than 50 years ago, Drucker observed:

Electronic messaging conveys accessible information, clear image, and perfect comprehension…

It is just the right length for the attention span of the small child… It is perfect learning in its methodology, is indeed the prototype of the ‘ideal program’ with its three key elements: effective sequence of the material, validation through repetition, and self-motivation of the learner through pleasure. 

We have reviewed some astonishing DVD/streaming programs in fundamentals of mathematics, algebra 1, algebra 2 and others. Great teachers coupled with animations, simulation exercises, and all the rest make difficult concepts exciting and easy to understand. Need we say more?

Indeed, we have also reviewed programs that have built-in tutors. For example, if the student has difficulty with, say, subtraction, he/she is led into a tutorial that teaches subtraction in a way very few teachers could replicate.

Stated differently, technology makes it possible for the individual student to work individually, and work at his or her own speed and rhythm and attention span. Technology can also extend a teacher’s span, the time a teacher is available to spend with individuals.

With the type of technology available today, the student can manage himself or herself quite effectively. As Drucker noted, “You still have to supervise them, but to a large extent, but to a large extent the oldest children do that, if you use them as teachers. 

Asking the Right Questions About Our Educational System

Drucker emphasized the need to ask the right questions. He believed that the most serious mistakes are not the result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions––and getting the right answers. 

Executives in business or administrators in a government agency, parents or their children, policy-makers or citizens, teachers or students must make every effort to address the right questions. 

For decades, people have been asking the wrong questions about how to improve our educational system. At best, they’ve been getting the right answers to the wrong questions. 

Once the right questions are formulated, the school of tomorrow will not just be a restored version of yesterday’s (or today’s) school. 

It will have different objectives and different priorities. It will prepare students for a world that requires continuous learning and re-training. 

We have to facilitate “learning smarter” as opposed to better teaching. Today, many of these tools are now available. Learning technologies, in the last few years, have made remarkable gains. However, the majority on these tools have not yet made their way into the classroom. 

Unfortunately, the focus of many schools is still on teaching, not learning.

Billions of dollars have been spent in an attempt to get better teachers. But it won’t happen. It’s money down the drain if the cost-to-result’s ratio is examined.

Our politicians and educators must begin to ask the right questions about education. If they don’t, America’s economic prosperity, standard of living, income equality, and world standing will greatly diminish. 

The next five years will make unprecedented demands on political courage, political imagination, political innovation, and political leadership. After all is said and done, we need government competence.

Summarizing: Income Equality and Education

For America to remain competitive, its students need to learn more and do so quickly. The Gates Foundation has demonstrated a link between a country’s GDP and the academic test scores of its children. 

Stanford economist Eric Hanushek’s statistical analyses have found “that if a country’s scores were only a half a standard deviation higher than another’s in 1960, its GDP grew a full percentage point faster in every subsequent year through 2000.” 

Translated, long-term growth in the United States is dependent upon dramatically increasing the quality of our educational system. 

Discussions relating to income equality rarely mention equality of effort. It seems that the effort is not only related to the individual student but to the entire system. 

If we wait until these challenges have indeed become insurmountable, perhaps we will never recover.