Helping Learners Learn
Draft document [incomplete]
The How We Learn document is written for the young learner. The document you are now reading is for the parent who wishes to help a learner along. Educators will also find it useful to help them discuss learning with parents.
Here’s what’s covered in this document:
Who is this for?
First read the How We Learn document in full. It’s what your child will hopefully read. Then jump into the present document.
Who is This For?
This is for parents of adolescents. The discussion of learning in the How We Learn document is pitched at the level of learners who are at some ease with an abstract topic and with taking some responsibility.
Younger learners will have trouble with this, but older students (adult learners) should profit from the document just as much as adolescents. Learning processes are the same at any age, but not attention spans, nor the refinement of one’s memory models. What makes sense to a fifteen year old might appear mysterious to a seven year old.
If you are the parent of a younger learner…
You will still profit from understanding yourself how learning happens and you can still help your child along. Just don’t expect the learner to function at the level of the adolescent. You should also learn something about developmental psychology, the science of how the child develops, particularly in cognitive abilities.
If you are an adult learner…
You can profit from reading the How We Learn document and the present document as well. Just adapt it as you go: you are not the parent helping a child, but rather an adult helping him- or herself. Sure, why not?
If you are an educator…
You probably know most of this already. Still, the topic is presented in an unusual way, not your typical review of learning theory from educational psychology. Use the two documents to stimulate reflection and as the basis for discussion with your colleagues and parents. If you find the How We Learn document appropriate, have your needy learners read it.
As you now know, learning is very natural. All it needs are the right conditions. When learning isn’t happening, if your youngster can fix those conditions, then all will get well. Learning is a personal process, so he or she must do the fixing; you can’t do the learning.
Sometimes, the learner gets in a rut and just can’t fix the situation. That’s where you can help.
Typical ruts students get into
1. Out of synch. Class instruction is generally group-paced and if a learner fails to grasp an early concept, then more advanced concepts that build on that will just fail to click. Help your youngster figure out what earlier concepts are mastered or not so that he or she can catch up.
2. Low self-esteem. Your youngster might think he or she is inadequate, that the topic is just too hard. Convince your youngster that he or she can do it. Let him know that you know he can do it.
3. Passive learning stance. Learners often think they have to accept whatever situation is handed them. Convince your youngster that there are probably alternatives and that he should think about them. Have him accept that it is up to him (perhaps with some help) to fix the inadequate situation.
4. Stuck in a rut, unsure how to get out of the box. Your youngster might not be able to figure out why learning is not happening. Get him to learn about learning and help him diagnose the troubled situation so that he can decide how to fix it.
5. Too proud to seek help. Asking for help is often difficult for teenagers, so you may not be asked to help at all. Find an acceptable way to get involved with your youngster’s difficulty.
6. Naïve view of learning. Many youngsters simply have faulty ideas (misconceptions) about how they learn and how to study. Set them straight once you figure it out yourself, as you are now doing.
Misconceptions about learning
1. Learning is simply accumulating knowledge. The old idea of learning as filling up one’s head with various bits of information is still prevalent. But wrong. Knowledge is not just accumulated information, it is structured information. Some learning involves simple facts, true, but most of it involves integrating information into memory models that are structured so as to make sense. So there is a lot more going on that just accumulating knowledge.
2. Learning comes mainly from rehearsing information. Sometimes, rehearsal is the only way to go, but not usually. Learners who fail to grasp something that should be understood will sometimes fall back on learning it by rote. Not a good idea, because further understanding down the road might well have this information as a prerequisite. There is a likely rut in the making if understanding is replaced by rote learning.
3. Some stuff is just too hard to learn. That is the case only when the situation is not right. Putting it right eliminates the problem. Thinking that some topic is basically easy simply means that the situation is right. A topic is never hard in itself; anything can be mastered given the right conditions.
Misconceptions about school
1. School is just right for learning. –conditions not always right for all in a group
2. School is the best place for learning. –only one place among others, some people among others
3. There is no hope out of school. – double trouble can be remedied, but at a steeper price
Now, you should not get the idea that schooling is not important. It is the best way to prepare your youngster for life. It is (or can be) a rich environment for learning, full of resources (information and people) to help your youngster learn.
But what is outside of school can also be put to use to help your youngster learn. You yourself can help.
What you can do
1. Learn all you can about learning and how to get things right. Figure out your youngster’s status and what might be happening.
2. Discuss learning with your youngster on an ongoing basis. Develop trusting relationship concerning learning.
3. Talk to your youngster’s teachers about any current problems. And anybody else…
4. Get involved in helping put things right. –eg TV. Learning along with your youngster…
Just like your youngster, you yourself might be a tad shy in seeking outside help. If serious problems do develop in your youngster’s learning, seek the advice of other people whose insights you respect (not forgetting, though, that misconceptions can be rampant). If necessary, consult professionals such as tutors, teachers, principals, educational psychologists.
More on Learning
If you are interested in the theory of learning underlying these documents, link to the Learning chapter in my free online book Theoretical Learning Technology, set up as a website. You will also find many a book on educational psychology and schooling in your local library. And of course, a great deal of information on the Internet.
I well remember myself struggling with learning as an adolescent (to the point of nearly taking to the woods!). Fortunately, I haphazardly worked things out and succeeded in my studies. How I wish, still, that I had had some help at the time in figuring out what was off track.
You have that opportunity now to help that youngster of yours, should he or she need a helping hand, unknowingly or not.
All the best!
Philip Duchastel, Ph. D.