Learning How to Learn — Igniting the Spark

Going beyond sparking curiosity to sustaining it thru self-guided learning

Photo of Kevin Mattingly
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Learning How to Learn--Igniting the Spark

In many ways, sparking curiosity in a young learner is relatively easy. We enter the world hungry to seek patterns in our sensory surround and make meaning of it through exploration and play. It’s how we sustain curiosity that is the difficult part, especially in school environments.

The proposal here is to help students independently pursue their curiosity-driven questions by teaching them "how to learn" through recursively sequenced activities and curricula that will allow them to pursue their own interests — and our learning goals — in self-guided and motivating ways. 

What motivates a young child or teenager to pursue learning? We know a variety of external factors work, although relied on solely they can be problematic in graduating life-long learners from our schools. Learners are often motivated intrinsically too — as both our own teaching experiences and formal research reveals — by their growing sense of autonomy and independence, as well as sense of developing competency in pursuing learning goals that have individual purpose and meaning to them.

What is more motivating than being taught over time how to lead one’s own learning, especially with the opportunities provided by the digital revolution for self-guided and self-paced inquiry?  "Learning how to learn" is a set of skills and understandings that frequently aren’t taught and assessed in a coordinated manner in our schools. That said, a growing body of research in cognitive science now presents us with day-to-day and immediate classroom applications, as revealed in recent books like Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, et al, 2014), How We Learn (Carey, 2014), and from accessible summaries in the research literature (for example, Dunlosky, 2013, “Strengthening the Student Toolkit”, American Educator, v.37,3: p12-21).

A learning how to learn curriculum goes beyond study skills and incorporates recent research about strategies for buttressing belonging, creating challenges with assurance, and the development of growth mindsets importantly linked to effective effort (see Yeager et al, 2013, “Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions,” Phi Delta Kappan, v.94, 5: p62-65). It would also help students understand that some of the beliefs they have about learning (e.g., it’s good when it’s easier and not so good when it involves confusion, mistakes, and struggle) or learning strategies they regularly practice (e.g., re-reading highlighted text or notes) are misconceived and create the "illusion of knowing." 

So the proposal here is that we work together to develop a “learning how to learn” array of age-appropriate learning goals, instructional activities, formative feedback strategies, and summative assessments that can be wholly or in-part adapted to our own schools, K through 12. In the process, we rely not only on the wisdom of our own collective practices but the rich and useful research currently available about the science of learning.


Bjork et al (2013) Self-Regulated Learning: Beliefs, Techniques, and Illusions.

Dunlosky (2013) Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Strategies for Boosting Learning.

Resnick & Hall (2005) Principles of Learning for Effort-Based Education,

Yeager et al (2013) Addressing Achievement Gaps with Psychological Interventions.

How does this idea help to spark student curiosity?

The sparks of curiosity we create in our students can be sustainably fanned into life through their own self-guided learning.

What grade level is this idea most appropriate for?

  • All of the above

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Photo of Rick Hall

congratulations Kevin on a great and stimulating post.. one of the key debates for us at Ignite! - a creativity in learning agency in Nottingham UK - is how to progress from curiosity to student-led, enquiry-led learning via research, investigation and experiment.. one solution for us is Lab_13, a space in school dedicated to (and supervised by) students' own investigations.. we have three Lab_13s in primary phase in UK and 2 in Ghana.. you can learn about them here http://www.ignitefutures.org.uk/#!lab-13/ukdyb
and read the pupils' own blogs here
good luck

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