All learning is a consequence of thinking.
I have these words printed and posted on the wall above my desk. It is a reminder of what I believe is a vital understanding. The consequences of this one statement are quite profound. They fundamentally shape what I do as an educator and the experiences I hope to create for my learners.
They are words adopted from the research of Project Zero. They point towards a dispositional model of learning where the learner is actively involved in the process. The implication of this is that even the most effective teaching can only create the possibility of learning. Unless the learner is actively engaged in the act of learning and deploys strategies which achieve this purpose, learning is unlikely to occur. Our role as teachers then is to create the conditions most likely to engage the learner in this process. We must make our learners think. We must allow time for them to think and to reflect upon their thinking. We must notice, name and value the thinking they do and guide them towards thinking strategies which maximise the impact their thinking has.
Looked at from this perspective, learning is an event that occurs within the mind of the learner. It is the result of the mind’s interaction with a stimulus such that a change occurs in long term memory. The individual forms and reforms schemas that bring new capabilities and knowledge into their repertoire. This learning may be stimulated by the directed actions of an educator. It may occur while we are in groups or on our own. It can be the result of a deliberate effort to learn or as a consequence of our daily interactions with the world. Regardless of where or how it originates, learning requires the individual mind to process the experience and from this form new schemas. This is what learning is.
We do hope to make this process more efficient and leave less of it to chance. There are certain actions and behaviours which are more likely to result in learning. As Cohen (2008) points out, autonomous learning requires learners to rehearse and apply learning strategies, structure his/her own learning, and critically reflect upon her/his own learning processes. The role of the educator is at least in part to introduce our learners to the strategies they might deploy to enhance their learning.
Critical to becoming a master of learning is a collection of metacognitive strategies. In simple terms, metacognition is an awareness or noticing of one’s thinking. As described by Seifodin Rajabi, metacognition is the ability to reflect on what you know and do and what you do not know and do not do. The metacognitive learner actively deploys strategies which guide them towards a goal, shine a light on how their understanding is evolving and pose questions for further inquiry. O’Malley and Chamot (1990) share that “students without metacognitive approaches are essentially learners without direction or opportunity to plan their learning, monitor their progress, or review their accomplishments and future learning directions”.
For this model to apply to the self-regulation of learning the teacher must re-imagine themselves as an expert learner, problem finder and problem solver who models the methods and dispositions of learning. Our students need to see that we are knowledgeable, as a result of our learning experiences and skilled in the processes of acquiring, analysing and applying the fruits of our learning. In short, we need to model our capacity to learn. This requires that our students see us engage with ideas which we have not yet mastered, where we need to draw on our capacity to learn.
This transformative process, where the teacher comes to understand that they require more than content knowledge, is described by Mehta & Fine. They share their observations of and interview with a Philosophy teacher who shares his altered awareness of his role in the learning process. “I was no longer the authority on the text... ‘Well, I have my own thoughts about it but they’re not actually what matter,’ or, ‘I don’t claim to know the bottom line about this book. I can tell you my own personal feelings about it but I don’t have the answer. I think that’s really scary for a lot of teachers ’cause basically what you’re doing then is you’re walking into a big question mark. In fact, you are the question mark.” The story of this teacher’s transformation from the source of knowledge to question mark is compelling because of the level of engagement and learning that this approach produces. By focusing on transmitting powerful messages about what learners do, by modelling the process of asking and exploring questions, he establishes conditions within which his learners can think and therefore learn.
For some educators realising that all learning is a consequence of thinking can come with a degree of fear. Some will cling to the belief that if we teach it and teach it well, it will be learned. There is a sense that the act of teaching is diluted when we believe that even our very best efforts may produce no learning if our students are not engaged in thinking. When we embrace the importance of thinking, teaching is elevated above a service for the transmittal of information. We become provocateurs and catalysts for thinking, sparkers of imagination and guides to wonderment and exploration. This is why I am happy to agree that “All learning is a consequence of thinking”.
By Nigel Coutts
Cohen, A. D. (2008). Speaking strategies for independent learning: A focus on pragmatic performance. In S. Hurd, & T. Lewis (Eds.), Language learning strategies in independent settings (pp. 119-140). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
O’Malley, J.M., & Chamot, A. U. (1990) Learning strategies in second language acquisition. New York: CUP.
Mehta, J. & Fine, S. (2019) In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School Harvard University Press.
Rajabi, S. (2012) Towards self-regulated learning in school curriculum. Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences 47, 344–350