Educational technology tips for teachers, librarians and schools.

Why don’t we learn how to learn? Learning Series, Chapter 1

Why don’t we learn how to learn? Learning Series, Chapter 1

Our brains are incredibly sophisticated learning machines. It is thanks to them that we can learn to talk, walk, socialize, fly airplanes, and do long division.

We all know someone, perhaps a student or a friend, that seems to pick up new skills quicker than the rest.  We might assume it’s because they’re smarter. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe, they just were taught how to learn.

The truth is we can all become better at learning because learning is just another skill like knowing how to drive a car is a skill. Once we unlock this skill, our lives will never be the same again. It’s a shame that learning how to learn as a topic is traditionally overlooked because we would all be so much better off if we developed that skill at a young age.

But here we are.

So please join me on a learning journey, which aims to tackle the two questions, how can we learn to learn better? And, how can we teach our students to become better learners?

This journey will have a few chapters to it since it’s such a powerful topic that inventors like Thomas Edison have pondered and artists like Dali have optimized. Neuroscientists, NFL coaches, and professionals from all walks of life have also added their wisdom to this macro field of education and I want to share their findings with you.

For each learning strategy we cover, we will also explore an example of how that strategy could be manifested in a classroom.

Today’s chapter focuses on the four rules of learning. These four rules apply to whether you’re learning to write a thesis paragraph or throw a football.


Strategy 1: The 4 rules to go from awkwardness to mastery in any skill

This strategy,  which can apply to learning any new skill can be attributed to author Neil Rackham and Hall of Fame NFL coach, Tom Laundry.

Rule 1: Focus on one new skill or behavior at a time. Only when we get it down can we move onto the next.

We are all great multi-taskers…in our heads. In reality, study after study shows that the diffused mind is a less effective mind.

So imagine you are teaching your students to write a persuasive essay. There are many parts to this, including coming up with a compelling thesis, giving context to the thesis via an introduction, finding supporting evidence, etc.

Following this advice, perhaps you provide your students with the overview of an essay and then spend an entire class just having them write a different thesis statement. Only when it’s clear they can write a thesis, do they move on to writing the introduction to the thesis statement.

Rule 2: We must try a new skill at least three times before moving on to a new one.

I know personally, I get a little arrogant when I seemingly master a new skill and then move on quickly to something new. This rule is crucial because a new skill needs to be broken in. It could take many more than three repetitions, but three is a minimum

Returning to the essay example, we would have our students write at least three thesis statements before going to the next step of the essay to make sure they’ve broken in the thesis writing skill. This might seem repetitive and dull, but it’s necessary.

Rule 3: Quantity over Quality

When learning any new skill, we must focus on repetition. There was a study done to test which of two different language learning strategies was most effective. To test the first strategy, students of a new language were told to focus on communicating with their most accurate, vocabulary, grammar, conjugations, etc. Following the second strategy, the second population of students was told to just speak without thinking about using the right word, conjugating the verb the right way, and using the correct grammar. At the end of the year, not only did the second group use many more words in their conversations but their accuracy and grammar was much better. This means that over time, quantity will influence quality too!

FYI this is why at Whooo’s Reading, we have students exclusively respond to critical thinking questions with writing as opposed to multiple choice. We know often their spelling, grammar, evidence citing needs a lot of work, but fundamentally they are getting categorical more practice and exposure to this skill using WR, than they would in any other ELA program.

In the case of our essay example, we would recommend having your students write as many thesis statements as they could in the class period, telling them not to aim for an A+. Perhaps, the teacher could even set a quantity goal, so students don’t become perfectionists. Writer, James Altucher says, that when you can’t think of 10 ideas, the best thing to do is try to think of 20 ideas since that reduces the pressure we place on ourselves.

Rule 4: Practice in safe situations

This rule is pretty self-explanatory. Often we have an urge to try a new technique out when the pressure is high. But why? Let’s aim to master a skill when the stakes are low.

So in the case of the essay example–make sure your students’ first time writing theses statements is not on the state test or the SATs. Have them practice writing these essays when no grade is attached. Keep the pressure low.


When I was learning these 4 rules and in general doing research on different strategies to become a better learner I got very excited. I love learning but I realized that in many regards, I’m an amateur learner. When I’m learning a new complicated skill, for example, how to write better, I often read a book and try to apply all the methods at once. I’m mentioning this because as much as we owe it to our students to help them become better learners, we owe it to ourselves too. We all have things we are passionate about becoming experts in. Maybe it’s learning a new language or getting better at Tennis. Imagine how much more rewarding our lives would be if we could turn our passions and our curiosities into areas of expertise?

Happy learning!

This article is dedicated to my Grandma, Shirley Menko. It’s her 96th birthday today. As one of the only female engineers in the 1940’s (and beyond) she always inspired me to not be afraid of learning new skills.

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