Teaching How to Learn

The Living and Learning with New Media (Ito, Horst, Bittani, et al., 2008) report was published in November 2008. I read it right away in its entirety and have been thinking about it ever since. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how the findings of this project can assist teachers and teacher educators. What, I kept asking myself, can educators learn from this report? More importantly, how can these lessons then be applied in our classrooms and teacher education programmes?

As I read and re-read this document I kept returning to its final section, “Conclusions and Implications.” The final heading in this section struck a chord because it closely aligns with my doctoral research study and my current interest in assessment. The authors of the study state:

We see peer-based learning in networked publics … in these settings, the focus of learning and engagement is not defined by institutional accountabilities but rather emerges from kids’ interests and everyday social communication (Ito, Horst, Bittani, et al., 2008, p.38).

The study then goes on to state that “peers are an important driver of learning” (p.39) – not a revolutionary statement by any means, but important here in the light of what follows:

When these peer negotiations occur in a context of public scrutiny, youth are motivated to develop their identities and reputations through these peer-based networks, exchanging comments and links and jockeying for visibility. These efforts at gaining recognition are directed at a network of respected peers rather than formal evaluations of teachers or tests (p.39).

It’s not surprising that interactions with peers and even adults in an interest-driven community are more engaging and more fulfilling than traditional classrooms where teachers and their textbooks and tests are often presented as more important than independent thinking and personal growth. Motivation emerges from interactions that take place online where anyone can see and participate in them. This “context of public scrutiny” is of great importance here. The safety of the self-contained classroom, one separated (by walls and firewalls) from the rest of the world – the world we are supposed to prepare our students for – goes against everything that surrounds young people today and prevents them from learning how to navigate the complex online world. Instead of separating our students from the world they’re getting ready for, instead of cocooning them in protected classrooms, we need to give them opportunities to learn from and with people who share their passions. We need to give them access to communities “where they can find role models, recognition, friends, and collaborators who are co-participants in the journey of growing up in a digital age” (p.39).

What this means to me is that we need to seriously re-think not only our classrooms (we’ve known that for a while), but also, more importantly, our assessment and evaluation practices.

According to the report, we need to give our students access to “passionate hobbyists and creators” who share their work and passion in interest-driven communities, and who are valuable educationally because “youth see them as experienced peers, not people with authority over them”(p.39). Clearly, reducing access to these communities and the interactions they afford to letter or percentage grades is going to make our practices not only irrelevant but also, frankly, irresponsible. Opening up our classrooms to allow interest-driven interactions with people who “are not authority figures responsible for assessing kids’ competence, but are rather what Dilan Mahendran has called ‘co-conspirators'” (p.39) means that we have to start thinking very seriously about preparing our students for these interactions and helping them reflect on and learn from them.

How do we do it?

Some suggest that the tools teens embrace outside of school need to play a more prominent role in the classroom. Yes, these tools can help promote meaningful interactions, self-expression, and reflection. But let’s not forget that merely bringing Web 2.0 tools into the classroom misses the point. Yes, they do promote peer-based interactions and self-expression. But adding blogging or wikis or even global collaborative projects to our curricula is not going to magically transform our static classrooms into interest-driven communities, and it certainly is not going to prepare the students to safely and effectively navigate “networked publics” (Ito, Horst, Bittani, et al., 2008, p.8). These tools are not going to magically create interest-driven communities. I have visited eight classrooms over the past four months, and in all but one I was shown both a class blogging community (or an online collaborative project) and also a list of teacher-generated prompts or assignments to be completed by each student for that very project. Will Richardson once referred to this as “assigned blogging” and, let me assure you, the phenomenon is alive and well.

I don’t mean to say that there is no point in bringing technology into our classrooms. No, we have the responsibility to help our students learn how to effectively and safely use these new tools to extend and share their knowledge, make competent decisions, navigate “networked publics”, and connect with those whose experiences can enrich their lives and their understanding of things they are passionate about. Our students need places where they can learn how to safely construct their online identities. They need to practice and acquire new media literacies. But the mere presence of technology in our classrooms is not going to help our students acquire these new literacies. Neither will using them to complete teacher-generated assignments. We have the responsibility to open up our walls and show our students that we want their passions and interests to grow beyond our physical classrooms, our class blogs, our textbooks, and our lesson plans. We also need to show them how to do it safely. It’s time to reach beyond what we traditionally mean when we use the word “school.”

But when our students reach beyond our classroom walls – even if it is with our permission or encouragement – we’re not quite sure what to do. We stand there a bit sheepish, and we start thinking how to fit what they’re doing into the course curriculum. How do we justify that brave act of opening our classroom walls? More importantly, how do we grade what the students have done? As Michael Wesch recently argued,

All of this vexes traditional criteria for assessment and grades. This is the next frontier as we try to transform our learning environments. When I speak frankly with professors all over the world, I find that, like me, they often find themselves jury-rigging old assessment tools to serve the new needs brought into focus by a world of infinite information. Content is no longer king, but many of our tools have been habitually used to measure content recall. For example, I have often found myself writing content-based multiple-choice questions in a way that I hope will indicate that the student has mastered a new subjectivity or perspective. Of course, the results are not satisfactory. More importantly, these questions ask students to waste great amounts of mental energy memorizing content instead of exercising a new perspective in the pursuit of real and relevant questions (Wesch, 2009).

In other words, “the pursuit of real and relevant questions” is too complex for our rubrics, checklists, and multiple choice quizzes. I believe that it demands that we get involved as co-investigators who assist students with their independent research and who also, through personal engagement as online learners and collaborators, model what it means to be successful as a learner. We have to become “co-conspirators” or, to use Vygotsky’s famous term, “more capable peers,” whose job is not to measure and evaluate but, primarily, to promote and support reflection and analysis in our students. As educators, we need to work on our role in the classroom as “passionate hobbyists and creators,” we need to engage in learning in our classrooms, and in doing so we need to move towards a different model of assessment and evaluation.

“Become Students Again”

And that is precisely what I’m interested in – how do we redesign our outdated assessment and evaluation mechanisms to support our students as they venture outside of our classrooms and into interest-driven online communities?

I suggest that we follow and support our students. This isn’t just about granting them leave to learn from and with somebody else in some online community that we’ve approved. This is also about traveling with them, not to supervise or hold their hand, but to advise as more experienced peers – to explore, learn alongside them, and help them reflect on what they are learning. It’s about creating classrooms where, as Michael Wesch recently said, we can “become students again, pursuing questions we might have never imagined, joyfully learning right along with the others” (Wesch, 2009). We need to be there for them to show them how to learn. We need to show them that we’re learning too, online and off. We need to show them that we reflect and set goals. We need to model those processes and learn to support our students in these new environments and interactions. It is our responsibility to help our students understand that learning how to learn means acquiring “a collection of good learning practices … that encourage learners to be reflective, strategic, intentional, and collaborative” (James et al., 2007, p.28). Teaching our students, not as whole grades, not as classes, but as individuals, how to learn in the world where knowledge resides in webs, nodes, and multifaceted connections and correspondences is now our greatest responsibility.

Of course, the biggest question for me right now is: what does all of this look like in practice?



Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Herr-Stephenson, B., Lange, P. G., Pascoe, C. J., and Robinson, L. (2008). Living and learning with new media: Summary of findings from the digital youth project. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning.
James, M. et al. (2007). Improving learning how to learn. Classrooms, schools, and networks. New York: Routledge.
Wesch, M. (2009, January 7). From knowledgeable to knowledge-able: Learning in new media environments. Academic Commons. Retrieved January 7, 2009, from http://www.academiccommons.org/commons/essay/knowledgable-knowledge-able

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34 Responses to Teaching How to Learn

  1. sylvia martinez January 16, 2009 at 1:55 pm #

    Besides being a “more capable peer”, it seems like the teacher’s role should also be to encourage students to float in and out of that role as well. It’s too bad we segregate kids into tight age and ability levels, it makes it less likely that they contact peers with different abilities.

    I’m sure you’ve seen the “Minimally Invasive Education” theories of Sugata Mitra. His hole-in-the-wall experiments show that even without a teacher, peers took on these roles as they taught themselves to use computers.

    A teacher should honor and support these kinds of emerging systems, and has to be careful that they are not just refocusing the system around themselves.

  2. Dr. Sanford Aranoff January 17, 2009 at 10:01 am #

    Yes, teachers must teach how to learn. They must first understand how students think, and build from there. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

  3. Dave Biscoff January 18, 2009 at 7:41 pm #

    There’s a book called ‘The Creative College’ by Graham Jeffery that you might like to look at. It’s got a lot of case studies from an innercity, urban college about how the principles you are writing about here got put into practice by a fairly inspirational team of teachers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I think you might like it.

  4. Kevin Chen January 19, 2009 at 6:34 am #

    I think the potential in these social tools, particularly for peer-based learning environments is really impressive. One of the most curious peer-based networks is in languages — where skills sets between a domestic and foreign student can be complementary.

    Harnessing students’ passion and creativity I think is key — it reminds me of the shift in web 1.0 to web 2.0 — from passively reading and watching, to actively participating and creating.

    I think the link between applying technology to education is still at an early stage. There aren’t many norms, or generally accepted standards yet — which is why I agree teachers need to be actively involved in guiding students, and also learning about how to apply these new technologies. It isn’t just a technological shift — it may require a cultural shift on education.

    Fred Wilson, a VC who’s interested in education in technology, also has a great post (which generated many many comments) which is related to this.

  5. Konrad Glogowski January 19, 2009 at 12:50 pm #


    Thank you for your comment. I agree, peer-assessment and collaborative projects in general have to play a key role in this strategy. I think you also highlighted one of the major weaknesses of schooling as it exists today (in most places), and that is that “we segregate kids into tight age and ability levels, it makes it less likely that they contact peers with different abilities.” The work of Mitra and others (research on peer-assessment and Computer Supported Collaborative Learning) definitely shows that we should be pursuing this.

    – Konrad

  6. Konrad Glogowski January 19, 2009 at 1:02 pm #


    I’ve been looking for practical examples and this sounds like a very interesting read. I’ll take a look at it. Thank you for the suggestion.

    – Konrad

  7. Konrad Glogowski January 19, 2009 at 1:14 pm #

    Thanks for the comment and the link, Kevin. You’re right, Wilson’s ideas align well with mine. You mentioned standards in your comment, which made me think that one of the standards I am passionate about is simply this: supporting learners as individuals. Of course, that does entail many different things, but the bottom line is that we’ve grown used to a system where state-mandated outcomes are more important than individuals. We must work to change this.

    – Konrad

  8. Steve Ransom February 17, 2009 at 9:26 am #

    I think a critical and missing point in all of this is how to operationalize all of this. Education is generally how it is because teaching “the masses” is no easy task and we default to what is most manageable and efficient rather than what is perhaps most relevant, powerful and meaningful. Teachers, IMHO, have seldom been prepared for the latter types of teaching, with or without our new networked potential. Schooling as a structure does neither value nor encourage these types of practices either, as Konrad alludes to in his comment on the “system” of schooling. Until these discussions move from the theoretical toward the logistical and politics of operationalizing them, our wheels will continue to spin and teachers will continue to be both unprepared and frustrated.

  9. margaret akoth mboya March 9, 2009 at 6:24 am #

    I agree with the suggestion of including computer in and out the classroom.In that it will make peers to be an important driver of learning. Motivate the learners. The interactions with peers and even adults will be more engaging and fulfilling than tradition classroom.
    My experience as innovative woman who underwent the training in ICT recently in Dec.2008 at Migori Teachers Training College-Kenya: members were interest-driven, they were curious and wanted to know the computer basic.
    Interaction with one another was encouraging as one wants to know the skills and so, try to get the information from anybody in the computer laboratory regardless of sex and tribe.With the peers,I think this will do away with peer segregation in and out of classroom.
    Some members in the training thought computer is a delicate tool.
    Computer should be used by people like proffessors e.t.c
    We all realised computer has so many informations, and can be included in and out classroom.
    I think all the experience we had before, during and after training,is the same exprience the learners will have both in and out the classroom.

  10. Anna March 16, 2009 at 3:59 am #

    Thank you for sharing this. I am constantly thinking about how technology tools can be used to help inspire students (both children and adults) to become life long learners–scientists at life!

    The operations and logistics of this as you mention is a huge challenge. I have found many of the ideas on Curriki to be particularly useful for this, especially the lessons on education technology.

    As you explore this topic and create curricula around the meaningful use of technology in the classroom to inspire student learning and exploration, you may want to consider submitting your curricula to Curriki’s “Summer of Content” initiative. This is an opportunity for teachers to share their own curricula units online with a Curriki audience of several hundred thousand educators.

    Select applicants will receive a stipend for their work and with have their content featured on the homepage of Curriki. To learn more, click here.

    Just in case, your readers are unfamiliar with Curriki…

    Curriki–an online education community of teachers, students and other education stakeholders committed to using and sharing free, open-source K-12 instructional materials with others around the globe.


  11. Power Learning 21 March 31, 2009 at 5:09 pm #

    “Learning how to learn” sounds like a complicated phrase but it’s as simple as finding out what really works for a person.
    Everyone is unique and therefore absorbs things in different ways. So we have to deal with the facts the some are not learning in classrooms, but could learn just by watching TV or read a book on their own.

    Great article.

  12. Anthony Morrison July 21, 2009 at 12:05 pm #

    Being student again is strange for a teacher, but in this case we need to improve our learning and teaching skills.

  13. Nicole Huett August 14, 2009 at 6:07 am #

    A well thought through write up, one of those I really admire! Though initially it appeared a bit conservative on use of technology, emphasizing on the aspects that matter is what is good. I would like to add a perspective to use of technology, what really matters is how the technology is added. Many of the articles suggest using so many different technology, so far I’ve found very few that can actually make a difference and not create an overhead. As an educationalist, I’ve been very picky about what I should use with my students. For e.g., one of my favs is this online flashcard system that effectively creates the right environment and also has managed to attract a very good set of users, many professors and students to create high quality interactive flash cards. You must take a look to really see the benefits. Technology use when done in the right sense to create the useful environment is what makes it effective.

  14. Gurmit Singh August 29, 2009 at 11:38 am #

    Hi Konrad, and all,

    I have been thinking about how to measure outcomes as well.

    You wrote that we are “a system where state-mandated outcomes are more important than individuals. We must work to change this.”

    I think to do this, the education research and practice community needs to get better at engaging parents and societies. A lot of parents say grades make “common sense” though those of us in education know they are but a blunt measure of anything, if anything.

    In Geneva, a referendum was just held and most people voted to bring back grades and streaming. So all the assessment tests are changing again back to what they used to be.

    How can we make sure we include parents and societies in our change strategy? Do they also need to be educated as we go further with our exploring of learning & technologies?

    – Gurmit

  15. Peter Jones September 19, 2009 at 10:38 am #

    “Learning how to learn” gets to heart (literally) of my ongoing project – Hodges’ model which may also prove of interest here:


    One of the original purposes for the model (a conceptual framework) was reflection. A key problem for learners is synthesis and the model can support reduction and wholist approaches and various problem solving and teaching methods. I’ve just updated a page with indicative content for the model’s four care (knowledge) domains:


    The point about students needing to prepare for several forms of interaction and subsequent reflection is very well made.

    Thanks for a great article.

    Peter Jones
    Hodges’ Health Career – Care Domains – Model
    h2cm: help2Cmore – help-2-listen – help-2-care

  16. Shanna Lipp October 5, 2009 at 7:19 pm #

    Your words express my thoughts exactly! How can we mold students that will evaluate and question the world around them? There is little value in memorizing facts, for most facts are available literally at our fingertips via the internet.
    I have a Smart Board in my classroom which is technologically fancy and advanced, but is it really aiding in my students’ ability to process learning?!
    I was in the middle of teaching 8th grade science today and our subject matter was the various methods scientists use to observe the universe. I was disgusted with the way the lesson was going because I felt that we were just reading a bunch of facts; there was no thought or questioning occuring. My students were tuned out and I felt that I had failed them. I had not found a dynamic way to engage them in learning.

  17. Colin Campbell November 12, 2009 at 12:48 pm #


    I agree with much of what you say about the evolving role of teachers and the way we can more skillfully use digital tools to guide our students rather than lead them. I have fallen into so many of the pitfalls you described as I have tried to develop an effective blog network amongst my students with the occasional emergence of peer review and debate being the only real value in the project. Ewan Macintosh is worth watching and listening to on these issues http://www.slideshare.net/ewan.mcintosh/unleasing-the-tribe. Learning from rather than replicating students’ social tools is very much part of his message. Thanks for the excellent post,

    Colin Campbell

  18. Julie Buck February 2, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    I really enjoyed your article. I am a second-career educator and fully believe that educators have a responsibility to continue their education to be the most effective teachers they can be. Investment brokers are constantly learning about new funds to help shape a client’s portfolio – why shouldn’t teachers be continually learning new strategies to teach their students to balance out their “educational portfolio?”

    As technology changes, the format of our classrooms must change. Teaching must change. Educators, or peers, should be the ones to show the students how to surf the web, or how to find information on Einstein’s theory of relativity or just how to pass the SAT exams so that we can guide them, shape them, and with a little luck, instill in them the same creative desire we have for learning.

  19. Judi Buenaflor June 6, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    Opening up the classroom to engage students is critical for deep understanding and rich curriculum. As you pointed out in another blog, we as teachers do not have to be the sole source of knowledge but should expose our students to others who bring a fresh perspective. Speakers and field trips broaden the scope of learning and promote motivation along with your suggestion of using technology to “open up the classroom walls.” This is what we hope to do with our students and these strategies can accomplish this. Ironically, using technology as the only means of opening the classroom can be limiting. We must not forget the human element and bring in real people and expose students to real experiences by physically moving out of the four classroom walls. All of these techniques together can produce the transference of learning that we hope to accomplish. In trying to open up the world to students, let’s not be limiting ourselves.

    Judi Buenaflor

  20. Joanne Werner July 15, 2010 at 4:38 pm #

    I am very much on board when it comes to changing the system of assessment. As a middle school teacher I have used collaborative projects and infused multiple forms of technology into my classroom. When I check in on the students they seem to be “getting” the main concepts that I hoped they would. This is a type of assessment but not a formal assessment. When given formal assessments like the multiple choice quizzes you mentioned, students that appeared to understand the concept miss these questions. I agree that there is something wrong with how learning is assessed. I am beyond perplexed as to how to remedy this situation. I can’t imagine the upheaval in the community if educators said there were no more standard letter grades or averages. The system is broke, now how do we fix it?

  21. Alison Brie September 29, 2010 at 6:40 pm #

    Very interesting stuff, I ended up here very randomly and am happy to learn more about peer-based learning, as the lecturing kind of teaching I do does not work for me…thanks :-)


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