Learning, Study Skills, Teaching

Learning Starts with “Me”

Learning is all about making connections. A vast, but relatively simple system of neurons, axons and synapses, in our brains, is constantly changing as we are exposed to new stimuli.Sensory stimulation strengthens these connections, whilst synapses that are seldom used end up in the recycle bin and are eventually eliminated altogether. Simplistically, this is how we learn and also how we forget. And it all starts with “me” …

As babies, we are born with incredible brain plasticity. Our potential for learning is astronomical, with about 100 billion neurons in our infant brains, just waiting to spin out axons to make synaptic connections. This is why early childhood stimulation is so crucial to laying down pathways for future learning. But let’s move away from the neurological and cognitive jargon and into my version of how an infant thinks it learns:

Got milk?

A baby is hungry. It wants food. It has no idea how to ask for it. Eventually its tummy gets sore and it feels the pain of hunger, which makes it cry. Mother responds to the crying and provides milk. Baby thinks, “Aha! When I cried she satisfied my need.” Baby has just learned that crying results in getting its needs met. Baby then begins to cry if it needs anything; a cuddle, a burp, a nappy change, and so on. Baby gets a bit older and learns that a smile results in happy responses from its parents. It smiles in order to get positive feedback. Our learning continues in this fashion: “What do I need to do, to get what I want?” Baby becomes a toddler and has made enough synaptic connections to realise when things are “wrong” or “different”. Much humour is based on knowing these distinctions.Want to make a two year old laugh? When the dog walks into the kitchen, say, “Ooh – look at that sweet little horse!” The two year old will laugh to demonstrate that they KNOW it’s not a horse and that they know you’re being silly and funny. It’s about, THEM, though. It always is.

“I don’t know how to learn.”

Fast forward a few years – gosh, where did the time go? – and that toddler is now at school, trying to cram all sorts of information into their brain in order to recall it for tests. Many struggle with this. Yet, all of them have demonstrated a remarkable ability to learn. I was with a new student this afternoon who told me, “I don’t know how to learn.” I looked at him (he’s 12) and asked, “Who got you dressed for school today?” He looked rather alarmed and replied, quickly, “I did.” “Well, I said, you’ve got a couple of zips going on there, which are tricky things to figure out, a whole bunch of buttons and a couple of shoelaces which are tied perfectly. It looks to me that you you know very well how to learn and have known for quite a few years now. So, let’s see if we can find a way for you to learn this schoolwork in a way that makes sense to YOU.”

Ask the right questions.

Working one-to-one with students I usually manage to find a way to personalise the learning quite quickly; making it relevant to them, as well as using their particular intelligence strengths to get to grips with understanding and mastering the material.I know that this is not so easy when one is teaching a large class. However, there are many ways to get students to connect with the material themselves. It’s simply a matter of asking the right questions. Questions that get them to think about the subject at hand in a way that forces them to engage with and respond to it personally.

The power of self-learning was made evident to me, yet again, at my two Get Ahead workshops this weekend. I had a group of Grades 5-7 and a second group of High Schoolers. The purpose of the workshops was goal-setting and study habits. I took the students through a reflection activity, that required them to write down their achievements, as well as disappointments from last year. They also had to reflect on which habits were serving them well and which were hindering their academic performance. Later, when we got to goal-setting, they wrote down three new “good habits” that they would begin putting into practice immediately. We spoke about reviewing work daily, about planning and using diaries effectively and I taught them a visual memory technique, among other things. At the end of the workshops I asked if they wouldn’t mind saying, into my cell phone camera, what they felt the most important thing they had learned in the workshop was. Now, truth be told, I was hoping for some quality third-party edification, as they spouted forth the pearls and gems I had bestowed upon them. This didn’t happen, though … and if I’d thought about it, I should have known. There’s no accounting for when the ego will sneak in though 😉

Here’s what happened …

Each and every one of them stated, as the “most significant thing” they learned in the workshop, something that THEY had noticed about themself/decided to change for themself/were going to begin doing for themself. Some of the comments were personal extensions of things I’d presented and taught, but many were personal reflections that they had written down and that I only found out about when I filmed the clips. One little boy said, “I’ve learned that I shouldn’t be a joker in class and tell silly stuff like laughing too loud.” This astonished me, as he’d behaved very appropriately during our time together. This was his own reflection on his past year at school and he had obviously made an important and impactful decision on Saturday afternoon. All I did was ask the question that got him to think, near the beginning of the workshop.

I’m extremely grateful for the reminder I received via the feedback I recorded on Saturday. I will continue my coaching this week, keeping the “me-factor” front of mind as I help students get to grips with their studies. I’ll consciously and purposefully guide them to finding a personal engagement with the work. This way, they will KNOW it, and not just learn it.

Here’s the edited video with some of the reflections from the students who attended the Get Ahead workshop this weekend:


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