#16: A Few Scattered Drafts on Learning How to Learn

What should schools be good at? The quick answer: learning – and teaching students to learn. It is almost an educational truism that students in schools should “learn how to learn” and to sharpen the mindsets that would help them to do such. I’ve always assumed, pragmatically, that students just forget whatever they learn after they are tested for that knowledge, so unless they are particularly turned on with such information, then they should at least be able to graduate with something of value: ways to learn how to learn plus the mental acuity for such.


In the Philippines, what is school’s function? There always goes the familiar chorus: “So that children will grow up and be able to get jobs.” That underscores most of serious schooling talk in the Philippines aside from grades, tests, and schedules. It’s a constant grind: parents remind children to study hard to get high scores in tests to get good grades, and there’s no letting down because the schedules are tight. At the base of all these is the hope that all graduates would somehow be able to get good jobs, mostly abroad, where plenty of money is to be earned. Diplomas, moreover, serve as social signals that someone is educated; just notice how they are conspicuously displayed at every home, along with some medals and certificates.


I’m not saying that education should stray as far as it can from industrial demand. Of course, schools need to produce a mass of graduates able to take on high-level technical work. But we can’t just manufacture students who can “do” without building up their thinking. Many technical procedures today might become outdated later on, and many new ones will emerge. Graduates are in a better position to learn those new techniques if they know how to learn – thus saving themselves from becoming what Alvin Toffler called the “illiterates of the 21st century”. And, oh, many professionals today insist that most of the stuff they know came from the job itself.


A strong proposal: Leave the expertise to the jobs; while at school, teach students to learn how to learn, with the subjects as vehicles to that end. Ideally, I want every last student in the Philippines to learn Math. It’s a highly rewarding discipline; it has the dual benefit of having lots of industry applications and its being hospitable to play. One can do Math with a definite purpose or without one. However, Math teachers know well that with a few exceptions, most of the Math (content) that students learn goes down the drain. So while teachers should still teach Math, they should do so in such a way that students will become curious with every discussion, not feel trapped with the knowledge they have (couldn’t it be possible that sometimes knowledge can be trap – we’d rather be inside it than confront the outside world where wolves sometimes thrive?)


Curiosity is important in “learning how to learn”, and such a trait manifests in constant questioning. Schools should certainly encourage this attitude; when a teacher declares “Any questions?”, he or she better be sincere. Connected to this is the purpose of questioning; is its main (perhaps for some, only) purpose to assess what students already know? What if teachers began asking questions without needing students to answer, with just the remark that these questions are good questions but they need not be answered right away? After all, the best questions always stick in the minds of interested thinkers for hundreds or even thousands of years.


Many of us still assume, naively, that doing is what happens when learning is finished. That is the notion behind the “study well so that you’ll get a good job”. Curiosity can eradicate that notion: when you do something, you learn from it; you constantly reflect; you find better ways to do it; you can find creative twists to it. Curiosity surely helps anyone explore all that is contained within an action, from participants to stakeholders to methods of improvement to “whether it deserves to be done at all”, and such exploration is learning, and it mostly involves asking the right questions and chasing down partial or total answers to them. With this, learning is already doing; the two are not any more distinct.

Do teachers think similarly? Is learning to them a part of doing, or something that should happen before doing? The teacher’s way of teaching will show her orientation toward both learning and doing, and students will absorb what they see.


One of my friends just remarked that he wanted to be freed from the pressure of books and he doesn’t want to hold any more books forever. I wonder what has happened exactly to him, but it could be this: Books are not something to be read, but “pressed” upon him. Reading, for him, has become a passive activity in which he becomes a receiver, not an active one in which he is deliberate. Reading can’t always be “You have to” from without if it is to be sustainable; it has to be often an “I will” from within.

There could be a Pyrrhic victory behind his situation – he got what he wanted from his education, but I wish he didn’t get an aversion to further learning, especially from books which give not only information but also ways on mobilizing and organizing them with due thoughtfulness.


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