'There are no guarantees of success in life, as many factors determine outcomes – not least serendipity'

Dennis Sale

By Dennis Sale

IN the previous four columns I outlined key aspects of the learning process: Motivation, Understanding, and Doing (MUD). Furthermore, these three components are not independent entities, but dynamically interrelated and synergistic. In basic terms, they collectively can either maximise or minimise learning capability. In this and subsequent columns, the focus is on how we can use current knowledge on how humans learn best to the design and application of strategies, techniques, and tools to maximise learning success and mitigate failure. Let’s think of it in terms of mixing one’s MUD – do it well, then you are likely to experience success; do it poorly, then you are likely to fail.

There are no guarantees of success in life, as many factors determine outcomes – not least serendipity. However, what we do have is the capability to make choices, and some choices are better than others. Through a sound understanding of the learning process and using strategies, techniques, and tools that enhance learning and self-regulation, we can take greater control of our chances of success in all life goals.

  • What are learning strategies, techniques, and tools?

In the generic sense, these collectively include evidence-based activities and resources that can be accessed and utilised to facilitate effective learning and well-being – essentially this constitutes personal effectiveness.

To achieve desired goals, we act based on our beliefs about what works. That seems a logical and sensible plan. However, there are good plans and there are poor plans – and we know this – unfortunately usually retrospectively. A good plan must incorporate a sound strategy, whether it’s to become a Premier League footballer, pass A-level exams with A grades, or to develop a particular friendship group. Strategy includes the application of appropriate techniques and tools to achieve successful goal attainment. Techniques are the specific actions/ methods, and tools are the physical or digital resources, that are required to effectively implement the strategy. Here’s a simple analogy, image you are building a house:

  • Strategy is the design blueprint – the plan for the house (e.g. structural design, material selection, electrical circuitry).

  • Techniques are the specific construction methods you use (e.g. steel frame, masonry, concrete).

  • Tools are the physical resources needed to build the house (e.g. drills, saws, hammers, bricks).

A good learning strategy has three main organising components: 1. planning the learning; managing learning performance; and reviewing and evaluating learning. In this column, the focus is on planning the learning and the key considerations that need to be effectively addressed. If this is done thoughtfully, like the foundation in the building of a house, the following stages become easier to implement.

  • Planning the learning

As an old saying goes, ‘fail to plan, plan to fail’. This applies equally to learning almost anything. Essentially, when we seek to learn something new or extend our existing learning in some way, we are going about the business of enhancing aspects of our long-term memory system (e.g. in the language of neuroscience, building on existing neural networks in terms of the richness of pathway connections). Once established, this enhances our understanding of what we are intending to learn and, hopefully, our competence in applying this new learning skilfully in real-world contexts. Here’s a summary of the key areas/questions to address in the planning stage:

1. Assess the task at hand and set key realistic challenging goals for learning

2. Identify interest/value (and personal strengths and weaknesses) for the learning involved

3. Design a learning strategy tailored to meeting desired goals (e.g. what techniques, tools, and other resources will be needed, and how to use them, where, and when).

1. Assess the task at hand and set key realistic challenging goals for learning

The importance of such goals is well documented in the literature. For example, one of the world’s leading educationalists, (Hattie (2009), concluded:

Educating students to have high, challenging, appropriate expectations is among the most powerful influence in enhancing student achievement.

At the initial stage, before setting clear goals, it is useful to assess the learning task(s) at hand and have some idea of what may be involved in terms of the time and resources needed for attaining the knowledge and skills required. Goals need to be challenging but must equally be a “viable proposition” in terms of one’s life situation. If they are too challenging, one may be left with feelings of frustration; this situation is well captured in the saying “you have bitten off more than you can chew”. Equally, if goals are too easy to attain, they won’t stretch competence or build resilience, and may even feed mediocrity and complacency. Challenging and clearly framed learning goals will help to:

  • Shape the learning strategy and identify what techniques and tools need to be employed

  • Focus on what knowledge, skills, and attitudes must be acquired and how

  • Activate the motivational process to identify the level of effort and perseverance required for goal attainment.

2. Identify interest/value (and personal strengths & weaknesses) for the learning involved

As motivation is fundamental to learning, it’s necessary to honest with oneself in terms of how important the learning goals are. We may like to achieve certain goals such as getting fit, losing weight, etc, but often these don’t happen, and there’s a reason for this – as identified prior. Motivation is multifaceted, and many aspects combine to influence the level of commitment and effort that one may put in to meet any specific goal. Some hard questions need to be addressed. These include:

  • Am I sufficiently interested/see value in achieving this learning goal?

  • Have I done a realistic cost-benefit analysis of the resources and effort required?

  • Do I believe that I can and will do what is needed?

Identifying what you know and don’t know (and can or cannot do) is useful for planning future learning, as this helps in evaluating one’s strengths and weaknesses. Firstly, in terms of what knowledge areas and skill levels may need to be developed to meet a specific learning goal. Secondly, in this process, one needs to appraise specific personal dispositions and habits (e.g. belief systems, willpower, and the ability to maintain volition in the face of challenges), as these can also be strengths and weaknesses in a learning journey.

3. Design a learning strategy tailored to meeting desired goals (e.g. what techniques, tools, and other resources will be needed, and how to use them, where, and when).

Having the motivation to succeed is important, including the belief that with effort and perseverance success is possible. However, as Dweck & Master (2012) point out:

…it is not the sheer effort that produces effective learning. Students must also learn how to select strategies that will bring success and alter their strategies when they are not working.

The ability to design an effective learning strategy, and then be able to manage, evaluate, and improve it, is an essential capability in mastering the learning process. This also encompasses a toolkit of techniques and tools, as well as the competency to use them effectively in an integrated efficient way. Remember, you can be the mechanic of your own mind, just as the expert motor mechanic can build an excellent car, but you must acquire the skilful use of the necessary techniques and utilise the appropriate tools effectively. That’s the next column, and as Peters & Waterman Jr. in their world-famous book, In Search of Excellence (1982) wrote, we’ll “stick to the knitting” on this one.

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as advisor, researcher, and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100+ consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

– Advertisement –
– Advertisement –