What are the attributes of an effective learner?

29 June 2015  |  By Dr Chris Goldspink


What makes a good learner? Over a decade ago a group of researchers at Bristol University set out to answer this question. The bundle of attributes that they identified through their research they called learning power. Since that time a great deal of evidence about these attributes has been accumulated, including how they play out for different learners and their relative importance in different contexts of learning. Alarmingly, subsequent research has found that the strength of these attributes is often diminished, rather than enhanced, by traditional schooling.

There are few surprises in the attributes. Indeed, they are the attributes many teachers and parents identify as the outcomes they most hope will result from children's participation in education. They also form the focus of many countries intended outcomes of schooling – including those of Australia. The problem is, nowhere in the world are these attributes measured, despite the means existing for doing so.

In the most recent incarnation, resulting from the most recent research, the principal researcher behind this work, Professor Ruth Deakin Crick and her colleagues identify them as:

  • Openness and readiness to learn: An emotional orientation of being open & ready to invest in learning, having flexible self-belief, willing to persist & manage any self-doubt. A necessary pre- requisite for developing resilience in learning
  • Mindful agency: Taking responsibility for my own learning over time through defining my purposes, understanding and managing my feelings, knowing how I go about learning & planning my learning journey carefully.
  • Hope and optimism: Having the optimism & hope that I can learn & achieve over time. Having a growth mindset; believing I can generate my own new knowledge for what I need to achieve
  • Collaboration: being able to work with others, to collaborate and co-generate new ideas and artefacts. Being able to listen and contribute productively to a team.
  • Belonging: Being part of a learning community at work, at home, in education & in my social networks. Knowing I have social resources to draw on when I need them
  • Curiosity: Wanting to get beneath the surface & find out more. Always wondering why and how.
  • Creativity: sing my intuition & imagination to generate new ideas & knowledge. Taking risks & playing with ideas and artefacts to arrive at new solutions.
  • Sense making: Making connections between what I already know & new information & experience. Making meaning by linking my story, my new learning & my purpose.

These are pervasive attributes they are as relevant to adult learning as they are children's. Those who follow Incept Labs research would quickly recognise them as the kind of attributes our research has associated with the functioning of effective Boards and with resilient organisations for example - the foundations for the 'collective cognition' needed to problem find and problem solve at a high level.

If we let go the idea of learning being about remembering or simply internalising second hand knowledge, and focus on it as fundamental to dealing with uncertainty and complexity in our environment as well as about making rather than taking meaning, then we find the core of what our schools need to deliver.

Deakin Crick places these attributes within a continuum - forming just one stage of a learning journey. This journey moves from learner identity, through learning power, to knowledge structuring and competent performance. At present our education system (primary, secondary and tertiary) more or less address the knowledge structuring stage of the journey but, in paying little or no attention on the other stages, has little or even an adverse impact on the development of competent learners. More often they produce learners who are passive and dependent and this has implications for our whole economy. David Price, a Senior Associate with the Innovation Unit in the UK, argues in his report for example that employers are becoming frustrated by what he calls ‘disengaged achievers’: students who, while achieving high marks and grades, cannot deal with the more complex challenges they will face as workers and citizens.

We know a great deal about the teaching and learning practices needed to develop these attributes in learners. We know also that these are not the approaches to teaching and learning our schools are currently designed to deliver and nor, in general, do they (although some teachers manage it despite the institutional constraints). In case any reader believes that this statement is a triumph of belief over evidence we have measured quality of practice linked to these attributes in a representative sample of schools. Furthermore we told the Australian Government about what we found through a Senate enquiry. You can find the report here. If you read carefully though, you will see that the critical evidence was delivered in-camera. We remain hopeful it will eventually be released into the public domain but unfortunately we are not at liberty to place it there. So for now you will have to take our word – these views are based in robust evidence.

It is, therefore, no surprise to us that we see attributes of effective learners decline as students spend more time in formal education. When it comes to building a capacity to learn how to learn, we are systematically 'dumbing down' our population. Furthermore we are doing this through the very institutions we collectively fund and trust to deliver the opposite. 

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