Beyond silver bullets: towards a framework for meta-learning

Alan Reid

‘Learning to learn’ and the official curriculum

It has become a truism that in the 21st century the speed of change and of knowledge production means that people must become life-long learners. That is, the condition of life now and in the future means that people must have the capacity to learn, transfer knowledge to different contexts, relearn on the basis of new knowledge or experience and keep on learning. This has significant implications for the official curriculum and the work of schools. In particular, it means that attention must be paid to assisting students to understand about learning, as well as what is learned.

There has been an attempt to grapple with ‘learning to learn’ in the Australian Curriculum through the concept of metacognition as one component of the general capability: critical and creative thinking. The AC describes it in the following way:

Students think about thinking (metacognition), reflect on actions and processes, and transfer knowledge into new contexts to create alternatives or open up possibilities. They apply knowledge gained in one context to clarify another. In developing and acting with critical and creative thinking, students:

  • think about thinking (metacognition)
  • reflect on processes
  • transfer knowledge into new contexts. (ACARA, 2018).

However, although this approach does some of the work needed, if an understanding of learning is as central to a knowledge society as is claimed, then in my view it must become a key curriculum component rather than just a small part of one of seven capabilities. If this is to happen, account should be taken of some of the most recent insights into cognition. For these reasons, I am suggesting that learning to learn be elevated to become one of the four central components of the official curriculum, and be named meta-learning.1

What is meta-learning?

One of the earliest users of the term meta-learning was the Australian John Biggs, who described it as a state of being aware of, and taking control of, one’s learning, including the learner’s conceptions of learning, epistemological beliefs, and learning processes and skills (Biggs, 1985). According to Biggs, the meta-learner is able to evaluate the effectiveness of their learning approaches, and regulate them for the learning activity. Of course, Biggs was writing more than 30 years ago, so his interpretation of meta-learning did not take into account some of the developments in learning that have occurred over that time. 

More recently, Charles Fadel and colleagues (2015) resurrected the concept of meta-learning, arguing that it should be one of the central pillars of a 21st-century curriculum. They proposed expanding ‘metacognition’ by adding the idea of ‘growth mindset’—a concept developed by the psychologist Carol Dweck (2016) about the importance of beliefs about one’s capacities to learn. However, this version of meta-learning omits a number of important elements of learning and needs further extension.

In the past few years, there have been some significant advances in such areas as cognitive psychology, with new insights into metacognition, cognitive neuroscience and research into the links between the functioning of the brain and learning, and the collapse of Freud’s division of brain and mind. In addition, the role of emotions in learning, sensory learning, the relationship between learning and physical movement, epistemological beliefs and learning, interpersonal and intrapersonal learning and play-based learning are extending our understandings about learning. These and other areas of research demonstrate that an understanding of the processes of learning involves a range of aspects such as the social, emotional, physical and sensory, which go beyond a focus on metacognition. 

Towards a meta-learning framework for teacher and student use.

In my view, an important future project for education is to combine the insights from these various fields into a coherent meta-learning program/framework designed to help students to reflect on and understand processes of learning in particular contexts and for particular purposes, and to assist teachers with their planning. The aim would be to involve students in deep reflection on their learning as they work with disciplinary, interdisciplinary and capability-based knowledges. That is, meta-learning cannot be introduced separately from the content of what is taught or how it is taught: it is integral to both.2 

Given that researchers are just starting to scratch the surface of understandings about the brain, it would need to be a tentative and ongoing project. It would require collaboration between researchers who represent a number of the research fields that look at different aspects of learning, and educators with a knowledge of pedagogy and curriculum design. The developed program—which would focus on teaching students to understand, develop, monitor, regulate and evaluate approaches to learning—would span the year levels of schooling and connect to other key components of the curriculum such as disciplinary and interdisciplinary understandings and the general capabilities, and be updated as new research comes in.

What are the barriers to meta-learning?

A project to develop a meta-learning framework would have to surmount a number of barriers. The biggest of these is the predilection for education systems to grab the latest passing fad and promote it as a silver bullet. For example, springing from one or more of the learning research fields listed above are educational programs and approaches such as mindfulness, growth mindset, brain-based learning and multiple intelligences. Based on empirical research, each approach claims that it will boost learning and leave students with a lifelong capacity to learn new things in new contexts. Often the approaches are well packaged and marketed, and taken up with enthusiasm, if not zeal, by educators looking for ways to enhance student learning. 

However, all is not as it seems. The speed with which these programs are adopted often leads to problems. Sometimes there is unease about the efficacy of the approaches themselves and the research upon which they are based; and sometimes the developers of the idea itself become concerned about the approach being oversimplified, or distorted beyond recognition. The well-known mindset theory can be used as an example.

Carol Dweck’s mindset theory was developed from her research in cognitive psychology and, over the past twenty years, has become one of the most popular and well-known approaches in education (Dweck 2016). Based on the idea that intelligence is not fixed but can grow through effort and perseverance, Dweck’s views have spread across the world through professional development programs, conferences and packaged resources. Many education systems have urged teachers to adopt growth-mindset approaches.

The problem is that the missionary zeal with which the idea has been embraced has masked some basic issues. A key concern is the questions being asked about the mindset research itself, with some researchers casting doubt about the methodology and the statistics that were used to produce the findings, and others claiming that the results have not been replicated in similar studies. Some researchers, like John Hattie, ask whether a growth mindset is needed for all tasks, or whether it might not be more desirable to have a fixed mindset in some circumstances (Hazell, 2017). A further concern is that the idea allows deep-seated structural factors such as poverty, socioeconomic status and ethnicity to be ignored simply by blaming students or teachers for not having growth mindsets. This academic debate will continue as the idea is tested for its rigour. 

However, there is also a practical problem related to mindset theory in use, with claims that many teachers have oversimplified the idea. Carol Dweck herself is worried about this, saying that some teachers are adopting what she calls a ‘false mindset’:

Often when we see kids who aren’t learning well, we might feel frustrated or defensive, thinking it reflects on us as educators. It’s often tempting to not feel it is our fault. So we might say the child has a fixed mindset, without understanding instead that, as educators, it is our responsibility to create a context in which a growth mindset can flourish.

… another misunderstanding [of growth mindset] that might apply to lower-achieving children is the oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort. Teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying ‘Wow, you tried really hard!’ But students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better. So this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving. (Dweck, quoted in Gross-Loh, 2016).

Indeed, Dweck is so concerned about what she sees as misuse of her work that she has republished her original book and included a new section on ‘false mindset’ (Dweck, 2016). 

None of this is to denigrate the concept of mindset, or those who are using it. Similar stories could be told about educational programs based on mindfulness, or multiple intelligences, or the use of brain-based theory—each of which promises much but is also the subject of considerable criticism. But it does provide a salutary lesson about education systems picking up the latest idea as a silver bullet, and running with it, rather than placing the idea within a broader theoretical framework, rigorously checking out the research and engaging teachers in ongoing professional development. 

Developing a meta-learning framework.

Assuming that there are lessons to be learned from the ‘growth-mindset’ experience, and if the idea of meta-learning has some merit, then there are some important tasks to be undertaken before it can be introduced. These include doing a synthesis of the latest research about meta-learning and turning this into a holistic framework spanning its various cognitive, emotional, physical, sensory and epistemological dimensions. Given the current stage of development, such work would need to be ongoing with the framework amended as knowledge expands. 

One way to avoid the silver bullet syndrome that has plagued some of the earlier simplistic attempts to translate the results of brain research into pedagogical proposals would be to have educators working with researchers in other fields, and in other projects. An example of the latter is the Australian Brain Initiative, which includes an aim to ‘harness the plasticity of the brain to improve teaching and learning outcomes’, and to ‘transform the way we teach and learn’ (Australian Brain Alliance Steering Committee (ABASC), 2016). Clearly educators need to get in on the ground floor of such projects, not only to provide educational expertise to them, but also to add to the sum of professional knowledge about learning.

In this article I have argued that although the concept of ‘learning to learn’ has been used for many years now in education, we are still well short of there being widespread professional agreement about what such a concept means and how it can be developed. Given that we are now living through a time of significant disruption to every aspect of our lives as a result of the fourth industrial revolution, it has never been so important for people to have the capacity to learn and relearn in order to shape, as well as adjust to, these changes at different times, in different contexts, and for different purposes. This demands an understanding of learning itself, as well as content knowledge. Since formal education is the major avenue through which such capacities can be developed, there needs to be some agreed professional understandings about what is entailed in ‘learning to learn’, and how it can it can be nurtured in all students. The time has come to recognise the broader concept of meta-learning as a separate and key component of the official curriculum.

References

Australian Brain Alliance Steering Committee, 2016, ‘Australian Brain Alliance’, Neuron, vol. 92, no. 3, pp. 597–600.

ACARA (2018) Australian Curriculum and Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2018, General Capabilities: Learning Continua, Sydney: ACARA, www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/general-capabilities/, accessed 11 August, 2019.

Biggs, J., 1985, ‘The role of metalearning in study processes’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 50, no. 3, pp. 185–212.

Dweck, C., 2016, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 2nd edn, New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Fadel, C., Bialik, M. & Trilling, B 2015, Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed, Boston, MA: Center for Curriculum Redesign.

Gross-Loh, C., 2016, ‘How praise became a consolation prize’, The Atlantic, 16 December, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/, accessed 11 August, 2019.

Hazell, W., 2017, ‘Hattie on Dweck: Sometimes pupils need fixed mindsets argues leading academic’, Times Educational Supplement, 29 June, https://www.tes.com/news/hattie-dweck-sometimes-pupils-need-fixed-mindsets-argues-leading-academic, accessed 11 August, 2019.

Notes

  1. The term ‘meta-learning’ is now being used in the artificial intelligence field, with approaches being developed where machines rely less on a huge amounts of data, and more on the capacity to learn how to learn. Given the challenges of AI to what it means to be human, it is perhaps more urgent that humans develop the capacity! «
  2. I only make this obvious point because of the constant criticism by some that a focus on the general capabilities means neglecting the learning areas. Of course it doesn’t. The general capabilities only make sense when they are developed consciously through the learning areas. Similarly, a focus on meta-learning can only occur during and after students’ interactions with disciplinary and interdisciplinary work. «

 

This article is a modified short extract from Alan Reid’s new book – Changing Australian Education: How policy is taking us backwards and what can be done about it (Allen and Unwin). The book is available from October 1, 2019. It can be pre-ordered from Booktopia: www.booktopia.com.au; or from Kindle: www.Amazon.com.au

Alan Reid is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia. He is involved in a range of national and state professional organisations. His research interests include education policy, curriculum change, social justice and education, citizenship education and the history and politics of public education. He has published widely in these areas and his contribution to education has been recognised by a number of national awards. 

This article appears in Professional Voice 13.1 Mental health, reporting and education futures.