School & District Management Opinion

The Key to Transforming Instruction: Learning How to Learn

By Beth Holland — May 05, 2016 5 min read
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In the past few weeks, I have been wrapping up my EdTechTeacher T21 full-year programs. This year I have had three incredibly thoughtful cohorts of elementary teachers learning about bringing iPads into their classrooms. In both our face-to-face workshops and online coursework, one premise has really struck me: the challenge of learning how to learn in a digital environment.

Recognizing that learning might be the most critical skill for students to develop, the Learning How to Learn project, a United Kingdom Teaching and Learning Programme, actually measured the impact of new teaching practices designed to help students more effectively adapt to novel situations and construct original understandings. Teachers underwent an extensive professional development opportunity to learn new practices that would ultimately help their students become lifelong learners themselves. After interviews and surveys, the researchers discovered that only 20% of the teachers ultimately adopted the prescribed practice, and indicated that teacher preconceptions and beliefs about learning proved to be a significant driver. Those teachers who showed commitment to the development of Learning How to Learn skills had greater success with it in their classrooms than those who did not, (James & McCormick, 2009).

I actually found irony in this study. It did not promote a new curriculum, standard, or even technology, just a new approach intended to help students become master learners. However, 80% of the teachers did not adopt the new practices. As I thought about this in the context of the successes and struggles of my EdTechTeacher participants, I wondered about what separates the teachers who learn how to implement new classroom practices and those who may not.

In 2012, a different team of researchers conducted a series of interviews with twelve award-winning K-12 classroom teachers to determine what factors actually impact their beliefs. When asked to rate the influence of various external barriers on their ability to innovate with technology in their classrooms, these teachers cited money, state standards, and time. The difference, though, was that the teachers unanimously claimed that they did not allow these external factors to hinder their ability to try new things in their classroom and credited their own positive attitudes and beliefs as drivers for their success. In stark contrast, when asked why their colleagues did not implement the same kinds of ideas in their classrooms, nine of the twelve teachers felt that their colleagues were inhibited by their own negative or unwilling attitudes (Ertmer, et al., 2012).

I spoke with an assistant superintendent yesterday in preparation for a workshop. She commented that many teachers felt overwhelmed with all of the change. The strain to meet the requirements of state curriculum, standardized tests, and a move towards more student-centered learning coupled with the introduction of Chromebooks into the district had many teachers reeling. Rapid change can cause teachers to feel like “perpetual novices” (Mueller et al., 2008, p. 1524), which might actually lead them to resist new learning. Again, I empathized with these teachers. Learning how to learn can be hard - particularly when the environment does not look like the one that many of us experienced as students.

Teachers often articulate this feeling as perceived “pressures” that range from standardized tests and common assessments to parent concerns or feelings that the students might not be able to rise to a particular challenge. A study from Fulmer and Turner (2014) suggested that teachers may resort to more traditional, teacher-led instruction as a result of pressures from above (administration), within (self-efficacy), and below (students). Through meetings, interviews, and classroom observations, the researchers documented reports of 19 different pressures that teachers felt impeded their ability to implement more student-centered instruction. However, they also concluded that successful teachers encouraged students’ learning and motivation as well as demonstrated their own desire to change instruction even though they also reported experiencing the exact same pressures. These successful teachers, much like the ones whom Ertmer et al. (2012) interviewed, claimed that their own internal attitudes and beliefs allowed them to change their instruction in spite of the external pressures.

So I come back to my EdTechTeacher participants. For many of them, this blended learning experience served as their first foray into online learning and introduced them to both new tools and new ideas about instruction. They not only gained new technological and pedagogical skills to take back into their classrooms but also experienced a learning environment in which they had no prior experience. For many of them, this was not an easy process. As a final reflection prompt for the course, I asked my them WHAT did you learn? HOW did you learn? WHY do you think that you were able to learn in this way?

  • I learned by watching videos, reading articles, and having conversations in class. I learned because I was open and tried different ways to use the iPad both on my own and then with my students.
  • I was able to learn by trial-and-error and problem-solving when I encountered difficulties and obstacles along my journey.
  • I was able to learn because I was made an active participant in my education and not just an observer.
  • I learned that it is okay to try and fail, but I need to keep trying. Sometimes learning happens in unexpected ways for the teacher as well as the students.
  • I learned that “learning” is a very personal experience. People resonate with and are interested in different things; they have a unique lens that they filter information through; they form a hierarchy of importance and select to spend more time on the things that are more meaningful to them, and they formulate understanding based on all those factors.
  • What did I learn...that the learning never ends. That change is constant and we as teachers need to continually be learning.

This year, my participants tried and failed, adapted and adopted. More importantly, they learned how to learn.


Ertmer, P. A., Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A. T., Sadik, O., Sendurur, E., & Sendurur, P. (2012). Teacher beliefs and technology integration practices: A critical relationship. Computers & Education, 59(2), 423-435. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.02.001

Fulmer, S. M., & Turner, J. C. (2014). The perception and implementation of challenging instruction by middle school teachers. The Elementary School Journal, 114(3), 303-326. doi: 10.1086/674053

James, M., & McCormick, R. (2009). Teachers learning how to learn. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(7), 973-982. doi: 10.1016/j.tate.2009.02.023

Mueller, J., Wood, E., Willoughby, T., Ross, C., & Specht, J. (2008). Identifying discriminating variables between teachers who fully integrate computers and teachers with limited integration. Computers & Education, 51(4), 1523-1537. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2008.02.003

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