Nicola Walsh analyses the different types of learning behaviour in students

How do we learn? There have been many theories of learning ranging from those of early behaviourists like Watson, Skinner and Bruner, to the cognitive constructivist theories of Vygotsky and Piaget. They were all trying to make sense of how humans learn.

However, critics would argue that knowing the many theories there are does not make a teacher more effective or a learner more successful. Recent research supports this view and indicates that understanding learning behaviour rather than theories improves a person’s ability to learn.

Our overall ability to learn what to do when we don’t know what to do (which is Piaget’s definition of learning) is much improved by the use of thinking about learning, which is termed ‘metacognition.’

So what does all this mean for a teacher and his or her student?

It means that individual behaviour employed by a good student needs to be taught in schools. Students need to know what they should do to be good learners. In his book Building Learning Power, Guy Claxton details these very effectively.

Resilience is the first form of behaviour that is observed in students who can learn well. They are the typical students who are easily absorbed in a task. Some students are resistant to distractions because they’ve learnt to manage them – for instance, by ignoring the chatter of other students.

Other students notice changes around them and are encouraged to be observant from an early age. Students who notice what’s going on are also learning. And a student who is a resilient learner perseveres and keeps going even when the learning gets tough. Persevering with difficult math problems ensures you find the solution by trial and error.

Resourcefulness is the second behaviour exhibited by students who make great progress. They’re naturally curious and ask questions. They make connections between areas of learning, and can imagine or visualise concepts and ideas. Resourceful students use logic; they infer and deduce from the information given, eventually capitalise on what’s available and make great use of resources to further their learning.

Students who learn well are reflective. They use this capacity to plan ahead, be prepared and typically make lists. They’re flexible and can adapt to changes in routine quickly. They reflect on one approach, then consider and apply the same approach in other contexts. Students who are reflective accept criticism well and learn from it. They are open to new ideas and willing to change their views.

Finally, students who work well with others and reciprocate are effective and successful. They know when to work alone and when to collaborate. They can listen to and empathise with others. They know when to be self-reliant and when it’s important to be sociable. They learn by imitating, emulating others’ habits and values.

So we have four types of learning behaviour courtesy of Guy Claxton: resilience, reflectiveness, resourcefulness and reciprocity.

But how do teachers teach these behaviours?

They need to teach them explicitly to students, and provide environments that develop and foster these forms of behaviour, as well as comment and model.

Great teachers are doing this already; they’re commenting on the student who works well despite distractions, creating an ethos of curiosity in classrooms and encouraging students to persevere even when the going gets tough. They actively promote deep thinking in the classroom and allocate time for reflection.

Some schools build resourcefulness in their students by ensuring that they ask questions from the teacher and are explicit in making curriculum links. Reasoning is taught through creative math problems, and reading comprehension develops skills in logic and deduction. Reflection is routine, and influences planning at all levels in the best schools and learners. These schools are not afraid to acknowledge mistakes and consider different approaches.

Being reciprocal, and willing and able to learn with others or alone, are skills shared by many students. Some schools are capitalising on this and encouraging students to learn through imitation. Dialogue amongst students is commonplace in forward-thinking classrooms and collaboration is used effectively by students who know how to employ other people’s strategies to help solve their own.

Encouraging students to think about learning means developing teachers who know what it takes to be a powerful learner. It may mean a shift from the traditional theories of learning that have dominated teacher training establishments.

Meanwhile, training will have to improve teachers’ knowledge of effective learning behaviours (not theories) so that they have the practical skills to develop them in all students – and at all levels.