by Dr Ray Swann

Knowing ‘how to learn’

Today’s fast-paced landscape means we are constantly forced to adapt and learn new things. It is important, therefore, that we equip our boys with more than just academic information, with a focus on building their understanding of knowing ‘how to learn’.

Recently, there has been a lot of research into the ‘science of learning’. This body of work straddles cognitive psychology and education, and combines the way that the brain works and how that knowledge can be applied in a classroom.

When it comes to educating boys, I find these takeaways especially pertinent:

  1. Much of learning is about memory. Daniel Willingham (Professor of Psych at the University of Virginia) tells us that ‘memory is the residue of thought’. Much of learning is mapping new concepts to established ones; memory can be developed and improved. Here is a short clip of Willingham, with a tip for students to improve memory:
  2. To acquire and build memory, there are three things that really help:
    1. Time (it takes time, routines are important).
    2. Practice (distributed practice is better than massed). This means that 15 minutes per day (in most instances) will be more helpful than a 2-hour block on a Saturday, for example.
    3. Effort (here an interesting thing happens: when we try more, we are more engaged. This leads to a clarity of purpose and helps with wellbeing).
  3. Cognitive load. We know that we only have the capacity to think about so much at once. Sometimes, when we first start learning something (through time, effort and practice), we are maxed out in how much we can think about. However, as some of these processes become more established, we develop capacity to think more and in greater depth. This means that we can do the simpler stuff and start to have more capacity to problem solve. For example, think about driving – when you first started, there was so much going on, but now, assuming you are an experienced driver, it happens almost without thinking.


 Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School

Dr Ray Swann is Deputy Headmaster/Head of Crowther at Brighton Grammar School, an all-boys school in Melbourne. His professional background includes consulting, research, lecturing and coaching. This article is about