Learnership: Becoming a skilful learner

I have a guilty secret. As a classroom teacher, there was a group of students I feel I let down, badly. It was never intentional. I wanted to help them; I just didn’t know how to help them. I couldn’t seem to get through to them in the way I wanted.

These students weren’t exactly wasting their time, but they weren’t spending their time effectively, either. They’d rarely slack off enough to warrant getting into trouble, but neither would they push themselves enough to excel. They’d be “on task”, but sometimes only barely.

These students would hand in work that was “satisfactory”. I’d give them formative feedback on how to improve, but they’d shrug their shoulders and say it was “good enough”.

From time to time, I’d challenge them to push themselves more. I’d write things in their reports like, “Johnny could do better,” or, “If Johnny applied himself more, his results could improve.” But this made little impact.

"These students coasted through school, never taking charge of their learning or path through life."

Now, 30 years later, I understand that practically all teachers have students like these in their classroom. In literature, these students are described as “underachieving”, and in the staff room, as simply “not doing their best”.

I now recognise what I was doing wrong and how to better serve this type of student.

Developing Learnership – the skill of learning

To better serve students who “coast” through school, we need to focus less on what they are learning and focus more on how they are learning. We need to be teachers not only of content but also of the skill of learning. We must concentrate intentionally and explicitly on helping these students understand the learning process.

"We need to develop what I’ve come to call “Learnership” – the skill of learning."

Think of “Learnership” in the same way you think of craftsmanship or leadership. It denotes a skilful act.

Students with Learnership see themselves as active, skilful learners. They have a deep understanding of the learning process and how they engage in it. Like any other skill, they continually work at developing and improving the way they engage in the craft of learning.

These insights into learning motivate students by giving them the “power to act” in their world rather than seeing the world as “acting on them” – something that is central to the idea of Learner Agency. Students cease seeing themselves as powerless players in the game of education and become powerful controllers of their learning.

Helping students to visualise learning is a critical step in deepening their understanding of the learning process. To give them a way of literally seeing where their learning is taking them. A way of comprehending why their “good enough” path through school may not be the most successful route through life. 

Learnership and the Learning Landscape

This is what the Learning Landscape does. It improves a student’s ability to understand and engage in the learning process, making them a better learner.

In last week’s blog post, we discussed how height in the Learning Landscape represents difficulty and complexity. We explored how important it is for students to understand their Learning Zone and the benefits of a learning journey that steers them towards the mountains of expertise rather than the lowlands.

As a learner journeys through the Learning Landscape, they encounter challenges in the form of pits. I’ve deliberately called these Challenge Pits, not Learning Pits, because the pit only represents the challenge. Learning is represented by what the student does by moving through and climbing out of the Challenge Pit.

Using a pit to represent challenges helps learners understand why effort is required. It reflects the physical exertion and emotional reaction to confronting something difficult, enhancing their understanding of the learning process. It helps us normalise struggle in the learning process. 

Challenge Pits

Skilful learners recognise that there are four types of challenge. Our “under-performing” students spend most of their time engaged in Downhill or Performance Challenges, which fail to gain them any height in the Learning Landscape. They waste their time in the lowlands.

Skilful learners understand that although Downhill and Performance Challenges keep them busy, they don’t take them higher in the Learning Landscape. These challenges might keep students off the teacher’s radar by making them appear to be on task, but they won’t help students grow in the long run.

As students develop Learnership, they become increasingly aware of the types of challenges they take on and where those challenges are taking them. They learn to recognise when they are in their Comfort, Performance, Learning or Aspirational Zone, and they become more attuned to how and when to operate in each.

These four types of challenge also help teachers and students understand the nature of differentiation and how the same task can represent a different type of challenge for students at different points in their learning.

I discuss this point further in my book The Learning Landscape.

Of course, taking on Learning Challenges does not necessarily mean the learner can succeed at them!

As mentioned above, a Challenge Pit represents the challenge, but learning is represented by what the student does to get out!

Unfortunately, simply setting challenging tasks is no guarantee of learning. And most discussions about learning and pits fail to adequately address how to equip students to succeed at challenging tasks. In the Learning Landscape context, developing Learnership is not simply a matter of students understanding the challenges that put them on a path towards expertise – it’s about becoming a better climber!

A critical question for students to answer is: 

If I’m stuck at the bottom of a Challenge Pit, what do I need to do to get out?

We’ll explore this question in next week’s blog post.  

Best Wishes,


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