Learning and learning variability

Simon Sommer was appointed Co-CEO of the Jacobs Foundations in July 2019. Simon is passionate about learning, learning variability, and improving education opportunities for children. He shares with us what he has learned about learning.

What is learning, Simon?

On a fundamental level, learning is the process of acquiring skills, knowledge, competencies, and beliefs. It’s ubiquitous. It’s what the environment and your experience do to your brain – that is learning. 

If learning is innate, something we all do, why do we go to school? 

We go to school to structure what we learn. You need guidance to learn the skills and competencies you need to be successful later in life. And we need peers who shape and share our learning experiences – I find it remarkable how much virtually all children currently miss going to school!

“It is a myth to say you can learn everything through play, but I also think it’s a myth that children are not willing to make an effort.”

Deep, long-lasting learning takes enormous effort, both from schools and from children. How do we best teach children to learn and motivate them when learning is effortful and tough? 

Learning is effortful, but not in all contexts. It is a myth to say you can learn everything through play, but I also think it’s a myth that children and youth are not willing to make an effort. Kids can invest enormous time and concentration into putting a Lego set together and overcome frustrations in doing so. If the motivation is there, if they can see meaning in what they do, and they know how it feels to overcome such an effortful situation, if they can feel they have learned and achieved something, they will put effort into learning. 

How do we learn best? Is it by play, by learning-by-heart, or by sitting in a classroom? 

There is no silver bullet. Some people will tell you it is play, some will tell you it is traditional instruction. I believe a few principles need to be in place for successful learning. Probably the most important principle is called cognitive activation: you need to involve children. Merely listening, mere receptive learning simply does not work. It’s a combination of learning a concept and then trying it out in a hands-on way. Successful learning strategies also include retrieval. You need to go back and try to start again to find out what it was you learned, maybe from another perspective.

The art of teaching is helping children find, what is called by education professionals, the zone of proximal development. This zone is the sweet spot in learning, just above what you know already. Too high above this zone is overwhelming, and too low means learning is boring and demotivating. Where this sweet spot is and how to get there is different for every child. And even for the same child, it can be different on different days. 

“Embracing variability doesn’t mean personalizing education. It means we are taking the differences between children seriously.”

Is this why learning variability is important to the Jacobs Foundation? Must we take into account the various backgrounds and individual knowledge levels to get every child learning in that zone?

Intuitively, it is logical that children differ. You can say the same thing to two children and they take two totally different things away from it. If we can create learning situations where kids with particular talents can thrive, for example, where one child in a group takes on a leadership role and another a follower role, we could create learning contexts with give and take among children. Embracing variability doesn’t mean personalizing education. It means we are taking the differences between children seriously beyond simply IQ. How we do that is the million-dollar question or, for the Jacobs Foundation, the 500 million dollar question in our Strategy 2030

Embracing variability in learning and teaching sounds like a concrete shift in education. Is helping make this shift in education what the Foundation is interested in doing

Absolutely. Collaborative problem-solving, for example, is exactly the embrace of variability. You form a group of children with different skills who each bring different assets to the table. If you do this correctly, every single member of the group can contribute and have the experience of knowing it was worth the effort working together. 

What would a classroom that has embraced learning variability look like? How would it look different from the classrooms that our kids are in now? 

Some classrooms already look that way. In a 21st century school, collaborative problem-solving fits with our idea of variability in learning. We should move towards teaching skills like problem-solving, creativity, and critical thinking along the more fundamental subjects. For example, have table islands that kids sit around rather than traditional rows of desks, we should not split ‘good’ or ‘bad’ kids up in the front and back of the room. Classrooms of the future, that embrace variability, will be more fluid and change over time, with a modular design and one that changes depending on the teaching approach. 

Is this a different mindset from the one teachers learned to adopt when they first trained as teachers?

We ask an awful lot of teachers, don’t we? And their job has not become easier over time. We are convinced that, to be successful in practice, all innovations to improve teaching and learning in schools need to make life easier for teachers. That’s where technology comes in. If we just add more stuff into the professional basket, so to say, it won’t work.

How can technology help teachers, so that teachers remain the key link for children in the classroom?

If technology can reduce a teacher’s workload by taking over some everyday tasks such as routine marking, it will be helpful. This frees up teachers to do what they do best, and that is teach. I think that should and will happen in many cases. The other value in technology is it can help with evaluation or diagnosis. Let me put it that way of individual differences. If teachers can regularly perform short tests, for example in a classroom of 30 students, through technology you can see development over time. You could even see that one kid does well on Mondays, then on Wednesdays. If done smartly, technology can be tremendously supportive to teachers. It’s not yet used like this in 99 percent of all cases, but that’s what the next 10 years are about.