How to Learn: the Backwards Bike and Learning New Study Habits

The start of the second term in the Middle School brings basketball practices, new art courses, and a fresh page on year-long courses. It is also the time when we can start to look back at the year so far and turn up the conversation about how each of us can learn more about how to learn.

I talked this week at announcements about how hard it can be to make new habits, whether they are how to ride a bike or how to study. The tricky part about study habits is that when they are working, they are hard to recognize because we do them without thinking. Once you know how to ride a bicycle, it’s hard to explain it to someone else. To illustrate this, we watched this fascinating story and explanation of the “backwards brain bicycle” from Smarter Every Day:

One of the take-aways for me is that the human brain can learn new habits, even when it has to replace an old one, and that neural plasticity is a changing, not fixed, trait inside our minds. Can we train ourselves to be more flexible? What does it take to acquire new understanding, not just new knowledge?

Something expert learners know is that pausing and reflecting about our habits helps a great deal. It also helps to connect new experiences and new thoughts to our existing ones. Self-reflection is much more than a feel-good motivator. Self-reflection is a skill that expert learners use to accelerate their understanding.

This is why we take a little extra time in the month of December for students to practice the skill of self-reflection and to learn more about their own habits. In order to learn new study habits, we have to think first about what we are currently doing. Students this month are writing six reflective blog posts, each one about a different study habit or learning trait.

Reflection is a tool, not the goal, so the next step will be for students to identify and try out new habits. Their faculty identify for them what we see as highly effective learning strategies. In each grade, teachers are steering students to hone their mental skills in different focus areas. Sixth grade’s focus is on time management and organization. In seventh grade, the skills revolve around creativity and by eighth grade the skills are about resilience. These are the habits of mind that students will take with them to Senior School and beyond.

To find out more about these reflections and skills, stay tuned for student-led conferences in January!