Learning Fitness

"We still consume almost the same learning diet"

Rupert WardHuddersfield (UK), November 2021 - Rupert Ward is a former Special Adviser to the Royal Household and Project Lead for iDEA, one of the world's most successful free educational technologies. He is Director of Strategic Partnerships for the International Council on Badges and Credentials, a National Teaching Fellow, and an international keynote speaker. At OEB Global, he will speak about "Learning Fitness: Getting Learning Fit".

What are the criteria, qualities, and/or knowledge that characterise "learning fitness"?

Rupert Ward: Learning fitness can be thought of in much the same way as physical fitness, except that we have transformed how we approach physical fitness in the last fifty years. We have made much less progress in our approach to learning fitness. For physical fitness, we know much more about what to consume (diet); how to monitor performance (analytics); and how to minimise barriers and maximise performance - often through the accumulation of marginal gains.
For learning fitness, we still consume almost the same learning diet as a hundred years ago; we are still in the early stages of understanding learning analytics, and our approach to performance would be described, at best, as traditional: It certainly doesn’t focus on personalisation, minimising barriers, and maximising performance).

How and where can "learning fitness" be achieved, and what are the necessary conditions?

Rupert Ward: In order to address the shortcomings of our current approaches to learning, we need to learn three lessons from a learning fitness approach.
The first is that we need to think about our learning diet: what is consumed and why? Historically, our approach has been based on specific technical or managerial functions required within industrial job roles. We have responded with the delivery of a standard curriculum to all learners independent of the actual usefulness of this approach to them, both in terms of what they can do with this learning and in terms of maintaining their learning progress and performance.
If we want learners to optimise their individual performance, we need to think about a more adaptable and personalised approach to learning diet by understanding individual learning needs and how we make progress, given our varied environments, backgrounds, life experiences, and ways of making sense of the world. Self-reflection and self-awareness lie at the heart of this revised approach. We can’t understand what the best diet is for us if we do not understand how we react to our current diet and how changes to our diet affect our performance.
The second lesson to learn is that we need to reconsider what learning is. Fundamentally, we learn throughout life in different contexts and at three different levels. The first is by developing habits, practices, and techniques in both movement and thought. The second is by joining schemas and constructs together so that we can apply existing understanding to another context with or without modification so we don’t need to store duplicate information. Finally, we learn by reviewing and revising how all this information fits together as conceptual maps.
In traditional educational approaches, we spend far too much time engaged in the first of these three levels and far too little time in the third. If we want to develop expertise and mastery within our learning, we need to file information better, and this requires better conceptual maps. Transferring conceptual understanding and providing more time for this to be mapped within individuals’ existing understanding is critically important both to maximising their learning performance and to developing more adaptive and responsive learning approaches. Learning, therefore, should focus on providing the most efficient ways for expertise to be transferred with measures that enable us to track progress in gaining this expertise.
This brings us on to the third lesson to learn, which is that performance improves through a process of incremental gains. To improve learning performance, we first need to understand how we are performing (i.e., by analysing diet and conceptual development). We then need to self-regulate our reactions to these changes. How we respond to performance feedback - the choices we make whether to persist or quit for example - impact not just on our performance, but ultimately on our life chances and, more generally, on how society functions.
The true test of an effective learning approach is, therefore, not how much it challenges you, but instead how much it enables you. Does it provide a mechanism for incremental gain with minimum barriers? If it does, then you can keep on gaining, keep on getting learning fitter, monitoring your improved performance through analytics, and adjusting your learning diet to best suit your performance targets. Evolutionarily speaking, we are all motivated by mastery of our environment, by having greater agency over what and how we do things, by having a sense of purpose, and by feeling we are performing well in what we are doing.
I have yet to meet anyone who goes to work or school wanting to do a bad job. So let’s adapt our learning approaches to maximise our opportunities to master and maximise our learning fitness throughout our lives as we progress on our own personalised learner-earner life journeys.

What do individual learners have to focus on in training their "learning fitness"?

Rupert Ward: Individual learners may wish to perform well in different learning exercises at different times in life. Clearly a common set of basic fitness expectations is useful, such as literacy - both linguistic and digital, numeracy, and an understanding of scientific and artistic approaches for example. But areas we really spend very little time on are the psychology and sociology of getting learning fit.
How do we as individuals react to our own performance, to others’ performance, to expectations of our performance? How does our perception of ourselves, others, and the learning exercises we are intending on doing influence what we do, how we do it, and what we achieve? Understanding how we can be effective self-regulated learners is key to our future success. In fact, studies show that by the age of five, success at twenty five can be predicted based on analysing such measures. Should we not nurture such capabilities in everyone?
Another important point to make is that as we require increased adaptability within jobs, when moving between jobs, and when moving back and forth between education and employment as lifelong learner-earners, individual learning exercises become much less important. What becomes critical instead is an ability to maintain a good overall level of learning fitness - and then to adapt our performance rapidly to the varied contexts we are asked to perform in. If individuals disengage from the learning gym at a young age, we lose a lifetime of improved fitness and sociological, psychological - and societal damage results from this loss.

Will there ever be a level of learning fitness that’s measurable - something comparable to measuring muscle-strength fitness training?

Rupert Ward: We can already measure many learning related characteristics analytically, but recent research in this area has shown that the key determinant of learning performance is self-regulation. It is therefore necessary to change our learning exercises and our approaches to getting learning fit alongside introducing the measures necessary to more accurately measure learning fitness.
For example, if we have an increased focus on conceptual mapping within learning, then we can introduce exercises that require more mapping to be done, and we can correlate measures that relate conceptual mapping with learning performance and subsequently optimise such measurements and hence our learning performance.
Another approach is to more effectively measure the development of expertise. The 10,000-hour rule, for example, is not a good measure of expertise. Rather, it is simply a measure of persistence - you can do a lot of hours with little to no performance improvement.
Conversely, you could make rapid improvement in far fewer hours with a more effective transfer of conceptual understanding. Measuring levels of conceptual understanding transfer is also, therefore, critically important, but this can only be done if our learning exercises support such activity.
So, in summary, learning fitness can and will be better measured in future, and just as physical fitness improvements have revolutionised sports performance - such as in the first sub-two-hour marathon - learning fitness improvements will revolutionise learning. The challenge, however, is not primarily a measurement one. It is a societal challenge of trusting and valuing a different approach to learning.
This requires demonstrations of the effectiveness of this approach, which are already under way. As they become more broadly understood and accepted, we will witness, just as we have with the recent explosion in those undertaking physical fitness activities, learners becoming more and more engaged in their own personalised learning and becoming more expert in their own learning and in their development as a learning person.