Teaching How to Learn and Succeed

 Often in my presentations with teachers, instructional coaches and leaders, I focus on the belief that our real goal is teaching how to learn our content rather than teaching our content. Instrumental music teachers know they can’t teach you to play the instrument, they can teach you how to learn to play. If the young musician doesn’t do the work/practice, the learning will not happen. Similarly, I believe we teach how to learn history, math, science, or art just like the coach teaches a player how to learn to dribble the soccer ball.

The beginning of the year is a great time for teachers to focus on teaching key components of how to learn; both general strategies and strategies specific to their content. I have facilitated these conversations with several school staffs as they returned to professional development opportunities to start the year.

In the book, Tapping Student Effort :Increasing Student Achievement, I focused on this formula for teaching students about the role of effort in achieving success. It’s read, “Effort times ability focused on a manageable task equals success.”


One of the starting points for teacher and student communication is around understanding the pictures of the future or goals of success that students bring to the classroom. As a teacher I want to convince my students that I work for them. I am here to assist them in reaching their goals. The more clearly I understand their goals the more helpful I can be. If students have no “future pictures,” we need to assist in establishing some before we can request effort.

A recent article described how South High School in Bakersfield, CA works to get students thinking about careers.

Starting with freshman working with a curriculum called Career Choices, students map out a 10 year plan exploring three questions: Who am I? What do I want? And how do I get it?

I frequently recommend to middle school educators that each student leave grade 8 with a five year plan. “What will I be doing the year after graduation?” When students share this information, teachers can continually build connections between the requested current learning behaviors and the students’ desired outcomes. This creates a great opportunity for freshman teachers to have students focus on goals and actions (effort) needed. [See earlier blog on aspirations.  You might find this a great topic for an initial staff conversation leading to opening week activities with students]

Quotes and posters can be a great way for teachers to explore “conscious learning behaviors” and attitudes with students. You can group students and have them explore a concept, personalizing it to themselves and your classroom, and then presenting their thinking to the group. They might produce posters that hang in your room to provide a frequent reminder of purposeful learning choices. Here are a few that I have gathered.


Allow yourself to be a beginner. No one starts off being excellent. 




Which step have you reached?

Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential. Author: Winston Churchill


It is not the hours of practice that matter… it’s what you put into the hours that counts.


When we agree on student behaviors, actions, and attitudes that are crucial to their success as learners, we must teach and coach those elements. Teaching the knowledge about a growth –mindset (Carol Dweck ) and the role of effort, can encourage students to experiment with “effort behaviors” and lead to the discovery that effort will increase ability. (Earlier blog on students teaching classmates about effort)

What plans are your staffs developing to tap student effort?

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