Author Blog

Six ways to be a learner like Ruby

Bill Lucas summarises the first half of a recent public lecture

What do you really need to learn in life? How do you teach students to excel? What do successful learners do differently from others? What, in short, are their habits of mind? Over the last two decades the learning sciences have begun to provide some powerful answers to these questions.

Image result for winchester guildhall clockHere are some suggestions, drawing on research, to help you identify the kinds of learning habits likely to help you succeed. Imagine a clock-face. This one comes from Winchester High Street. Think of the first six points of its face as I look at some important aspects of learning. Next six to follow shortly!

Recently we have begun to understand with greater clarity the kinds of learning habits or attributes which are particularly useful to individuals and to our wider society. Here are two lists, the first from an economic perspective (Nobel Laureate James Heckman and colleagues (2013) and the second through the eyes of educational researchers, Lesley Gutman and Ingrid Schoon (2013).





Self-esteem and self-efficacy

Resilience to adversity

Openness to experience



Tolerance of diverse opinions

Engaging productively in society





Metacognitive strategies

Social competencies

Resilience and coping




1. Learning is for Life

It’s all too easy to focus on school when thinking about learning. But, school days are just a small fraction of our lives. In the real world of home and work most of our learning will be interest-led, informal and social.


2. Mistakes are useful


Through the pioneering work of Carol Dweck we now know that if we see mistakes as our friends, as stepping stones along the way, we will do much better in life. Musicians, writers and engineers all make drafts or prototypes, each one better than its predecessor. That’s how it is with learning.


3. Tenacity matters


A vital skill is tenacity. Persevering when others have given up and bouncing back from set-backs are the hallmarks of powerful learners. Our own research on this topic is about to be published.


4. Practise the hard parts


Getting better at anything requires effort. Thanks to a greater understanding about how expertise is developed from Anders Ericsson, we now know that certain kinds of practice work better than others. Sit at the piano and play over the pieces you know already may build fluency but it does not challenge us. Speeding it up, slowing it down, just playing the left hand – the hard bits – is what we need to do in music and in our learning.


5. Emotions are important


You have probably heard of emotional intelligence? How we deal manage our feelings of struggle and how we read the emotions of those around us is of great importance in life and learning.


6. Mind and body


It’s all too easy to assume that learning is about academic subjects. But as Jacob Bronowski puts it, ‘the hand is the cutting edge of the mind.’ Mind and body are intimately linked. Whether it is our diet, the exercise we take or the muscle memory we acquire as we learn to write or type or ride a bicycle, hand and brain go together. Think of Ruby's crafsmanship.