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Author: Chitra Iyer
Published on:
May 1, 2022

Ultimate Guide to Effective Learning for Parents of 21st Century Learners

Effective learning is the ability to learn new things in a way that we can understand, remember, connect and apply what we learn in real life. It’s more than studying, recognizing or memorizing content. But while our children are expected to perform, they are hardly taught how to learn effectively. In the 21st-century - an era of knowledge, disruption, and distraction - only those who know HOW to learn can keep up with the pace with change. This guide deep dives into how parents can help children become effective 21st century learners.
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Inside this Guide

What is Effective Learning and its Benefits? 

Why is Effective Learning a Super Skill for 21st-Century Learners?

The 6 Abilities of an Effective Learner

How can Parents Help Children Become Effective Learners? 

The Polymath Parenting Effective Learning Framework


What is Effective Learning? And Why Should Parents Care?

We are in the age of knowledge and disruption. And distraction.

This means two things to young learners and students today:

1. Information or even knowledge by itself is not enough. Being good at remembering isolated facts is not enough. Passing exams is not enough. Being able to connect and apply it is important. 

It is not what you know, but what you are able to do with what you know, that counts.

2. Our children live and work in a world where the pace of change, and even  is unimaginable. They need to be comfortable learning new things all the time, in the midst of constant disruption. That is why they need to be good at it. They need to be effective learners.

Effective learning occurs when we learn in a way that we understand, and can recall, connect and apply what we learn, in different situations. 

Read more: 5 Facts About Effective Learning: Insights for Mom & Dad

Why Traditional Study and Learning Approaches Won’t Work in the 21st Century

I don’t need to say this again, but I will.

It’s the 21st  century.

Reading, rereading, cramming, underlining, highlighting, and practicing without purpose will not work. Actually they never have. If they did, a lot more kids would have done well at school. If they did, we’d have a lot more ‘employable’ graduates who could actually apply knowledge to solve problems.

But we don’t.

Do you see the challenge here? Do you see the opportunity here?

Does your child’s school have a subject called ‘learning to learn’? Do they have a course on ‘how to keep getting better at learning?’ Is there a structured way to let children understand and take ownership of their learning journey? Do they say, ‘Let’s build a learning strategy for each of you so you can succeed on your own terms at school and beyond’? 

Probably not. 

The parent's job is to focus on the child's ability to learn  (HOW) not what to learn

Instead, children are told what to learn, when to learn, why to learn, but still not how to learn. ‘The learning’ is assumed. Children are never really properly taught how to study or learn more effectively. 

Sure, a teacher may give a piece of advice now and then, but it's not structured and not institutionalized. 

The fact is that schools - despite their best intentions - cannot do this. 

Schools simply are not set up to serve a 1:1 model. They are, by design, a group teaching model.

Learning, on the other hand, is an individual endeavor.

Each one of us learns differently. Each of us will have different learning outcomes with the exact same teaching method. What's engaging and fun for one child may not be for the next.   

So let us recognize that while schools are great with WHAT to learn, the job of HOW to learn falls on parents in the early years, and on the learner themselves, in their teens and for the rest of their lives.

The Benefits of Effective Learning for Students

Content and curriculum may get obsolete. Learning skills will last forever. Effective learners tend to be more successful in unfamiliar or always–changing environments, because they tend to have: 

  • The ability to learn about diverse things equally comfortably
  • The ability to connect what they have learnt to come up with new perspectives
  • A richer L2L Toolbox of learning skills and technique to meet their goals
  • More ownership of their learning process and accountability for their learning outcomes 
  • A more positive attitude and comfort with taking on new learning challenges 
  • A more reflective approach towards learning: they try to get better and better at learning 

Why is Effective Learning so Important in the 21st Century?

In the 21st century - the age of information and disruption, our old industrial-era approaches to education will no longer suffice. 

The 21st century demands a whole new set of skills to survive and thrive. 

It’s not about how much we know. Robots and machines will always ‘know’ more.

It is about what we can do with what we know.  Robots and machines will never be as good as humans at that.

In this era, youngsters need to be able to understand what they learn (not just memorize) and apply what they know in situations that are always changing. 

Can my child effectively learn and grow in a world that's always in a state of flux?  

Being effective learners will no doubt transform their performance in school. 

But more than that, it will make them confident, fearless learners for life. 

And in a world where the pace of change is blistering, that can be a real superpower.

3 Reasons why Effective Learning is a 21st Century Super Skill

1. The future belongs to those who can learn new things easily

It is a future we cannot even possibly fathom today - and yet we insist on preparing our children for it. We spend 14 years arming them with a static curriculum, but not the skills needed to understand and apply knowledge effectively, asking questions, or even learning from the inevitable failures and mistakes. That’s like going into battle half prepared.

2. Insights, not information, will matter in the information age

The knowledge base in society is doubling every 3-5 years! It used to double every 25 years in 1945. 80% of the jobs our children will take up do not exist today. They haven't been invented yet. Information can easily be supplied by AI, Siri, Alexa and our friend Google. 

Can our children join the dots across diverse information to make smarter decisions than others? Can they learn to ask the right questions of all the information fed to them?

3. Effective learning is the new evolution

Education may end after school or college, but in life, the need to learn new things will never end- it’s those who refuse to or are unable to do so effectively, who will struggle.

For the first time in history, machines are not replacing human brawn - they are entering the zone of replacing human brains.

Acing exams today is no validation that they have the skills to think and work smart in a dynamic and challenging environment  tomorrow.

The 6 Abilities of an Effective 21st Century Learner

Effective learning is very different from just studying or memorizing or recognizing facts. In fact, according to Bloom’s taxonomy, knowledge is defined as the remembering of previously learned material, and it represents the lowest level of learning outcomes in the cognitive domain. Knowing is simply not enough.

Effective learning elevates the process of learning so that the learner has better outcomes. They are better able to comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize and evaluate what they learn.
But these skills don't come automatically to all humans. To get there, the learner must develop these 6 abilities of an effective learner:

1. Absorb: take in and comprehend the learning material or experience. To comprehend is the ability to grasp the meaning of material.

An effective learner says: “I’m giving this my full attention & focus”.

2. Understand: make meaning of the content in their own context and in the context of what they already know. It is the ability to break down material into parts, understand how it has been constructed, on what assumptions its based, what are the relations between the parts and the external world, why does it matter

An effective learner says:  “I know why this matters, I know why I’m learning it”.

3. Recall: remember information as and when needed. 

An effective learner says: “I’ve organized this new information in my long-term memory and can refer back to it when I need to”.

4. Connect: integrate new learning with existing knowledge to create new ideas. It is the ability to synthesize - to put the parts together in new ways to form a new whole/ new knowledge or theories

An effective learner says: “I’m compounding my knowledge by layering on new information over what I already know”.

5. Improve: using practice, feedback and reflection, continuously refining both- the learning process and the quality of knowledge. It is the ability to evaluate the self and the value of the learning material at a factual level and judgment level, based on internal and external criteria. 

An effective learner says: “Every day, I get better at what I’m learning because I’m getting better at learning’.

6. Apply: connect and use their knowledge in different contexts to solve diverse problems or meet their goals. It is the ability to use learned material in new and concrete situations.

An effective learner says: “I can use what I’ve learnt in real life to get stuff done’.

Read a more in-depth exploration of each of the 6 abilities of effective learners here

Let us not assume our children know how to learn effectively. Exam results are no proof that they are effective learners. This is exactly why so many school ‘toppers’ don’t end up doing so well later in life. They were probably never effective learners to begin with. They were good at memorizing stuff, but not at making meaning of what they were learning, or connecting and applying it in diverse situations.

Get your copy of the Effective Learner's Manifesto!

How Can Parents Help Children Be Effective Learners? 

Parents play a key role in building the foundation and guiding the child’s learning process.

But where should we begin? 

When it comes to learning, it’s an ocean out there. We've all heard of learning tools & techniques like mind mapping, focus and diffuse learning modes, the Pomodoro technique that advocates 25 minutes of focused immersion, active practice, chunking, context switching and many more. We’ve heard of learning styles, be it visual, auditory or kinesthetic. We’ve heard of learning skills, such as goal setting, critical thinking, information management, reflection, etc. 

But how do these fit with each other? What actually works? Where should a parent and learner start? What needs to be done at what age? 

How can we put all the skills, techniques and styles into perspective on the path to become an effective learner? 

The answer, unfortunately, is that there are no easy tricks, no one-size-fits-all formulas. 

There is however, a framework for effective learning that we have created, putting together all the body of elements that go into learning.

This framework helps parents and learners put everything that matters into perspective, and then set about building a unique learning strategy for the learner.

The Polymath Parenting Effective Learning Framework 

Effective learning has 5 core components. 

  • Effective learning skills
  • Effective learning techniques
  • Effective learning styles
  • Effective learning mindset
  • Positive learning environment
Graphic of the Polymath Parenting Effective Learning Framework: Effective Learning Strategy = Skills + Techniques + Styles + Mindset + Environment= Skills
The Polymath Parenting Effective Learning Framework

Get a One-Page Infographic of the Effective Learning Framework Here

With this framework, you can co-create an effective learning strategy with your child. 

Depending on the age of the child, the role of the parent in this learning journey evolves:

In the early years, say till age of 7, parents need to help build a solid ‘learning-to-learn’ foundation, building gentle familiarity with effective learning skills, techniques and mindsets

As they enter their tweens, say from 8 to 12 or so, we start making them aware of their own learning process, preferred learning styles, and the need for them to own their learning journey

By the time they reach their teens, it’s time to start working on more specific tools, techniques, skills, and mindsets to build a strong effective learning strategy that they can keep improving and refining as they go through life. 

The Parents Role in Each Stage of the Learner's Journey

How Will I Know When My Child is Getting Better At Effective Learning?

We all want our kids to be problem solvers, inventors, creators, explorers and adventurers. But these abilities cannot be gained by working on isolated projects or developing isolated skills like reading more.

The learning process is neither linear, nor simplistic. It is often convoluted, chaotic, confusing, frustrating, with lots of moving parts that can affect the results.

 Once you understand your child’s unique learning process (how they learn), it becomes a matter of taking advantage of that process to learn anything they need to. You can do that with a learning strategy.

As your child gets more comfortable with the idea of learning new things, using the techniques and styles they prefer, you will observe certain changes. Some tell-tale signs of their growing comfort with learning are:

  • Your child is asking lots of questions about a wide-variety of things
  • Your child is able to find answer to their own questions using a variety of resources
  • They show interest in reading diverse content about diverse topics
  • They enjoy gamifying their learning process, even if it is brushing their teeth, always upping the challenge level and refining the process for better results
  • They are more focused on the process, trial-and-error, experimentation etc., than a specific outcome or output
  • They regularly review how they are able to learn most effectively 
  • They are not at all put off by failure and keep improving the process to get better. 
  • Try and apply their learning to problem-solving 
  • They begin to display a growth mindset towards learning
  • They start showing a tendency towards inter-disciplinary learning, connecting concepts from different subjects to offer practical and innovate ideas and solutions around the house

Next Steps: Build Your Own Learning to Learn Toolbox!

If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations! You genuinely want to learn how to help your child with learning!

Just remember - parents are NOT a helpless bystander in their child's learning journey. You do not have to depend entirely on teachers, coaches, tutors and schools. If your child is the driver, you are the navigator, conductor, accelerator and brake! 

Leave the WHAT TO LEARN to schools, and pay attention instead to HOW your child learns.

All of our parent-friendly resources are available to help you start working with your child to help them be a better learner.


Read Next: More Curated Resources on Effective Learning

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