Learning to Learn: Preparing People for Lifelong Performance & Results - Part I

Editor’s Note

This article synthesizes many of Peter F. Drucker’s astonishing observations about why the most important thing to learn in school is how to learn–the habit of continuous learning.

More specifically, Drucker pinpointed specific practices for enabling young people to discover learning and the joy of learning.

Another thing: Most educated people who go to work in their early 20s will keep on working until they are 70 or 75. And perhaps even older if current longevity trends continue. Second and third careers will become the norm.

Translated, this means people must be prepared to want to learn–to see continuous learning as something they enjoy doing, not something they need to do.

Thankfully, Drucker provided us with clear, practical advice on what needs to be done to enable people to acquire the habit of learning and be prepared to combat inevitable knowledge, obsolescence and boredom.

This Article Is Divided Into Three Parts

Part I deals with the need to introduce more and better learning technologies into today's school system. Teaching today requires far too many people. It ought to be possible to do the job with far fewer.

In a knowledge society, education has to be the way for everyone to find what he or she can do exceptionally well and has a special talent for doing it. The new learning technologies make larger classes more productive. Indeed, there is almost no evidence that smaller class sizes will produce better educational results.

Part II of this article focuses on why there is great need to shift the mission of schools from teaching to learning and the role of technology-assisted learning in producing and managing the learning process.

Part III of this article will discuss how Drucker’s highly disciplined observations about how people learn can be applied to manager self-development.

No one can motivate a person/manager toward continuous self-development. Motivation must come from within.

But internal training organizations can do a good deal to encourage manager development by following many of Drucker’s core principles with respect to helping individuals discover how to build on their true strengths (determined through both objective and self-appraisal).

Simply put, even though Part I & Part II focuses on K-1 through 12 learning, it is extremely relevant to training professionals tasked with the responsibilities of improving their approaches to manager self-development. Part III details this assertion.


Many believe the answer to improving our school system resides in finding and hiring the best teachers. Others believe the focus of our school system must be on learning rather than teaching.

Unfortunately, it’s a false hope to get “better teachers” in quantity. Superior teachers will always be in short supply.

What we need is the proper usage of learning technologies to elevate the performance of all teachers.

Needed: A Systematic Learning Methodology

Peter F. Drucker observed teaching is the only major occupation for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of first-rate competence and performance in the classroom.

Said Drucker: "In teaching, we rely on the ‘naturals,’ the ones who somehow know how to teach. Nobody seems to know, however, what is it the ‘naturals’ do that the rest of us do not do…

...The only way we can get better results is by giving qualified teachers the right tools and by organizing their work properly."

Drucker contended teaching involves artistry. Therefore, he concluded it is impossible for artistry to confine itself to the boundaries of routine and convention.

Because there are so few truly gifted teachers, it is impractical to rely on the naturals. This reality of statistical probability dictates an inevitable gap between master and pedestrian teachers.

Without going into detail about the role of the teacher in motivating students to learn, "it can be said that a mediocre teacher tells; a good teacher explains; a superior teacher demonstrates; a great teacher does all three."

Today’s learning technologies give to today’s competent teacher a capacity to perform well beyond that of the ablest teacher of 50 or 100 years ago, and enables the outstanding teacher of today to produce learning miracles.

Learning Smarter

The world is changing. Developing countries are hungry for knowledge. They want to put new and old knowledge to work, to become more productive and to become effective competitors.

We all know this. This requires us to prepare students for tomorrow’s realities.

Today’s reality (and tomorrow’s) calls for continuous learning and training. Students must be equipped with something yesterday’s schools paid little attention to: They need to learn how to learn.

They will need this skill to economically survive. Schools must prepare students to learn again and again—to keep up in their respective fields and for second and possibly third careers.

Said Drucker: “They must be prepared to want to learn—to see it not as something they need to do, but as something they enjoy doing… they will have to learn how to learn… they will have to have acquired the habit of learning.”

Drucker pointed out, again and again, in schools of today many students lose self-confidence. And that’s the greatest barrier to learning. Much of Drucker’s writing on the subject deals with overcoming this deficiency in our educational system.

In essence, Drucker proposed three principles upon which our school system must be based. These are:

  1. Schools must focus on the student’s strengths (as opposed to their weaknesses)
  2. Schools must recognize that one of the best ways to learn is to teach others
  3. Schools must employ learning technologies to enable young people to work individually at their own speed, rhythm and attention span

Focusing on the Learner’s Strengths

For starters, we know how people learn how to learn. All it requires is focusing on the strengths and talents of learners so that they will excel in whatever it is they do well.

Said Drucker: "Any teacher of young artists—musicians, actors, painters—knows this. So does any teacher of young athletes."

But most schools are forced—understandably—to focus instead on a learner’s weaknesses. That’s the way the system works. 

"When teachers call in the parents of a 10-year-old, they usually say: ‘Your Jimmy has to work on the multiplication tables. He is way behind...'

...They rarely say: 'Your Jimmy should do a good deal more writing to do even better at what he already does well'...

...Teachers tend to focus on the weaknesses of students, and for good reasons: The school has to endow students with the basic skills they will need whichever way you choose to go."

...But—and this is a very big but—“one cannot build performance on weaknesses, even on corrected ones; one can build performance only on strengths...

...Schools are problem-focused. But that must change. In today’s society, teachers will have to learn to say: 'I will focus on your child’s strengths and that will give him/her self-confidence and self-esteem'

...Children must be given a sense of achievement and that means building on their strengths...

...When a student focuses on what they’re good at, whether they play computer games or writing, they tend to improve what they’re not good at..."

We strongly suggest reading this sentence again and again.

In short: By focusing on what they are good at, they become motivated to overcome their weaknesses in other subjects.

Learning by Teaching Others: Lessons From Yesterday's One-Room Schoolhouse

Said Drucker: “Just as no one learns as much about a subject as the person who was forced to teach it, no one develops as much as the person who is trying to help others to develop themselves.”

This is a simple, but amazing insight into the learning process. Anyone who has taught/trained others immediately realizes the truthfulness and profound power of this Drucker statement.

Simply put, the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. 

Indeed, observed Drucker, “One of the reasons why the one-room schoolhouse of a century ago was such a good learning environment is the teacher with 70 kids from ages 6 to 16 had to use the older children to tutor and mentor the younger ones… And the older children learned.”

In a series of time-spaced articles, Drucker repeatedly noted teaching others had to be part of the specs for the school of tomorrow.

The key question: How do we put more advanced youngsters to work teaching so that they not only learn but also discover learning and the joy of learning? Much research is being done, going from principle to practice with respect to learning through teaching.

Part II of this article digs deeper into these Drucker insights and astute observations.