Developing More Skilful Learners

The Learning Landscape is a powerful metaphor for helping students become better learners. It offers us a way to visualise and understand what skilful learning looks like, and what teachers need to do to help students develop as more skilful learners.  

In the Learning Landscape, skilful learning equates to the actions students take to move through the learning landscape. Students are completely in control how much, and how well they go about learning. Success is about what they do, not who they are. 

To become a truly effective learner, to roam far and wide and climb the highest peaks of expertise, students must be more than active learners – they must be skilful ones! 

Learners must have the right attitude towards challenges, filling their backpacks with powerful Habits of Mind, using the information from mistakes and feedback to improve and spend their time in the most productive ways. 

In my book, The Learning Landscape, I explore how we teach students to become more skilful learners, by first describing six different types of learners, each more skilful at learning.

  • Non-Learners (Least Skilful)
  • Beginning Learners
  • Performance Learners
  • Directed Learners
  • Independent Learners
  • Agile Learners (Most Skilful)

Non-Learners are the least skilful learners. They fail to take even the most basic steps to explore the Learning Landscape. 

In many instances, Non-Learners do so little travelling through the Learning Landscape that there is little opportunity for mistakes. Their time is spent walking the same well-worn, well-known paths, or simply sitting under a tree, not engaging in exploring the Learning Landscape at all.

Beginning Learners engage in learning and may appear busy, but they engage in easy challenges and taking the path of least resistance. They stay well within their comfort zone.

Performance Learners are all about doing things well, to the peak of their current ability, but not better.

These learners prefer to attempt a task that is not challenging and do it very well rather than attempt a challenging task and risk doing it poorly. For these learners, learning is largely about looking good. 

Directed Learners are often compliant, and will take on challenges, but only when directed to do so. With the help of the teachers, they are filling their backpack with more developed Habits of Mind and using their time more effectively

Independent Learners are more self-directed, they seek challenges on their own and take charge of their learning. They make better use of feedback and spend their time more effectively. 

These students are beginning to have a deeper understanding of themselves as learners. They can clearly identify their actions as the cause of their improvement and seek to develop more effective learning behaviours.

Agile Learners leverage learning opportunities not only to reach new standards but to also become better learners at the same time. They are busy using challenges to fill their backpacks. They are focused on becoming better climbers so that all challenges become easier for them. 

Teaching Students to be Better Learners.

Recognising what skilful learning looks like in the Learning Landscape is the first step in understanding how to teach students to become better learners. 

How students engage in the learning process is often overlooked, but it’s a critical factor in improving learning outcomes. It’s not enough for students to attend class, and “do their best”. To improve on, and not merely repeat last year’s standards, students must learn how to engage in the learning process in increasingly skilful and effective ways.

The Learner Agency Matrix describes what skilful learning looks like. It does for learning what the Australian Professional Standards for teaching does for teaching. It defines what quality learning looks like in the classroom and plots a path towards increasingly effective learning behaviours.

For teachers, developing Learner Agency is about using the metaphor of the Learning Landscape to help students understand the learning process. It’s about helping them recognise that how well they learn and what they achieve comes down to a set of learnable actions – not who they are. We must teach them how to take control of their learning and become more skilful learners.

The Learning Landscape provides us with a rich and powerful metaphor that helps teachers more deeply understand their role in developing Agile Learners. 

In my Learning Landscape workshops, I give you the tools you need to develop Agile Learners in your classroom, and share with you 5 different teaching styles, and the key focus of each that will ensure you are developing Agile Learners in your classroom.


  • Patricia Bischoff Bettencourt March 9, 2020 at 11:51 pm

    James, interesting article.
    What about using this same benchmark to identity teachers according to their own “learner agency”? Let me know what you think about this.

    • James March 10, 2020 at 7:42 am

      Absolutely Patricia,
      not only do I ask teachers to reflect in this way, but I also think there are different approaches to teaching and learning required to transition students from one level to the next.
      Thanks for your input. I’ll be writing more about this topic throughout the year.

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