Education Innovation and Evolution at ISF: Meta-Learning

Oct 14, 2022

At the Head of School’s Coffee Morning this week, I shared briefly with those parents present on our desire to learn more about learning – meta-learning – through experience and experiment to innovate, evolve, and enhance the education offered to ISF students. Some examples, such as Shuyuan and Hao Xue, were shared to highlight the ways in which we have applied creativity in planning, teaching, and reflecting on learning programs in recent times. This desire rests on an important assumption: we believe there is still much to be learned about learning itself, and particularly learning in our unique, bilingual, bicultural context.

Meta-learning, literally ‘learning about learning’, is a specialized concept closely associated with the broader notion of metacognition, which refers to having an awareness of one’s own thinking. Metacognition, seen as the highest and most sophisticated level of thinking, is an integral part of mainstream education in the 21st century. All learners are encouraged to develop an awareness of their own thinking for the purposes of preparatory planning, in-progress monitoring, and post-action reflection of conscious acts and operations. Meta-learning, often applied to AI-driven machine systems in recent times, describes the process of taking a high-level view of a process and dynamically applying techniques or approaches learned in one context and applying them in others, effectively adapting and generalizing on the run: ‘learning’ to improve a system while it is in motion. This idea clearly has important applications in education.

We cannot stop learning to review, reflect, redesign, and repeat an action: learners and learning are in constant motion. There is a natural fluidity that permeates all aspects of education. Each child arrives in class slightly changed from the previous day; each classroom is transformed in some subtle, perhaps imperceptible manner. Learning, like life, once set in motion, moves forward with clockwork precision: one day at a time. The question to ask ourselves is this: “Can we step outside this flow of experience, even if only for a moment, to observe it and perhaps fashion some new ways of managing learning?”

Having just completed our first round of conferences involving students, parents, and teachers for this academic year, we have sought to demonstrate this principle of meta-learning in practice. We believe each ISF learner is unique. We are still in the process of learning more about our learners and more about how they learn in the school culture and environment we construct and create afresh each day. Through these conferences, we signal our intention to discover more about the individual: how do they learn best, and where do they face challenges? In so doing, we aspire to adjust, adapt, and advance the learning undertaken by each student to achieve progress, but also to observe, reflect, and advance learning in general, in each class, subject, grade, and division. It is not a unilateral or one-dimensional process of reporting; it should always engage all parties in an exchange of ideas that acts as an individualized form of meta-learning.

If learning is construed as a static or conservative process, where we seek to merely maintain or replicate the academic outcomes achieved in previous years, we are not making any allowance for the process of learning about our learners or learning itself, at both an individual or institutional level, to reveal better or new ways of achieving learning outcomes. It denies the natural process of experientially-driven observation, analysis, reflection and innovation that almost inexorably leads to evolution and growth over time. Conservation and replication offer sound and reliable safe havens from the risks of innovation and experimentation. We often hear the phrase, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it!” Perhaps we need to rephrase this cliché: “If it can be improved, shouldn’t we try?” At ISF, we will always strive not to ‘fix’ something that is effective with ‘more of the same’, but to exert our best efforts, energies, and imagination to create something better.



Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Head of School