Ian Gibbs, aka The Learnability Man

August 31, 2021 | MumAbroad Life Video Channel

Ian Gibbs (The Learnability Man) on Helping Students Make Learning a Skill for Life

Ian Gibbs, a.k.a. The Learnability Man, helps students to achieve their maximum potential.

Born in Sheffield and now living in Barcelona, Ian Gibbs helps adolescents and adults get closer to achieving their full potential by showing them how the learning process works and coaching them to develop their own personal learning strategy – for life.

Ian is a keynote speaker and author of several books, including 23 Tips to Learn Stuff Better and Learning a Language: How I Managed It, How You Can Too.

In This Interview

Ian talks about how learning is skill we use throughout our lives, and points out how many students struggle because they don’t know how to do it effectively.

He says that learning is a process of trial and error, and in his private work and through presentations at schools around Catalonia he helps students develop the confidence to fail and try again.

He talks about what kinds of parents come to him for help with his students, and about his passion for the aha! moment when a students discovers the power of learning.

Find out more about Ian Gibbs, The Learnability Man, is our Education Specialists’ page here.


[00:00] MumAbroad: Welcome to MumAbroad’s YouTube channel, I’m joined today by Ian Gibbs, aka the Learnability Man. He’s a coach, author and speaker. He has a degree in astrophysics, a postgraduate in education, an MBA, and has had a wide variety of other learning and teaching experiences. His talks on learnability, that’s our ability to approach, absorb and apply new knowledge and skills have informed and inspired thousands of people to become more effective students and lifelong learners. Originally from Sheffield in the UK, Ian moved to Barcelona in 1990. Hi, Ian.


Ian Gibbs: Hello Jane.


MumAbroad: Thank you for joining me today.


Ian Gibbs: My pleasure, it’s great to be here.


[00:50] MumAbroad: Ian who is the Learnability Man?


Ian Gibbs: The Learnability Man, what I do, I really see myself as a messenger trying to explain to people how the process of learning works in a way which is useful and can help people to dispel, if you may, to realise what their potentials are and how to achieve that. Once people realise that learning is a skill and when I say skill I’m talking about it’s a collection of techniques. Although I’ve got a degree in astrophysics, none of this is rocket science. The simple practical techniques that can make the world of difference and that ironically we’re not taught how to do at school, and the problem with that, first of all for schoolkids actually understanding the rules of the game can make a huge difference to how well they absorb the material that they cover in school. But even as adults the values and beliefs that we have about the learning process is something that we form as teenagers and we take them through to the rest of our lives, and suddenly realising that actually there is a different way is often news for people and once they realise this it’s like ‘Oh wow!’ ‘Why why didn’t somebody explain to me this what I was doing my A-levels or when I was doing my GCSEs?’ ‘It would have been really useful’.


[02:50] MumAbroad: Ian what would you say is a common mistake for people who are trying to learn?


Ian Gibbs: A common mistake for people are trying to learn is actually understanding how the learning process works. The verb ‘to learn’ is an active verb, and I say active in the sense that you can’t learn something somebody else. You can read something to somebody, you can show something to somebody, you can explain something to somebody else but you can’t learn something to somebody else. It’ss something you have to do yourself. And this sounds really obvious when you put it in those terms, but most people who go through the education system think that you can learn something to somebody else. Except they don’t use the verb to learn that use the verb to teach, and they think that by having a teacher in a classroom at a particular slotted time means that you’re going to learn from that experience. And I’m afraid it’s wrong. The teacher cannot learn you anything, it’s the student that has to make the effort to learn it themselves and so the question is how do you actually learn something yourself if it’s not through the teacher? And well, then we enter into a whole Pandora’s box of ideas, but it’s this is that you don’t learn by osmosis, you don’t learn by being exposed to knowledge. You learn by actively getting involved, thinking, trying things outmaking mistakes, getting it wrong, and reiterating that process until itstarts to go right.


[04:45] MumAbroad: I notice sometimes with my children, that they’ll be doing something at home and I may be watching a TV show or a YouTube channel or reading or somebody just says something and then they go ‘Oh! now I understand why Mr Smith said so and so in class today’ or ‘last week’ and so obviously something is going in during those classes but they need to experience something else to truly understand it.


Ian Gibbs: Absolutely.


[05:20] MumAbroad: Ian what was your eureka moment? At what point did you realise that if you understand how the learning process works you can get closer to achieving your full potential?


Ian Gibbs: It was about 5 years ago. I was writing a book called Learning a Language which was aimed at people who don’t enjoy learning a language, who find it challenging. And I took all the tips and recommendations from other experts and processed them up in a way which worked for me and what I realised is that all of these different learning techniques that help people learn a language better can also be used for pretty much anything else and these simple things which we never get explained at school. We go through 15 years of academic life and the idea that nobody would a student down and say ‘Do you realise this is how the brain learns?’ ‘This is how we we receive, process, store information and retrieve it’ ‘and this is how you can do it better in a way which is effective.’ That nobody does that is just bizarre, it’s like expecting somebody to be able to drive a car without giving them driving lessons first.


[06:50] MumAbroad: After your lightbulb moment when did you decide put into practice this that you could teach and coach others in this method?


Ian Gibbs: Once I realised this I got quite excited andI immediately wrote a very small succinct book called 23 Tips toLearn Stuff Better and I went around schools and colleges giving talks onthis is basically how I started and then it was when I started to getapproached by the people saying’Could you give me more information?”Could you help my little Johnny or my little Janet?’ and itstarted together from there.


[07:30] MumAbroad: Ian you just mention one of the books that you’ve written and I know that you’ve written several other books, one of which is 23 Tips to Get Better Grades. And I read some reviews about this book and I found one that’s summed it up perfectly it seems: ‘I wish I had this book when I was preparing for my exams.’ This is written by a student. ‘I sat down ready to revise only to realise I had no idea how to do it or where to start. It’s easy for teachers just to say revise but how do you actually do it? That’s when the panic set in for me. It was as if I had missed the lesson at school where you were taught how to revise properly. I imagined all my classmates at home revising making copious amounts of notes while I sat there not having a clue what I was supposed to be doing. This book would have solved that.’ And as I read that it reminded me of the conversation that I had with my son who’s fairly intelligent, normally doesn’t have a problem with exams, but he said to me: ‘Although I’m intelligent mum nope is actually taught me how to revise. How do I prepare myself for an exam? Intelligence isn’t enough is it when it comes to some preparation?’ In your opinion do you think they should be part of the school curriculum, how to revise?


Ian Gibbs: Absolutely, but more than that I think that every school should have on their syllabus learning skills. It’s not difficult, it doesn’t take up the whole term. A few classes can really make the difference to a child once a student realises what is time wasting and what is effective learning they have the choice. And they can put them into effect and it’s a snowball process the more you start to do it the better you get, which means you get more confidence, which means you go to school with a different attitude and you suddenly find yourself being an intelligent student. I’ve had students who have been complete failures at school. They’ve felt completely lost they don’t know what they’re doing and just a couple of months ago before this summer one of my students passed all their exams every single one, and it’s not so much because of what I do it’s because of what they have learnt to do, of how to study, how to learn, how to get it all in their head and her not to not to waste their time thinking that by exposing yourself to knowledge that that is somehow learning, which isn’t.


[10:45] MumAbroad:You teach mainly adolescents and adults. What would you say are the most common learning strategies that you would work on with adolescents in particular?


Ian Gibbs: First of all, Jane, if I could point out that mostly I do work with adolescents. Primary school kids simply don’t appreciate the importance of how academic learning works and although you can do stuff with primary kids it’s really the pressure that secondary school kids get on them or university students or IB students and so the first that I work with is to point out that a lot of the stuff that they do at school, like sitting in classes, copying notes, reading books, possibly watching videos, listening to presentations are low-grade learning activities. You don’t actually learn a lot, ironically, from going to school and doing these things. The higher grade activities are things that involve you more that you have to start thinking for yourself, you have to start doing it and although these activities are done to an extent of school most of school is really just following instructions and doing what you’re told, which really by definition means that you have to stop thinking. Learning to understand what the learning process involves which I use my golden law of learning which is that all deliberate learning requires specific, effortful, repetition. And the problem that most students have with this is the word ‘effortful’. They understand the idea that you have to have a clear idea of what it is that you’re trying to learn. And they more or less understand the idea that you have to repeat it to get it, but the problem is the effort and our attitude even as adult is if we come across something that we find difficult, that we can’t do our immediate reaction is to say ‘Wow, this is too difficult for me.’ ‘I’m not a linguist.’ ‘I’m not a mathematician.’ And to try and find some way to justifying why we can’t do it, whereas the whole point of learning if you’re doing it effectively is to try to do stuff which is a challenge. I use olympic athletes as an example. Olympic athletes become great, the best in the world by trying to do stuff that they find really, really difficult and pushing them and pushing them and pushing themselves until they get there and this idea of ‘Oh, I can’t’ ‘do mathematics because I’m not very good at it’ is great – you’re not very good at it – so there’s the learning opportunity there.But students tend to try to self-justify why they fail rather thanembracing failure as an integral part of the learning process.


[14:15] MumAbroad: When parents approach you to work with their teenagers, for example can you give some examples of why they would come to you or what they are hoping to achieve by working with you?


Ian Gibbs: It’s basically the sensation that the child has more potential than they’re realising. That they’re either a bright student who just for some reason isn’t getting the grades, or that they’re a student who makes the effort but doesn’t get there. I would say 10 times out of 10 the reason why they’re not getting up the ladder is because the effort that they’re making is aimed in the wrong direction. It’s like trying to paint, it’s the difference between trying to paint your room with a paint roller or with a toothbrush. If you try to paint your room with the toothbrush it doesn’t matter how organised you are with your time or how much effort you put in, you’re still going to go really, really slowly. By just nudging students in the right direction and saying ‘Look, instead of doing this try doing that’ they suddenly realise that actually there’s  a lot more return on timeand effort invested by using the right techniques.


[15:45] That’s a great analogy and I also heard you say once if you put some bricks down in front of somebody it doesn’t mean that they can build a house, you need the tools to do that. So, yeah, very true. Ian do you always work with individuals or do you ever find yourself in situations where you work with groups?


Ian Gibbs: I’m happy to work with whatever it is that the parents or the students require. Working one-to-one is a disadvantage for the student because part of what I do is one of the techniques that I use is vocalisation where a student explains to somebody else what it is that they’re trying to learn it helps them to absorb it and mentally process it themselves. This isn’t just an idea, this is one of the proven facts that cognitive pyschologists have been pointing out for the last 30 years that when you something to somebody else, then you learn it better yourself. And so I prefer to work with students and a parent so that the parent can support the the student or just on one occasion so far I’ve worked with more than one student together.


[17:25] MumAbroad: You’re obviously passionate about the subject, Ian. What is it that you love about your work?


Ian Gibbs: Where do I start? The majority of the word that I do at the moment is giving talks and presentations in schools and colleges around Catalonia and more and more I’m doing online stuff as well. Just being able to communicate this message and put it out there is something which for me is really important that I really, really love doing, but also I have to accept that when I do the coaching sessions the first few sessions are treated as if I was a teacher, really like a private tutor, and then at some point though there is an ‘aha!’ moment it’s when it clicks and suddenly you see this little light turn on inside the student and they start to get it. And that that’s really great. That’s what you meant you think ‘Oh yeah, this is why I’m doing it.’ You make the difference.


[18:50] MumAbroad: That lightbulb moment is priceless, isn’t it?


Ian Gibbs: Absolutely. It’s a life-changing thing. You can have students who are mediocre really and suddenly when they realise the rules of the game they can suddenly become top of the class. It’s like becoming more intelligent overnight. And like you said that’s life-changing for most people. It’s not only a skill. We mentioned the business about exams before and this is one of my bugbears that learning is not an academic skill, learning is something for life. It’s not just to get exams. It’s a skill which everybody needs till the grave, really in today’s world where so much is happening every year the ability to be able to get hold of these new ideas and new things that are happening around us and say ‘Right, I don’t understand this’ but rather than saying ‘It’s beyond me’ having a positive mental attitude of saying ‘Right, I’m gonna take this on, it’s difficult is frustrating and I’m making mistakes and getting it wrong, but that’s how learning works.’ And once you can accept that and you know how to handle it, then you can suddenly dominate almost any situation.


[20:35] MumAbroad: Ian you’re based in Barcelona as we mentioned at the beginning but you also work online. You have a website which we’re going to put at the bottom of the screen now that’s www.iangibbs.me and anybody that’s interested can go there and find out more about your services and find your contact details as well. Ok, so thank you very much for joining me today, Ian.


Ian Gibbs: Jane, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you very much for your time.


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