A definition of learning

dictionary-definition-of-learning

“For a man to attain to an eminent degree in learning costs him time, watching, hunger, nakedness, dizziness in the head, weakness in the stomach, and other inconveniences.” Cervantes

Learning (n)

1. the retention and transfer of knowledge

2. a change in the way the world is understood

I’m often asked what I mean when I talk about ‘learning’ so, although I’ve written about it many times before, I thought it might be useful to have a post dedicated to my definition.

Learning is tripartite: it involves retention, transfer and change. It must be durable (it should last), flexible (it should be applicable in new and different contexts) and liminal (it stands at the threshold of knowing and not knowing).

If we accept these ideas, then we should also accept that learning cannot be observed in the here and now. The only way to see if something has been retained over time and transferred to a new context is to look at what students can do elsewhere and later. Cognitive development happens gradually and by increments; the only way to find out whether a student’s understanding of the world has changed is to wait and see.

From this certain things must follow…

To know whether something has been learned we should ask ourselves three questions:

  1. Will students still know this next week, next month, next year?
  2. Will students be able to apply what they have been learning in a new example, a new subject, a new place?
  3. How will this transform students’ understanding of the world?

If these questions were routinely asked, teaching might turn out to be something very different. The main conclusion I’ve come to is that although we know learning occurs, we can’t actually see it. Learning is like dark matter; it exerts a sort of gravitational pull that reveals its existence but it takes places inside students’ minds.  All we can see is what a student is able to do at this moment in time. We can’t see what they’ll be able to do at another time or in another place.

One of the most useful and important concepts for teachers to understand is the distinction between learning and performance. Performance is what students can do. It is all that we can ever observe. Learning takes place inside a student’s mind and as such cannot be observed directly. We can make inferences about learning based on the performances we see, but, performances at the point of instruction are a particularly poor predictor of learning. What students can do in a lesson – or in response to feedback – tells us very little about what they might be able to do at another time and in another context. Teachers provide cues and prompts which increase students’ performance in lessons. And students are skilled at mimicking what they think teachers want to see and hear. This mimicry might result in learning but often doesn’t.

Most counter intuitively, psychologists have found that reducing current performance can actually increase future learning. If students struggle to perform well during instruction this can make their memories more flexible and durable.

Each item in memory has a storage strength and a retrieval strength. Storage indicates how well an item is embedded in long-term memory and retrieval indicates how easily an item can be brought to mind when needed.[1] Attempts to increase retrieval strength improve performance in the short-term but very quickly fade. It appears that retrieval practice interferes with our ability to store items more strongly. The best way to increase storage strength is to allow items to fade in memory before retrieval practice. Surprisingly, forgetting improves long-term memory.[2]

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[1] Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1992). A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation.

[2] Storm, B. C., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2008). Accelerated relearning after retrieval-induced forgetting: The benefit of being forgotten.

10 Responses to A definition of learning

  1. There’s a methodological issue here. You’ve described what might be dubbed ‘outcome’. So on the ‘black box’ method of explanation, you’re right up the ‘output’ end of the matter with your typifications. Clearly, there is an ‘input’ end – which you’ve described in various ways on this site. Isn’t the crunch problem for ‘outcome’ the matter of what goes on in the black box? I mean, that’s where and how the learning happens (or not). So, if we’re describing ‘what is learning?’ don’t we have to get to grips with the various theories or observations of ‘in there’. I remember reading about ‘construct’ theory, for example: that we develop ‘constructs’ (is this the similar to ‘gestalt’?) and as each learning experience happens, we adapt and alter our constructs…and we do that by referring back to the constructs we have and seeing whether the new experience fits, doesn’t fit, challenges, reinforces the construct we have and which itself we ‘made earlier’.

    I’m not up to date enough to know whether that has any credence anywhere these days. Either way, it was a challenge to more behaviourist models of learning because it went beyond ‘stimulus-response’; it included a ‘reflective’ element which suggested that the learner has a role in learning.

    Interested to know your thoughts.

    • David Didau says:

      All learning is essentially ‘constructivist’ – how ever we encounter new information construct our own unique understanding of it. The inclusion of ‘change’ in my definition and the attendant consequence that learning is liminal was meant to capture some of the internal complexity I think you’re referring to. Liminality – as I put it ‘the threshold between knowing and not knowing’ – the space between input and output – is as close to a description of the ‘black box’ as I think we’re currently capable of.

      So, input (teaching) introduces a new item of knowledge (procedural or declarative) and output (performance) is the proxy we use to infer whether an item has been learned (retained & transferred). The space between is the messy complexity of the mind. No one knows what goes on in there, least of all us – the workings of our brains are as mysterious to us as they are to anyone else but we are fooled into believing we know how we think because we’re aware of the thin veneer of conscious thought which overlays the mind’s deeper workings.

      Sometimes input turns into a ‘correct’ output, sometimes it becomes a misconception, sometimes it results in encoded failure “I just can’t do this” – but it all involves change and change, contrary to our intuitions always takes time. Within liminal space new ideas do battle with old ideas. For brief periods the new idea produces improved performance – often mimicry – but then the old idea may well re-emerge and the ability to perform successfully falls away. The new idea needs to be reintroduced and revisited multiple times before it is embedded in enough schema for it to be securely stored and able to be retrieved in different contexts. This is a gradual ebbing and flowing which sometimes seems to result in a eureka moment but this is because we continue to think about what we know we don’t know.

      Does that make sense?

  2. […] are pupils. The very premise of ‘visible learning’ is more than a little bit silly as learning is, by its very nature, invisible. All we see can see is pupils’ performances from which we […]

  3. Rachel says:

    I recently came across the idea that we retain memories of absolutely everything we have ever experienced; they are just almost all completely locked away. (I don’t know if this is true as it was in a fictional work about historical beliefs about the brain, by Sebastian Fawkes, but it does seem reasonable to me). Should this be true it seems perfectly understandable that it may take several ‘sleeps’ for your brain to sift through and make links between new learning and old.

    Learning musical instruments is a wonderful demonstrator of how learning takes place better with little and often exposure, and an example of how doing things a slightly different way and thus making it harder and reducing performance in any one practice session actually improves performance strength at a later date. (A teacher of mine used to get me to play scales with emphasis on every third beat, then on every 5th beat etc. which made it repeatedly difficult but in the end you became much better at playing that scale). I don’t know how much time the memory needs to fade before reexposure in order to make it stronger, but you can definitely reach a point in rehearsing an instrument when a break is required, and possibly a good night’s sleep. I think all this backs up what you are saying!

    I’m teaching a strong Year 3 maths set at the moment and spend a lot of time trying to get their brains to do backflips in order to make their learning deep. I refuse to let them practise maths without thought, which means that I have to mix unexpected challenges into everything. There are therefore far more ‘wrong’ answers in their books than there would be if their tasks were more predictable. The aim is not to confuse, but to develop them as thinkers. It may be sometime before I can find out whether I’ve succeeded but I hope their end of year exams will back me up!

  4. Adrian says:

    The quibble I have with your logic David comes from the statement “To know whether something has been learned we should ask ourselves three questions:
    Will students still know this next week, next month, next year?
    Will students be able to apply what they have been learning in a new example, a new subject, a new place?
    How will this transform students’ understanding of the world?”.

    The best you can do by asking those questions is hypothesise a potential future. Again one cannot “know”. The best we can do in surmising whether a student has “learnt” something or not is to gather long term evidence of “retention, transfer and change”. The only evidence we can gather is “observable behaviour” from which we infer learning.

    Practically, teachers would have to have some systemic long-term way of identifying and gathering evidence (observable behaviour) from which they could infer learning. And that is the best anyone could do.

    • David Didau says:

      Adrain – I think you may have misunderstood. I’m not claiming we can ‘see’ learning by asking those 3 questions, just that asking those 3 questions would lead to better instruction. Reread this paragraph:

      If these questions were routinely asked, teaching might turn out to be something very different. The main conclusion I’ve come to is that although we know learning occurs, we can’t actually see it. Learning is like dark matter; it exerts a sort of gravitational pull that reveals its existence but it takes places inside students’ minds. All we can see is what a student is able to do at this moment in time. We can’t see what they’ll be able to do at another time or in another place.

      As far as I can, we are in complete agreement.

  5. […] offered my definition of learning here, but there is, I feel, something more to be said on the […]

  6. […] taking feedback from our ‘patients’ responses in the classroom. As I explain here, learning involves retention and transfer, it’s essentially flexible and durable – you […]

  7. […] This echoes the findings of Rivkin, Hanushek & Kain, and of Kraft & Papay  in regard to teachers: teachers improve dramatically in the first 3 years of practice, then plateau before start to dip after about 10 years experience. Teaching is an interesting case in that teachers get a mix of excellent and very poor feedback. We get great feedback on aspects of teaching like behaviour management: either children behave or they don’t. But other aspects, like how well students retain information, are badly neglected. Teachers tend to only get feedback on how well children perform within an individual lesson and not on well content from previous lessons has been applied. This can lead teachers to believe that what results in improved short-term performance will also result in better learning, but this belief is contradicted by the evidence. Thankfully, this is a relatively easy problem solve: all we have to do is rethink what we mean by learning. […]

  8. […] We see that students can answer our questions and respond productively to our suggestions and we think we see learning when in reality all we’re seeing is their current performance from which we are inferring […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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