What is learning?

Go on, ask yourself, ask other teachers, ask some students: what is learning? It’s a pretty big question isn’t it? One that I might have felt hopelessly unequal to answering before reading Graham Nuthall‘s The Hidden Lives of Learners.

This book draws together one of the most impressive attempts to find out what goes on in classrooms that I’ve ever come across. Briefly, Nuthall and his team wired up a range of classrooms and recorded everything that went down over several months before then transcribing these recordings and attempting to crunch the data they gathered. In doing so they learned some surprising things and had other, fairly obvious, things confirmed.

Nuthall tells us that despite the fact that everyone goes through essentially the same learning process and that we can dismiss Learning Styles as bunk, background knowledge, experiences, interests and motivations can be wildly different. Learning is making connections between all this stuff which kids bring to the classroom with what they encounter in the classroom. Because of this diversity of experience, roughly a third of what students learn will be unique to them. Let me put that another way: one in three things a student will have learned by the end of a teaching sequence will not be known by any other student. In a class of 30 students that’s a hell of lot of unique knowledge. I may have a clear learning objective which I intend all students to learn but there is an awful lot of stuff happening which dwarfs my feeble attempts.

Over Christmas I watched Professor Bruce Hood’s series of lectures entitled Meet Your Brain. They were fascinating and hugely engaging. I have a clear and abiding memory of enjoying them. Sadly though I am able recall almost nothing of what he lectured on. Why is that? Why was I unable to retain information I found interesting? Am I especially dim?

I hope not. The main reason is that I didn’t have sufficient prior knowledge about psychology and neuroscience to integrate the new information I was encountering into my existing mental map and my poor over burdened brain simply raised the white flag and bugled its surrender. This is what happens in classrooms all the time.

Apparently kids will know about 40-50% of whatever we’re trying to teach them. This sounds straightforward enough: why don’t we just teach them the 50-60% they don’t already know? Well there are two reasons. Firstly, they don’t all know the same 40-50% of stuff and secondly if you attempt to teach kids something about which they know absolutely nothing they’ll have nothing to connect it to and it won’t make the perilous journey from working memory to long term memory. That is to say, they’ll forget it fairly quickly.

Another prerequisite for learning is the number of times we come across information. For some reason three times appears to be the charm. This is something 80s hiphop combo De La Soul knew all about and attempted to communicate in their classic track The Magic Number.

I guess they could have been a little less opaque, but still: the answer was out there. This chimes deeply and sonorously with what I’ve already written about looping learning. Single, isolated experiences don’t turn into learning; students need opportunities to come at things from different angles in order to make sense of new information and slot it usefully into the network of stuff they already know.

Nuthall’s research suggests students go though the following process when they get given new information:

  1. Try to make sense of new information by relating it to and evaluating it against known concepts
  2. Hold new information in working memory and connect it to other new information and experiences
If the new information is sufficiently integrated then it will be ‘learnt’, that is, retained in long term memory.

Nuthall says that, “learning does not come directly from classroom activities; learning comes from the way students experience those activities.” This difference may seem unimportant but it’s the difference between teaching & learning. Or, as Pam Hook puts it, What’s Happening in the Ampersand.

What’s important is how students try to make sense of what we tell ’em. Students are attempting to do this all the time: sometimes it results in them learning and sometimes not. The thing is that a good deal of what students learn they learn from each other. And a lot of what they learn from each other is wrong. Nuthall’s research reveals that students learn better when they can self select or self generate activities. This means that they need to work in groups and have opportunities to interact with each other. if they don’t have these opportunities they’ll still do it but in a way that teachers won’t be able to monitor and create misinformation.

In whole class direct instruction the teacher attempts to literally direct the students’ learning. Students will be reacting to new concepts and information whether the teacher is aware of it or not. They talk to themselves and each other all the time. When the class is set up for students to direct their own learning the teacher can listen to this because it will be explicit. When the teacher is at the front, directing, they cannot. Either because they’re unaware of it or because they perceive it as bad behaviour.

Much of what students know is bound up in their peer culture. By varying teaching approaches we can affect the social standing of the students we teach. If we only ever provide traditional academic routes to learning them the ‘most able’ will have all the power and the ‘least able will quickly, and rightly, become disaffected.

Finally, learning should be memorable. Students don’t just learn the curriculum, they remember the context in which they learnt it. If something dramatic and exciting happens then they’ll remember it just as I remember my biology teaching accidentally dropping a human skeleton on the floor. So, how students experience an activity is as much part of what they learn as the intended curriculum content. If they listen to lecture or fill in a worksheet they are learning to be passive and to fill in gaps in someone else’s work. If they are active in their learning then they’ll learn that learning happens when you take responsibility and manage yourself.

As I write that, I know that plenty of folks will find reasons to disagree. My view is that we have to find a middle way. Learning should be a balance between finding out information from a trusted source (the teacher) and discovering it for yourself. For myself, I often acquire new ideas from reading but it’s not until I work out ways to apply these ideas in the classroom that they become a part of my teaching arsenal.

So, if that’s learning, how should we teach?

  1. We need to keep in mind how students’ memories work. Both Nuthall and Willingham are clear that ‘thinking’ cannot happen independently – it has to be tied to stuff that students already know. Therefore we have to design lessons that use their existing knowledge and understanding.
  2. We have to build in opportunities for students to revisit new ideas. I don’t mean that we should simply repeat lessons – the information should be presented in different ways which allows them to see connections with what has gone before.
  3. In order to monitor what students are learning we need to assess what they know at the beginning of a teaching sequence or scheme of learning and compare this to what they know at the end. We’ve already seen that everyone will start off knowing different things and this will result in them learning different things.
  4. If we’re going to do everything above then we’re probably not going to be able to get through everything in the curriculum. We need to decide which is more important: teaching or learning. Do we want to make sure that we teach as much as possible or that students learn as much as possible? You can’t have both. We should therefore focus on those areas which provide the biggest payoffs for students. As an English teacher I need to accept that I cannot cover a whole text in the depth I’d like – I should instead concentrate on extracts that provide the opportunity to link to other parts of the course.
  5. Because much of what students learn comes from their peers we need to be aware of the culture in out classroom. We will benefit from knowing what they’re interested in, what they’re good at and who is popular.If we allow opportunities for different students to shine at different times then we will validate all the children we teach. Setting up tasks which require a combination of different skills and knowledge is perhaps the best way of ensuring that there is an opportunity for everyone to learn because everyone will get to connect new information to different sets of prior knowledge.
  6. Because students learn best when self-selecting and self-generating experiences we need to teach them how to do this better. Teaching students to ‘learn how to learn’ has become somewhat tarnished of late. We need to deliver curriculum content in such a way that  will also learn effective ways of learning it. Over time we can train them in the good habits which they can apply on their own to learn new concepts.

Whether this sounds like good sense or not, I’d recommend reading Nuthall’s book. His description of how his research was conducted is fascinating and makes it very hard to argue with his conclusions.

Happily, after years of only being available via an expensive import from New Zealand it is now available in the UK.



20 Responses to What is learning?

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  2. Justin says:

    I actually came to a similar conclusion not that long ago, I was contemplating a strategy on how I can actually become a more effective learner. For me I have to stop and think about what prior knowledge I have in a particular subject as I find it easier to join the dots.

  3. learningspy says:

    Yes, and the more knowledge you have the easier it is to fit new stuff in. I’d be interested to see whether there’s any kind of neuro science link; you know, synaptic connections being strengthened. That sort of thing.

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  5. Andreas says:

    I like your blog not so because what you say its right but because it something I believe should be said in order to provoke healthy, natural discussions. Incidentally I agree with you 99% but that’s not the issue. Hope you’ll have lot of traffic to site. It is not a waist of time.

    “……… the more knowledge you have the easier it is to fit new stuff in.”

    The reason I switched from engineering to teaching is the structure of my knowledge – I have very good (but not outstanding) knowledge in many subjects and an inner drive to make connections when explaining an abstract idea. I believe that, if there is only one job requiring an initially broad base of knowledge, it should be – teaching. In the near future, a teacher will have to use his/her knowledge to make sense and choose from hundreds of different ways, environments and thousands of possible combinations given by a semi-robotic system so the importance of his/her knowledge in a specific subject will fade in comparison with his/her general knowledge. For example knowledge of applications, psychology, related subjects ….

    “We need to decide which is more important: teaching or learning ?”

    If you are a beginner teacher, your teaching is more important than their learning 🙂 because if you challenge the system too early you”ll find yourself out of the job and without any possibility to improve anything. The art is marking patiently your books until the time is right to bring down stupidity. Even if you manage to do this, you cannot bring too much attention to yourself because you should be worry about peers envy: any parent complain will skillfully be used against you. Some parents, always feel that if they had a little more time, they could have taught their offspring much better than the stupid (racist, lazy) teacher. In order to teach the way he wants to, the teacher needs to have far better results than other teachers which is very hard to achieve as a new teacher, for reasons ill related to knowledge or skill. In my country, teaching is not regarded as honorable as other kinds of employment

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