The learning process: Part 1

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

This is part one of a 10-part series.  

What is learning? It’s a simple question, isn’t it? And surely, as teachers, our understanding of what we do – the act of teaching – is contingent on having first developed a fundamental understanding of what we are paid to produce – learning.

After all, we wouldn’t attempt to assemble a flat-packed cabinet without first looking at a picture of the finished product and without then following step-by-step instructions that take us from flat-pack to fully assembled furniture.

In short, if pedagogy is a process whereby teaching is the input and learning is the output, then we need to know what the output should look like in order to decide what raw components to use and in what sequence to put them together.

Learning can be a range of different things depending on its purpose and context, and can encompass different processes, procedures and indeed outcomes.

For example, learning my telephone number (which, admittedly, I struggled to do for longer than I care to admit) is not the same as learning to ride a bike which, in turn, is not the same as learning how to analyse a poem or interpret a set of raw data and present the findings in a graph.

It is true that practice – no matter whether we’re practising our golf swing or our times tables – has the same biological effect on the brain (namely, that it creates more layers of myelin around our nerve fibres – what we call “muscle memory” but which is, in fact, nothing to do with our muscles). But this doesn’t mean that we follow the same learning process whether we’re learning to swing a golf club or memorise our seven times table. And it doesn’t mean that what we learn is stored and used in the same way, nor that it can be, or needs to be, demonstrated in the same way.

Learning is multi-faceted

When I taught my daughter to ride a bike, for example, I could see that she’d learnt it immediately by observing her riding without my help and without the support of stabilisers. She cycled down the hill, turned around, and cycled back up it. She got off and back on again, and pedalled some more. She was able to demonstrate her learning and I was able to observe it. I don’t think anyone would suggest she was merely regurgitating, rote-like, something I’d just modelled for her and that therefore riding her bike was merely a “performance” as opposed to genuine, deep “learning”.

Yes, her skill may erode over time if she doesn’t keep practising it (despite the fact we’re told “it’s just like riding a bike, you never forget”), but that doesn’t mean she didn’t learn it initially.

However, not all types of learning are observable and not all learning is acquired immediately. For example, if I taught a pupil how to identify bias in a non-fiction text – let’s say the Daily Mail – and they immediately identified an example of bias in the pages of the Daily Mail in the same lesson, I couldn’t be certain they’d learnt the various interconnected skills of – to name but a few – skimming, scanning, distinguishing between facts and opinions, and identifying emotive language, and were able to apply those skills to the pages of the Daily Mail as well as to The Guardian and online in Wikipedia and on Facebook, and would then know to do so in history and economics, not just with me in English.

To be certain she had learnt all these skills and that those skills could be transferred, I would need to observe and assess her doing so at a later time and in a range of different contexts.

The pupil’s immediate demonstration could, in this case, be a mere “performance”, the instant regurgitation of what I’d instructed and modelled – mimicry rather than mastery.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with mimicry if it helps a pupil pass a test and get a qualification, but, assuming we want to do more than “teach to the test” and assuming we regard education as something meaningful and life-long, a way of becoming an engaged and active citizen, and an inquisitive, cultured adult, then surely we must aim to move beyond mimicry and towards mastery.

It follows, therefore, that our pupils must move beyond performance to genuine learning. And, if this is the case, then we must teach in such a way as to ensure that our pupils not only acquire new knowledge and skills but can apply those knowledge and skills at a later time and in a range of different contexts.

A definition of learning

With this in mind, for the purpose of this series of articles, and as applied to the process of “learning” more complex curriculum content within an academic setting, my definition of “learning” will be as follows: Learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skills and their application at a later time and in a range of contexts. Before we go any further, let’s unpick the various threads contained in that definition…

The act of acquiring new knowledge and skills is the start of the learning journey. It is what happens (or begins to happen) in the classroom when a teacher – the expert in the room – imparts their knowledge or demonstrates their skill (perhaps through the artful use of direct instruction and modelling) to their pupils – the novices in the room.

Next, pupils store this new information in their long-term memories (via their working memories) from where it can be recalled and used later.

The process of storing information in the long-term memory is called “encoding”. The process of getting it out again is called “retrieval”.

A pupil could demonstrate their immediate understanding of what they’d been taught by repeating what the teacher had said or by demonstrating the skill they’d just seen applied. But this immediate display is not “learning”. Rather, it is “performance”. It is a simple regurgitation of what they’d just seen or heard and takes place in the working memory, without any need for information to be encoded in the long-term memory.

We can all repeat, rote-like, something someone else has just said or mimic a skill they’ve just demonstrated. But unless we can retain that knowledge or skill over time, we haven’t really learnt it. And if we can’t apply that knowledge or skill in a range of different situations, then – similarly – we haven’t really learnt it, or at least not in any meaningful sense.

Let me give you an example…

We can, perhaps through direct instruction, teach pupils what “alliteration” means. Next, pupils can repeat the definition and pick out an example of alliteration from four sentences in a multiple-choice quiz:

1. A golden orb illuminated the sky.
2. The sun spun strips of silk across the sky.
3. The sun looked like a giant blood orange.
4. The sky was turned red by the low winter sun.

If most pupils identify B as an example of alliteration and can explain that it is so because the initial consonant “s” is repeated (a type of alliteration known as “sibilance”), then great, we think, they must have successfully learnt alliteration so we can now move on to the next thing. But…

If we don’t repeat that learning several times – at last three times but ideally much more often – then their memory of what alliteration is will inevitably fade. It will probably remain in their long-term memories somewhere (we forget very little) but like a box of childhood toys stowed in the attic the knowledge will grow dusty and get pushed to the back, hidden among all the other items we heave through the hatch over time.

If we told pupils the definition again, chances are they would think “oh yes, of course – I remember now”, but unprompted, they would be unable to volunteer a definition or identify an example.

The more we repeat the information – the more often we ask pupils to tell us what alliteration is and identify an example of it within a text – the stronger the retrieval strength of that information will become, making its recall easier and more efficient.

But the act of recalling the information from their long-term memory and bringing it into their working memory will also increase the storage strength of that information. It will be returned to the attic dusted down and in an easier-to-reach location.

However, if we simply repeat the information over and again verbatim, we will only really improve their surface knowledge of that information. They will more easily remember what alliteration is and be able to pick out an example. But they are unlikely to get any better at, say, writing alliterative sentences of their own, or at identifying why a writer has used alliteration, for what purpose and effect.

There’s a danger they may not be able to identify alliteration in other contexts, too. For example, they may be attuned to its use in poetry if that’s the context in which they were taught alliteration the first time. But they might not know to look for it in a novel or in non-fiction texts, such as in a newspaper headline, if they’re not told to do so and made to see the connections.

Different contexts

In order to improve and deepen pupils’ understanding of alliteration (rather than stick with surface knowledge), we need to teach it in different contexts. We need to model examples of its use in a range of different text types. We need to teach pupils how to use alliteration in their own writing and explain how, why and when to do so.

And when we repeat learning we should do so in different ways. For example, we could ask a hinge question which requires pupils to identify an example of alliteration from four sentences, then we could get pupils to write about that sentence, explaining what makes it alliterative, why the writer chose to use that device and what effect it creates – why, for example, the writer uses sibilance.

Then we could ask pupils to write a piece of fiction that uses alliteration, followed by a piece of non-fiction. Then we could get them to teach each other and/or test each other, perhaps by creating their own multiple-choice quizzes.

The more times we repeat the information and the more we do so in different ways, requiring pupils to demonstrate their learning through various means, the stronger it will be stored, the more easily it will be retrieved, and the better pupils will be at transferring their learning to different contexts.

Learning, therefore, is being able to apply knowledge or skills long after we were first taught them and in a number of different situations– perhaps in an assessment as well as repeatedly over a period of time, or even a lifetime.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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