The learning process: Part 3

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 three of a 10-part series.  Read the first part  and the second part

Last time, I argued that the process of learning is the interaction between our sensory memory and our long-term memory.

Our sensory memory, I said, is made up of: what we see (this is called our iconic memory), what we hear (this is called our echoic memory), and what we touch (our haptic memory).

Our long-term memory, meanwhile, is where new information is stored and from which it can be recalled later when needed.

But we cannot directly access the information stored in our long-term memory – instead, this interaction between our sensory memory and our long-term memory occurs in the working memory.

In order to ensure our pupils learn, therefore, we need to stimulate their sensory memory, gain the attention of – and help them cheat – their working memory, and improve the strength with which information is stored in, and the ease and efficiency with which it can later be retrieved from, their long-term memory. In order to do this, we need to follow three steps:

First, we need to create a positive learning environment.
Second, we need to make pupils think hard but efficiently.
Third, we need to plan for deliberate practice.

This week I’m going to share some tips for creating a positive learning environment and next week I’m going to look at ways of stimulating pupils’ senses. First, though, let’s define our terms.

A positive learning environment

When I talk about a positive learning environment I refer to one in which pupils’ senses are stimulated so that they pay attention to the right things and are made to think hard but efficiently about curriculum content.

I refer, too, to an environment in which pupils are challenged by hard work but know that they are safe to take risks and make mistakes.

What I do not mean by the term “positive learning environment” is one in which fun and laughter are paramount. There’s nothing wrong with pupils enjoying themselves while they learn and we certainly wouldn’t want school to be a dull and boring place. However, fun is never the goal.

Rather, as I have already said, we want pupils to think and work hard. If, along the way, they can have fun and enjoy learning, then all the better, but fun is not a prerequisite for pupils to be able to learn and enjoyment is not an essential ingredient in the recipe for a positive learning environment.

In short, when we start the process of lesson-planning, we should start with the question “what do we want pupils to think about?” not “what do we want pupils to do?” – in other words, activities should be secondary to instruction.

Having said this, we do want our learning environment to be one in which pupils are enthusiastic about learning, for enthusiasm breeds intrinsic motivation.

So what, if not fun, are the hallmarks of a positive learning environment? To my mind, a positive learning environment – for starters – is one in which all pupils:

  • Feel welcomed.
  • Feel valued.
  • Are enthusiastic about learning.
  • Are engaged in their learning.
  • Are eager to experiment.
  • Feel rewarded for their hard work.
  • Comfortable with discomfort

I could, of course, go on, and I’m sure you could add to my list with some important characteristics of your own. But behind all these characteristics – and any more we care to add – is a simple, albeit oxymoronic, aim: to ensure pupils are comfortable with discomfort.

In other words, we want our pupils to know that the work they will be asked to do in our classrooms will be tough, that they will be challenged with hard work and made to think.

We want our pupils to know that there will be no hiding place in our classrooms; they must ask and answer questions and attempt everything.

However, in so doing, we want pupils to feel safe and protected, we want them to eagerly accept challenge, and to willingly attempt hard work because they know we have strung a safety net beneath them: they might falter but we will catch them if they fall.

We also want them to know that taking risks and making mistakes is not just accepted in our classrooms but is positively and proactively welcomed as an essential part of the learning process. After all, if pupils don’t make mistakes, they can’t receive feedback, if they don’t receive feedback, they won’t know how to improve, and if they don’t know how to improve, they are unlikely to do so.

There are many ways of achieving a positive learning environment in which pupils are comfortable with discomfort: some are plain old common sense, some are more counter-intuitive.

Let’s deal with each of the hallmarks I listed above in turn and explore tangible ways of achieving them.

Some key tenets

First, I said a positive learning environment is one in which pupils feel welcomed. The best – and simplest – way of achieving this is to physically welcome pupils into our classrooms. For example, we could establish a habit of greeting pupils at the classroom door at the start of every lesson, and then do so with a smile and by greeting at least some pupils by name.

For some pupils in some contexts, that might be the first time someone – an adult, at least – has acknowledged their existence. If we can’t show our pupils that we are pleased to see them and eager to teach them, then can we really expect them to be pleased to be in our lesson?

Second, I said a positive learning environment is one in which pupils feel valued. We can achieve this by making sure we are on time and have a lesson planned and ready to go. We can also do this by creating a culture whereby everybody’s contributions are welcomed and given the time and attention they deserve. This might involve explicitly teaching and repeatedly reinforcing, not to mention modelling debating skills such as active listening.

Valuing each pupil’s contribution is not the same as agreeing with everything they say. Indeed, if a pupil gives a wrong answer then they need to know it is wrong and why it is wrong. Our classroom should be a place of intellectual rigour. But a pupil’s response doesn’t have to be right in order for it to be useful.

Third, I said that we want pupils to be enthusiastic about learning. This is, in part, achieved by developing pupils’ sense of intrinsic motivation but this isn’t always possible and is rarely easy. So another tangible, teacher-led strategy for enthusing pupils is to model that enthusiasm by constantly articulating – through our words and actions – our joy at teaching our pupils and at teaching our subject. In this regard, sometimes a little over-acting goes a long way. It’s better to be considered the kooky, eccentric teacher who’s truly, madly, deeply in love with science, say, than the boring, staid one who never cracks a smile and only perseveres for the pension.

Fourth, we want our pupils to be engaged in their learning. But what is “engagement” and why does it matter? Let me return to the point with which I started this article: fun is never our goal; we don’t need pupils to enjoy our lessons in order to learn.

We need them to pay attention to the right things. If they happen to enjoy what they do, then that’s an added bonus. But “fun activities” are not our guiding star; rather, thinking hard but efficiently about curriculum content is.

So when I talk about pupils being engaged in their learning I don’t mean – or do not solely mean – that they are enjoying what they’re doing. Instead, I mean they are actively paying attention to the right things and are thinking hard.

It is about being engaged in (as in “meaningfully occupied by or connected to”) as distinct from enjoying (as in “taking pleasure from”) their learning because it is not desirable to employ a strategy in which pupils are engaged by something that appears interesting but leads to little substantive learning or, at any rate, slows down the process of learning because this will prove ultimately demotivating.

Our goal as teachers should therefore be to ensure that our pupils learn in an effective, efficient, and enjoyable way (in that order). Yes, we want pupils to be motivated and enjoy lessons but motivation and enjoyment are not proxies for learning. After all, without learning, what’s the point of pupils being motivated and enjoying lessons?

Fifth, I said a positive learning environment is one in which pupils are eager to experiment. I have already said that taking risks and making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process; it is not just to be accepted but to be positively and proactively welcomed in our classrooms. But why? Why is taking risks and making mistakes so desirable?

The importance of practice

In 1991, Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, conducted an investigation into the causes of outstanding performance. His subjects were violinists from the Music Academy of West Berlin.

He divided his subjects into three groups: the first group were the outstanding violinists who were expected to become soloists; the second group were very good (though not as accomplished as the first group) and were expected to join the world’s top orchestras; the third group were good but the least able and were expected to become music teachers.

The “setting” of the three groups was based on assessment conducted by the academy’s professors and on the level of success the students had enjoyed in open competitions.

The biographical details of all the students were very similar with no systematic differences: they each began playing the violin when they were aged eight; they each decided to become musicians when they were 14; they each had the same number of music teachers and had studied the same number of musical instruments beyond the violin. In fact, there was only one difference but it was quite a striking one: the number of hours they had devoted to practice.

By the age of 20, the students in the first group had practised an average of 10,000 hours which is 2,000 hours more than the second group and 6,000 hours more than the third group. Ericsson found that there were no exceptions to this pattern: nobody in the first group who had reached the top of their game had done so without copious amounts of practice; and nobody who had worked so hard had failed to excel. The only distinguishing feature between the best and the rest was purposeful practice: the best were eager to experiment; the best took risks and made mistakes.

Being eager to experiment should therefore be about instilling in pupils the importance of practice, of redrafting and redrafting work until it is the best it can be. In short, in our classrooms, if it isn’t excellent, it isn’t finished.

And finally…

The final feature of our positive learning environment, I said, is that pupils feel rewarded for their hard work. Rewarding hard work and effort not only creates a level playing field on which every pupil has equal chance of scoring a goal (because everyone can try hard, after all), it also makes explicit the progress each pupil is making from their individual starting points.

Not every pupil can achieve a grade 9 but every pupil can improve and beat their previous score.

We know, too, from the work of Professor Carol Dweck and experiments carried out by Harry Harlow and Edward Deci that extrinsic rewards and rewards for ability or talent are counter-productive, whereas intrinsic rewards and rewards for effort lead to improvements.


Those are just six features of a positive learning environment. We could add more. But, as I said at the beginning, they all point to a classroom in which pupils are comfortable with discomfort – in other words, pupils in our classrooms are encouraged to hard work and accept challenges but know they can do so within a safe, supportive environment.

As well as being comfortable with discomfort, in order to stimulate pupils’ sensory memories and gain the attention of their working memories, we need to appeal to their iconic, echoic and haptic memories: sight, sound and touch. In the next article in this series we will explore ways of doing just this.



Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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