What is Learning?

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What is Learning?

The first challenge in helping students become lifelong learners is the lack of a common understanding about “learning” or the “learning process”.

In our experience, an important first step in helping students to understand themselves as learners occurs when teachers clarify their understanding of “learning” beyond simplistic “learning is a narrative” or “journey” metaphors.

The simple argument holds that different understandings of learning exist between teachers who adopt constructivist-learning theories, and teachers who take a behaviourist approach. The former are likely to think of themselves as facilitators of learning in the classroom, “the guide on the side” providing free exploration within a “scaffolded” framework. The latter are more likely to see their role as one of “sage on the stage” whereby complex learning is introduced to the student in a series of small, progressive, mediated, steps.

However, in reality, teachers’ complex roles in New Zealand classrooms mean they commonly end up playing many roles. The key point for educators is that without a clear understanding of the learning process their students are unlikely to be able to be able to answer the following questions:

Furthermore without a shared understanding of learning, teachers will be unable to: thoughtfully design learning experiences, scaffold appropriate cognitive tools, create purposeful self assessment rubrics and unable to help students reflect meaningfully upon what to do next.

A Teachers' Perspective

Teaching and learning is our core profession. When we ask teachers to define learning in terms that will be meaningful to their students we get looks of surprise that the question even needs to be raised. Yet once they attempt the task their expressions change. This simple task of defining the “L word” proves far more challenging than anticipated.

Why is it so difficult to explain learning in simple terms that a student might understand? How would you explain learning to your students?

Insert photo teachers' responses

The following anecdotal responses to “What is learning?” were collected from teachers attending professional development courses in New Zealand.

Learning is

These responses, and others we have collected, show teachers have a varied sense of what learning might be. What is common about these responses is that they do not offer much that is useful to the novice learner trying to understand themselves in the learning process.

It is a valuable exercise to define what “learning” is at your school. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What does it sound like? Once the teachers have come to a consensus about learning at your school, then test and modify your definition with input from the students and your local community. This statement, “Learning is ...”, can be displayed in every classroom for easy reference and clarity. Constant reference to the explicit learning process will ensure students gain a clear understanding into learning and the learning process.

Before students can expect to have a clear understanding of the meta language of learning their teachers must share a clear understanding of the learning process. Our students will not easily become lifelong learners if we are not clear about what learning means.

It is not unreasonable to suggest from the feedback we have from teachers about learning that many that our students go through school without clearly understanding what learning is and what it is to learn.

A Students' Perspective

What is Learning.jpg

Image from Coley St School Foxton



Capturing what students understand about learning is an interesting exercise. As we might suspect, student responses are just as varied as their teachers. What the student responses have in common with teacher responses is their “wooliness” – they would not prove very useful for a student trying to reflect on their own learning and decide what to do next.

If learning is “When someone tells you how to use something” or “when teachers learn as much from children” how do you know whether your learning is going well or poorly, how do you decide what to do to improve your learning?

What is certain is that unless we can find a clearer way to explain learning to students so that they a useful understanding of the learning process they will be unable to thoughtfully plan, monitor and reflect on their own learning.

SOLO Taxonomy: What do students think?

Pam Hook September 2008 RTENOTITLE


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