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18 January; What is learning?

19 January 2011

Note; this post has now been up-dated to refer to the post-its: see end.

Wow! We covered a lot of ground, but of course the principal question is how much you learned from it. So it was both disconcerting and appropriate to find one of the post-it notes read; “How does all this fit with what we need to put in the assignment?” (more from the post-its at the end.)

The answer is “not very directly”. (And of course there are no “assignments”!) This is not the kind of course where one can “teach to the test”, even if I wanted to. One item from the scheme of work which we skipped because of the e-vision business last week was a brief discussion of the usefulness (or otherwise) of theory on a course such as this. It’s not something to be addressed just for the sake of it, but because it helps you to see how bits of research and your own experiences and observations fit together, so as to provide a sort of map of the territory of teaching.

So despite the detail I’m about to go into, the main take-away point from this session was that learning is not just one thing; it is rarely “pure”; and teaching approaches have to be adapted to accommodate all those other factors which are mixed up with it. That is why we shall see that there are no reliable simple answers, but a series of choices and trade-offs and compromises…

So: matters arising from the reading groups…

If you are looking for more reliable reading than Zull, but still accessible to the non-specialist, try;

  • Fine C (2007) A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives London: Icon Books
  • Carter R (1998) Mapping the Mind London; Phoenix (a little dated now, but the illustrations more than make up for it.)

The two texts I mentioned which explore the same territory as the Zull chapter are:

  • Claxton G (1997) Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind; why intelligence increases when you think less London; Fourth Estate (also not up-to-date with the latest research but there’s still plenty in it; and if you must…)
  • Gladwell M (2006) Blink; the power of thinking without thinking London; Penguin (much hyped, but there is much less to it than meets the eye.)

We’ll be looking at motivation more systematically next week, but the extrinsic/intrinsic distinction is outlined at

and the point about anxiety (which we had mentioned before re. micro-teaching) at

The related points about deep and surface learning are discussed at

The idea that the use of extrinsic rewards can reduce intrinsic motivation relies largely on this experiment:

You discussed, too, the “baggage” students bring to their learning; some implications of that and possible responses from a teaching point of view are discussed at:

The questions about children’s developmental stages and their motivations are beyond the scope of this course, but this page provides a starting point (if any of you working in the child care sector want to suggest web resources, please use the comment function to add them. Thanks):

What is learned?

So many ideas and points were raised that I can’t cover all of them: I’ve tried to summarise them in a separate handout, which is here, but includes some observations from earlier runs of the exercise, too:

(Incidentally, the rationale of the exercise, which uses concrete instances to get an underlying themes, is described at )

The major themes which came up concerned

  • the relationship between what is “hard-wired” into us genetically and what we learn. As we saw, it is not a simple either/or; our inheritance may equip us or pre-dispose us to something but it is our environment and experience which determined the form it will take. So we are equipped to learn a language from soon after birth, but which language is an environmental matter. The  most accessible and fascinating discussion of this is to be found in Ridley M (2003) Nature via Nurture; genes, experience and what makes us human London; Fourth Estate. (The fact that he was Chairman of Northern Rock when it collapsed is neither here nor there!)
  • the other major theme was that not all change is learning; take the example of language acquisition above. The baby has to grow a bit before she acquires the motor control of voice to babble and then speak, and the integration of brain function to master language. You can’t learn what are you are not yet ready for. That does not concern us a great deal on a PCE course, but it’s very important for teachers of children. The great figure in exploring the developmental changes in understanding and learning capacity throughout childhood was Jean Piaget. See also this page for the bit of Piaget of most relevance to us.

Note that we did not actually essay a definition of learning.  As ever it is more important to engage with the ideas than simply to accept someone else’s definition: I’ll re-visit that when I post the presentation in a day or two.

Here are links to two sources which got a mention:


  • The “Chinese tiger mother” and her approach to parenting is discussed here, with further links.
  • The court and the defendant without language; the story is here. (Sorry–I wrongly located it in Canada)

As the mediaeval monk said “scripsi totum, da mihi potum“. I’ll go through your post-its and check they have been addressed.

Below added 20 January


There’s a nice self-similarity about the most common point made on the blue post-its (one point which might effect my teaching). “How do I know that the students are learning what I think I am teaching?” The self-similarity lies in the fact that the issue is something you picked up, but I didn’t think I was addressing! Nevertheless it is a very good point, and the answer is in part that you need to check. This is the essential feedback process, which Hattie regards as the most important element in teaching (more about it here). And the aspect of that which is most significant is feedback from student to teacher. As I quote on the linked page.

The mistake I was making was seeing feedback as something teachers provided to students—they typically did not, although they made claims that they did it all the time, and most of the feedback they did provide was social and behavioral. It was only when I discovered that feedback was most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher that I started to understand it better. When teachers seek, or at least are open to, feedback from students as to what students know, what they understand, where they make errors, when they have misconceptions, when they are not engaged—then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful. Feedback to teachers helps make learning visible.

(My emphasis; citation on the page.) We’ll return to this.

And see this, too.

Other points concerned maximising motivation; demonstrating relevance and making the most of intrinisic rewards. We’ll say more about that next week, too, with particular reference to Herzberg’s model (here). And someone is hoping to use the “mental maths exercise” and the notion of equifinality rang bells.

On the pink front (what needs more explanation): “How to get a feeling for people’s background and motivation for being on a course?” Ask them! Usually they will be keen to tell you and it is a motivator for them if the tutor shows that kind of interest.

“Is a fear of heights entirely learned?” We only touched on this in passing. Until relatively recently the usual explanation referred to conditioning (which we’ll look at as part of behavioural theory in a few weeks), but now it is more regarded as over-sensitivity to something (like to loud noises or foul tastes) which it is perfectly reasonable to be cautious about, and that can be found in animals as well. In that sense it is functional and may contribute to survival, so normal variation within the population will mean some have it more than others.

“How can we use these ideas to enhance our teaching?” Wait for next week’s exciting instalment!

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