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What is learning? A personal reflection.

Hose surprise

A conversation between myself, Kevin, Nick and Mike this morning got me thinking about what learning is. This is a very important thing to reflect upon as many mantras put learning centre stage.  Indeed, I’m in the habit of assessing the value of a project or action by asking the question ‘how does this make learning better?’

I think that every person involved in education should have a clear understanding of what learning is and means in their context.

The problem is, it’s very difficult to tie down what learning actually is.  This got me thinking – do I know what learning actually is? The debate sometimes puts learning up against assessment, but I’m fairly sure that they are part of the same thing. The following is an attempt to pin down what I think learning is.  It has been formed through my own personal journey through learning, my current role as a middle leader in a secondary school and as the father of a toddler (seen above learning not to look down a hose when his father is standing by the tap….) and my reading of learning theory (this is a great place to find an overview and links).  I should say that I see no difference between school and adult learning, nor informal and formal learning. Having said this, my experience is limited to secondary school and above, because (apart from living with a 2 year old) I have little current experience of primary school contexts.

I’ve attempted to display my understanding as a Venn diagram, just because that’s how I like to think:


For me, learning is a blend of achievement, attainment and motivation all of which are influenced by the context in which one finds themselves. So learning in my context (a large, inner city secondary school in Portsmouth) is:

Achievement – Getting pupils to engage and enjoy learning.  This is often seen during our department’s projects where groups of students gets to apply their skills, knowledge and/ or understanding. Examples would include BBC School Report, Digital Leaders, Student Curriculum Leaders, Olympic Geocaching. It’s important to remember though that sometimes, learning should sometimes be a beautiful struggle if it is to be rewarding. Not that Achievement is linked to both motivation and attainment. Teaching skills can help increase the sense of achievement, but all learning should have a context. In this area, I agree with the recent Expert Report on the National Curriculum:

We do not believe that these are either/or questions. Indeed, it is impossible to conceptualise ‘learning to learn’ independently of learning ‘something’ The Framework for the National Curriculum: A report by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review, Dec 2011, Ch 2

Attainment: Let’s face it: assessment and external examinations are never going to go away. And nor should they. I agree that their format and structure should reflect the age in which we live, but they are important. Qualifications are important. Subjects and the knowledge required to understand them provide a powerful context in which to learn. Otherwise, how do I know that the gas boiler going into my new home isn’t going to kill me? How do I know whether the repair to my car, or my MOT is legitimate? In my context, our students need qualifications to progress.  True, they can (but rarely do) leave with nothing and still go on to a happy life.  But the truth is, when I speak to the young people I teach they tell me that they want qualifications.  They know that qualifications probably mean they can go on to do what they want to.  This means that learning has to take in to account the formal qualifications that young people are subject to.  Our Key Stage 3 is informed by the teaching styles employed in Key Stage 2 but also the skills, knowledge and understanding that is required for success at GCSE. In turn, our GCSE course is informed by what students need at A’Level. That’s not to say that we don’t provide the means to explore vocational learning and learning that is ‘hand on.’ It’s a blend. Some argue that teaching to the test is bad, and I agree.  But I do recognise the need for young people’s learning to be accredited. Would you want to complete 11 years of formal education with nothing to show for it?

Motivation – This is the most difficult to pin down for me.  But, it’s clear in my institution that those pupils who know what they want to do when they leave school seem to do better.  They are more engaged and they understand what they need to attain and achieve to progress.  Of course, I’ve been involved in a few minor epics on the mountains.  Not wanting to die is a good motivator to learn about navigation and  mountain stuff. As an educator, once I understand what motivates an individual or class, it is often easier to help them to successfully engage in learning.  I have seen young people work really hard at home to revise and as a result excel in Geography even when the computer predicts a poor grade.

I’ll probably come back to this post at some point, these are some reflections to return to and any feedback / ideas on what you think learning is would be useful.


  1. What an interesting and thought-provoking post David. Thanks!

    From what you have said then, would I be right in thinking that a learner (in your context) is someone who is motivated to achieve and attain? Something that's been taxing me recently is how much we (understandably) tend to view learning solely within our school environments, often being unaware of the learning which takes place elsewhere, both informal and non-formal. As a consequence we might be missing opportunities to stimulate those students who are less motivated to achieve and attain *within* our context. I guess what I'm saying is are we (once again understandably, given the educational climate) preoccupied with formal learning ... or indeed is that all that school is about?

    Since you asked what we think constitutes learning, would you mind if I point you towards my recent musings?
    Though as you'll be able to tell, I've still a long way to go to resolve things! ;-)

  2. Thanks Ian for your comment. I would agree that 'good' learning (in the non-Ofsted sense) is a good balance of achievement and attainment brought about by motivated young people. This is in a secondary context.

    I think that Geography is well placed to take informal learning in to considerations as we often build upon young people's geographical experiences elsewhere. Certainly, informal learning at home is strongly evident when investigating controversial issues such as climate change and migration where students often mirror the opinions and beliefs of their home context.

    I'll check out your post,

    Best wishes



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