What are they learning?

//What are they learning?

Learning is never neutral. Although I have no empirical evidence, I’m pretty sure that it’s rare indeed for children – or indeed anyone – to learn nothing in a given situation. My contention is that children are always learning something even if that thing is not what a teacher wants or expects them to learn.

In a lesson, students might learn what we have planned for them to learn, or they might learn a misconception. Equally, they might learn that their teacher has low expectations, that they ‘can’t do’ maths, that school is rubbish, or that messing around results in greater social recognition than being studious. The point is that learning is something which comes to us very naturally: taking on new thoughts and ideas and integrating them into the interconnecting networks of information in long-term memory to arrive at new understandings is easy. And we do it all the time.

Some things – speaking, understanding the basics of biology and physics, applying critical reasoning to social situations etc. – we seem especially good at learning. Some would even say we are ‘hardwired’ to learn these things through a process of evolutionary adaptation. Other things – reading, writing, acquiring and applying abstract concepts – we find it harder to learn. These tend to be things we’ve only recently discovered or formulated as a species. We’ve only been reading for a few hundred years whereas we’ve been speaking for millennia. Some things we’re programmed to acquire, other things are a struggle.

If all we valued was for children to learn how to acquire this ‘biologically primary’, hardwired stuff we wouldn’t need school. School is for the hard stuff, the ‘biologically secondary’ add-on modules that, left to their own devices, children are highly unlikely to just pick up.

When I trained as an English teacher in the 90s we’d rather lost our way in this respect. The fashion at that time was to teach children creativity and empathy. We’d read young adult novels and ask, How do you think the characters feel? How would you feel in that situation? Then we’d say, Write a letter to the character expressing these feelings. Other stuff – like grammar – we’d assume children would just pick up if they read enough young adult novels and wrote enough letters. Children then sat assessments which tested their empathy and neglected to test their knowledge of grammar and we congratulated ourselves on their successes.

My point is that it should never be good enough to ask, Are students learning? Or, Are students making progress?  Instead we should always ask, What are they learning? And, What are they making progress in?



  1. cabraldinos February 26, 2016 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Students generally learn how to produce our expected answer

  2. Christine Counsell February 26, 2016 at 12:55 pm - Reply

    Spot on. We should all be cautious about expressions such as ‘high quality learning’, ‘great learning’, ‘high-level learning’. They can be vacuous, and, at worst, deadening. It is WHAT is being learned that matters. I think you are right, therefore, to focus on the distinctive goods that schooling offers. Schooling lifts us into public modes of knowledge and formal currencies of expression that are emancipatory because they lift us beyond ‘everyday’ knowledge. Valuable though the latter is, schooling is another project.
    (Good to meet you yesterday btw).

    • David Didau February 26, 2016 at 6:01 pm - Reply

      Thanks Christine – as you could probably tell, this was, in part, inspired by our chat 🙂

  3. grahart February 26, 2016 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    All true. Hence need to ask application questions: ‘what do you mean by …?’, ‘what would happen if …?’. And then set exam questions. If it’s just parroting, then it’s a kind of learning, but not for higher grades.

  4. […] Learning is never neutral. Although I have no empirical evidence, I’m pretty sure that it’s rare indeed for children – or indeed anyone – to learn nothing in a given situation. My contention is that children are always learning something even if that thing is not what a teacher wants or expects them to learn. In  […]

  5. […] role of leaders should be to strip out extraneous demands so that teachers are free to consider what students are learning and how to help them learn it more […]

  6. logicalincrementalism March 6, 2016 at 8:18 pm - Reply

    “Some would even say we were ‘hardwired’ to learn these things through a process of evolutionary adaptation” and they would be speculating if they did. Worth flagging up that it’s a contentious theory in cognitive science.

    • David Didau March 6, 2016 at 8:31 pm - Reply

      It’s not *that* contentious. Have you read David Geary’s Stuff on folk knowledge? Very interesting – if a bit impenetrable at times: http://web.missouri.edu/~gearyd/FolkKnowledgePDF.pdf

      • logicalincrementalism March 7, 2016 at 4:36 am - Reply

        It is *that* contentious. When I was a psych student in the 70s Chomsky’s ideas were contentious. Since then Pinker’s theories have been the subject of much criticism. The hardwired/plasticity debate is still going strong encapsulated in arguments about the fusiform facial area https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fusiform_face_area#Function_and_controversy

        • David Didau March 7, 2016 at 11:56 am - Reply

          It’s a lot less contentious than Learning Styles (of which you’re something of a fan, if I remember correctly.)

          • logicalincrementalism March 7, 2016 at 8:02 pm

            Hardwiring vs plasticity is a key issue in cognitive neuroscience. And you’ve misremembered (or misunderstood) my view of learning styles. Deary, deary me.

          • David Didau March 7, 2016 at 8:33 pm

            As far as I’m aware, it’s well established that we learn through a combination of ‘hardwiring’ and plasticity. Can you point me to any research which casts doubt on this?

            As to your views on Learning Styles, I think it’s very safe to say I have no idea what your views actually are.

  7. Biljana March 7, 2016 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    All you have written so very true. Children are learning all the time, something they learn what we want them to learn, something they simply learn how to get what they want -satisfying their need to feed, jump, get recognition, acquire a good grade, provoke a reaction. So we work on discovering their needs and focusing their learning abilities towards their needs completion. So my son want a new bike and he has learned that he needs to find me a in a good mood, present some evidence of good behavior and grades to motivate me to provide positive feedback to his question: when do I get the new bike you promised?
    So teachers, as well as parents have to recognize the carrot and guide the way, so hopeful some additional knowledge will be acquired in the process.

  8. logicalincrementalism March 7, 2016 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    Yes re the interaction between hardwiring and plasticity. But we don’t know for sure the extent of either in respect of language acquisition. Hence the contention.

    And if you don’t know what my views are about learning styles why speculate?

    • David Didau March 7, 2016 at 8:55 pm - Reply

      Right – so you’re saying it’s contentious because we don’t know the full extent to which the brain may be pre-wired for learning language? That doesn’t sound very contentious to me.

      I speculate on your views on Learning Styles precisely because they defy my attempts to understand them. It may be 1) I’m a bit think, 2) you’ve not explained them very well, 3) you’re view don’t make sense 4) a combination of the previous 3 points.

  9. logicalincrementalism March 8, 2016 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    I’m saying Chomsky & Pinker’s view is contentious because they are claiming language acquisition is hardwired when we just don’t know that. Their model has been hotly debated in cognitive science and linguistics for decades. In your post you present their view as “some would even say we were ‘hardwired’ to learn these things through a process of evolutionary adaptation”. You then develop this theme as if no alternative view existed.

    You’re obviously entitled to present their view and to agree with them, but to present their view as if it’s generally accepted, when neuroscience is probably moving towards an opposite conclusion, is disingenuous.

    I leave you to speculate about what I think about what you think about learning styles.

    • David Didau March 8, 2016 at 8:25 pm - Reply

      Actually Sue, I was presenting the views of David Geary (evolutionary psychologist) and David Eagleman (Neuroscientist)both of whom I’ve been reading recently. Eagleman is particularly interesting in suggesting that recent developments in neuroscience strongly support the ideas presented by Pinker. If you’re claiming “neuroscience is probably moving towards an opposite conclusion” then you really need to offer some support otherwise it looks disingenuous. In fact, it rather chimes with the anti-science stance you appear to take on Learning Styles 🙂

  10. logicalincrementalism March 9, 2016 at 6:49 am - Reply

    Responding to the neuroscience point first:

    You’ve presented the views uncritically. You’ve made no reference to any work that questions the Chomsky/Pinker model – although I’ve not heard anything from Eagleman that supports the Pinker side of the argument. And I don’t appear to be alone in that – see this review for example http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/incognito-the-secret-lives-of-the-brain-by-david-eagleman/article4261689/ You haven’t referred to the connectionist or computational models that have a long history in cognitive science – Thomas and McClelland provide an overview here http://psych.stanford.edu/~jlm/papers/ThomasMcCIPCambEncy.pdf

    In short, you’ve cited evidence that supports a particular model, but you haven’t evaluated it. The model you’ve embraced might have some useful take-home lessons for teachers, but if teachers are going to apply neuroscience to teaching and learning, a model that’s hotly disputed doesn’t seem like a good foundation for an educational approach.

    • David Didau March 9, 2016 at 10:05 am - Reply

      I in no way think teachers should “apply neuroscience to teaching and learning”. In fact, I think they shouldn’t.

  11. logicalincrementalism March 9, 2016 at 6:56 am - Reply

    ‘Learning styles’ is an umbrella term; researchers have operationalised ‘learning styles’ in different ways. This isn’t helpful, hence it’s spawned a bunch of review papers and Kozhevnikov et al, for example, have made a start on systematising the constructs http://is.gd/jZpBG9

    The evidence relating to ‘learning styles’ varies from models with some degree of reliability and validity to models that don’t have any. Because of the variability, reviewers have rightly advised teachers not to bother with learning styles approaches. The VA(R)K model widely used in schools is one with a pretty ropey evidence base, so I can understand why teachers dismiss it. However, some teachers blithely use the term ‘learning styles’ without indicating what model they’re referring to or if they’re using the term generically. Some have noted the advice not to bother with learning styles and have assumed that means learning styles do not exist. That is not a scientific evaluation of the evidence.

    Review paper after review paper has concluded that the jury is still out on learning styles. Teachers should not assume that because advice has been given in relation to using learning styles in schools, that means that the research jury has reached a verdict. That assumption is ‘anti-science’ and that’s what I’m complaining about.

  12. logicalincrementalism March 9, 2016 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    I’m not claiming learning styles exist. I’m saying that whether they exist or not depends on how you operationalise them. The question of whether they exist or not is the wrong question. Teachers pontificating on the topic should know that.

    • David Didau March 9, 2016 at 3:12 pm - Reply

      “I’m saying that whether they exist or not depends on how you operationalise them.”

      That sounds suspiciously like, they exist if you do the ‘right things’. All we have to do is ask what are the conditions in which we would accept that instructive children in a preferred style would not be effective. The test for the meshing hypothesis is a reasonable answer to that question.

      Not having an answer means you’re taking an unscientific position.

  13. logicalincrementalism March 10, 2016 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    The meshing hypothesis test is indeed a reasonable answer to a question about the application of learning styles to the instruction of children. But the learning styles construct is much broader than just teaching approaches used in schools.

    It’s like saying there’s no evidence that taking personality into account helps children learn so the construct of personality and all research that has tried to operationalise personality is bunk and therefore personality isn’t a thing in any way shape or form.

    Framing psychological theories or the biological mechanisms underpinning cognition solely in terms of what happens in the classroom is about as unscientific as it gets.

    • David Didau March 10, 2016 at 1:35 pm - Reply

      “Framing psychological theories or the biological mechanisms underpinning cognition solely in terms of what happens in the classroom is about as unscientific as it gets.”

      Well, “solely” is an obvious straw man – I’m not interested in trying to work out applications for psychological theories outside the scope of education although I’m happy to concede they might be interesting.

      As an aside, I think there’s pretty good reason to conclude that “personality isn’t a thing”. I’m recommend Annie Murphy Paul’s book, The Cult of Personality.

  14. […] you’re not going to value students’ writing why should they? Learning is never neutral and students often learn things that are actually detrimental. Much of the writing students produce […]

  15. […] The answer is simple: you have to be creative about something. It’s not enough to collaborate, you must have something to collaborate on. It’s all very well to have an innate ability to solve problems, but what specific problems do we want students to solve? In every case the problem is caused by the interaction between the natural and the unnatural; the primary and the secondary. If you want students to find creative ways to avoid doing any work, then clearly creativity is a doddle. If instead you want them to find creative solutions to biologically secondary  algebraic equations then you’re in trouble. Asking students to collaborate in discussing last night’s telly will present no problems, but expecting them to collaborate on researching climate change is trickier because researching climate change doesn’t come naturally. The same can be said of learning. Learning is another innate capacity – we are all born with the ability to learn and find it easy for pick up stuff we find interesting. The only question really worth asking is what are students learning? […]

  16. […] also suggested previously that looking for learning is trivially low bar. Here’s a brief summary of this ideas in this […]

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