Rethinking Learning

To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2020). Rethinking Learning [Online], Available at: (this page URL)

What is Education without learning? But then again, what is learning? Does it mean knowing things? Knowing how to do things? Knowing about things? Understanding things? Creating things? A dictionary will tell you learning is “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught“. I’m not sure if that does it justice.

In recent times, the expanding field of cognitive science has weighed in on what learning looks like and has had quite an effect on British education. According to Sweller et al (2011), learning necessitates change(s) in the long-term memory: “‘if nothing in the long-term memory has been altered, nothing has been learned”. This sort of thinking, that successfully ‘uploading’ pieces of information into one’s long-term memory constitutes learning, has become popular in recent times. I suppose it’s coherent with the dictionary definition. After all, how can we ‘acquire’ knowledge and skills if not by storing information in our brains?

With this being the dominant conceptualisation of learning in contemporary British education, a number of research-informed strategies have become common practice. These are:

  • Spaced or distributed practice : leaving a period of time before revisiting a piece of information so that the brain has to work harder to access;
  • Interleaving : ‘mixing up’ the content so that it is not taught in blocks, creating a certain amount of spaced practice as a result;
  • Retrieval practice : recalling information you have previously learnt and bringing it back to mind;
  • Elaboration : describing and explaining something one has learnt to others, and;
  • Dual coding : showing information both visually and verbally to enhance learning and facilitate retrieval from memory.

These strategies constitute the entirety of research-based aspects of educational inspection regarding ‘memory and learning’ in Ofsted’s (2019) Education Inspection Framework. Whilst there is a danger in these cognitive strategies being applied in the wrong way or misunderstood by teachers who aim to ‘follow the recipe’ without considering the vastly different implications these can have for different subject areas (known as ‘lethal mutations‘), they have so-far proven to be effective, at least for ‘remembering stuff’ (which goes a long way in examinations).

These research-based strategies have also helped to dispel previously commonplace ‘neuromyths’, that caused educators to change their practice. Some of these included conceptions of learners as left-brain or right-brain thinkers, the idea that students have different ‘learning styles‘, and the idea that general ‘brain training‘ can boost cognitive ability (which is false, but language learning can).

However, this conception of learning in terms that place a very high importance on changes in one’s long-term memory is not without its problems, nor its critique. Giving too much power to cognitive research findings, which are not without their limitations and subjectivities (as with all scientific research), risks favouring generalised strategies for teaching and learning over teachers’ own strategies based on content and context.

One manifestation of this is in the ‘lethal mutation‘ of interleaving, for example requiring all teachers to ‘interleave’ their teaching content, causing science teachers to scratch their head over how to move from plant cells to atomic structure to magnetism and then back to pick up photosynthesis. If handled in the wrong way, some of these strategies could hinder learning more than facilitating it.

A key criticism of this conceptualisation of learning, perhaps, is precisely in how it defines learning, more than in how it aims to achieve it… It basically equates learning with remembering things. My gut reaction is to disagree with this idea. There’s got to be much more to learning than that. On closer inspection (pardon the pun), Ofsted themselves state, “This must not be reduced to, or confused with, simply memorising facts”, and they strongly discourage mis-application of cognitive strategies “to simply prompt pupils to learn glossaries or long lists of disconnected facts”, which is a relief.

Reading this article by David Didau, I found it increasingly difficult to separate ‘learning’ from ‘remembering stuff’. Of course, both skills and knowledge require memory, and if we acquire them only to lose them after a few months or years, our learning will ultimately be of little value to us. Aside from defending the scientific validity of cognitive load theory and clarifying that the synonymous relationship between learning and memory is hardly a new idea, Didau also offers an improved definition of learning:

“Learning is the long-term retention of knowledge and the ability to transfer it to new contexts.”

This definition is a sort of condensed version of Soderstrom and Bjork’s (2015) assertion that, “The primary goal of instruction should be to facilitate long-term learning—that is, to create relatively permanent changes in comprehension, understanding, and skills of the types that will support long-term retention and transfer.”

As Daniel Willingham describes here, attempting to define learning can be a circular game which yields very little results. However, in my own exploration of the idea I feel content to have moved from learning as, well, learning (i.e. I hadn’t really thought about it), to learning as ‘remembering stuff’, to learning as ‘remembering stuff’ and being able to use it in different contexts.

This feeds back into the questions I was exploring last week around the purpose of education. If education’s purpose is to help students learn things, and learning implies remembering things with the ultimate aim of being able to apply these things in new contexts, then working out what ideas will be needed and what contexts they are likely to be needed in could go a long way in delivering an education that meets the needs of students.

In my own practice, I certainly intend to stop and think about what I’m asking my students to remember (learn) and how they may need to apply those particular skills or knowledge in the future, before I start trying to etch fifteen different French words for furniture into their long-term memory.

If you’d like to offer an alternative definition for learning, or what learning means for you, please comment at the bottom of this page.

James Sturt-Schmidt - Millennianaire

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