What is learning?

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.

Albert Einstein

I have been in education for the past fifteen years, working in a variety of different roles – everything from camp councillor to kindergarten classrooms, high school studio courses to adult professional learning. In all these different learning environments, there is one thing that is common to all – if I have done my job as a teacher I will have crafted an experience that allows the individuals that I am working with to take something with them beyond the boundaries of the classroom walls in which we had gathered. Teaching is about designing experiences that allow learning to happen.

Learning is a psychological process in which new information or skills are acquired. This means that when designing a learning experience, it is necessary to understand that people come to learning knowing something or can already do something. Prior learning serves as the foundation upon which new learning is solidified. Recognizing that all learners have schemes upon which they are working requires a learning experience to be an opportunity to make new connections. These new connections will take one of two forms:

In order to design effective learning experiences, it is important to have a clear understanding of what learning is, what it looks like, and how and a clear way of measuring progress based on clear and established success criteria.

  • assimilation: using an existing schema to deal with a new object or situation; new information or experiences blend with prior information or experiences; and
  • accommodation: existing schemas do not work and the learner must significantly change or create a new schema to deal with a new object or situation.

In light with this basic principle, learning design requires the facilitator to first of all understand where the learner is coming from and how their prior experience situates them in relationship to the  desired learning goals.

If learning is about making psychological connections (which is very difficult to actually see), how can someone else’s learning be assessed? In education, we ask for ‘evidence of learning’, or more simply stated: show us what you have learned. Since 2010, Growing Success has guided educators in determining if and when learning has occurred. In Growing Success, it is explicitly stated that evidence of student learning must be balanced between:

  • observations: teachers watching for the behaviours that indicate that learning has occurred (e.g. a child experimenting with mixing paint, discovers that primary colours mixed together create secondary colours, and then purposefully uses this learning in a new context);
  • conversations: teachers talking with students, or listening as students talk with each other (e.g. listening for fluency in the ideas and concepts that are being explored in the learning activity; explaining to another student how they learned that primary colours mixed can create secondary colours; and
  • products: students produce a tangible piece of evidence that they have made the connections in their learning (e.g. applying colour mixing discoveries to a painting in order to create visual unity and variety)

Because learning is such a personal experience, and as teachers we can never fully comprehend the degree to which a student has or not has learned something, the best that we can do is assess how well students demonstrate their learning.

When assessing student learning, there are some basic principles that need to be adhered too:

  • assessments need to be fair, transparent and equitable;
  • assessments need to clearly communicate what students are required to do
  • assessments need to have clearly defined learning targets
  • assessments need to have clear success criteria that students can understand

The goal of these principles is to ensure that the learner and the teacher have a mutual understanding of how well learning has happened. Learning is not something that happens to someone, but rather an activity that someone engages in everyday in order to make connections. Teaching is sharing something that you have learned in order to help someone else learn. 

I have realized that my main ‘job’ as a ‘teacher’ is not about sharing what I have learned, but rather helping others learn what they want to learn. I am not a teacher; I am a learning facilitator. I design experiences for learning to happen, and work with students to determine how well they have learned. 


Works Consulted

Cherry, Kendra, and Steven Gans. “What Role Do Schemas Play in the Learning Process?” Verywell Mind, Dotdash, 25 Nov. 2018, www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-schema-2795873.

“Getting Started.” Personal Statement of Experience (PSE) and Supplementary Information | Undergraduate Admission, Queen’s University, Canada, Queens University, 2018, www.queensu.ca/teachingandlearning/modules/students/04_what_is_learning.html.

Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario’s Schools: Covering Grades 1 to 12. Ministry of Education, 2010.

Mcleod, Saul. “Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development.” Simply Psychology, Simply Psychology, 6 June 2018, www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html#adaptation.

“What Is Learning?” Active Learning Strategies | Center for Teaching & Learning, Berkeley, University of California, 2018, teaching.berkeley.edu/resources/learn/what-learning.

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