What We Know About Learning

As I have been thinking about learning… and teaching… and how the two are not positively associated in the manner we often plan, I have been focusing on several assumptions that I make about learning which are not always shared with others:

  • Motivation to learning is a multifaceted endeavor. Learners are driven to arrive in a classroom (and other setting) by many and different motivations; teachers make plans and take actions so students develop diverse knowledge, skills, demeanors, habits, approaches, and other “things;” and what students will do with what we teach (and they learn) when they leave our classrooms is largely unpredictable. The variety of these reasons, activities, and purposes suggests that why we learn and what we learn cannot always be predicted.
  • Learning is as much a social endeavor as it is a cognitive endeavor. Humans are a social species, and there is a strong thread of evidence that our brains are adapted for the social environment more than the physical environment. Our survival depends on our ability to navigate the social world, so our brains are attuned to social situations, and we learn in those situations. Instructors who leverage “the social brain” can support learning.
  • Much useful cognition can be downloaded to the environment. The tools we have for improving our perceptions, capacity to remember information, as well as manipulate it and transport it are all parts of cognition that can be facilitated by wise use of tools and practices that are in our world. Learning to use those well is as much a part of human cognitive performance as anything that happens within our skulls. This is particularly true in the world in which digital information and interaction dominates all aspects of economic, political and cultural life.
  • Educated individuals are multifaceted. When individuals have “learned” the lessons we taught, they will be able to perform as we taught them, they will know what they can do, and they will be able to perform as we taught them in unfamiliar or novel situations and settings. Of course, the most successful teachers are those whose students learn, understand, and can create so they outperform their teachers.