What does learning look like?

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I’ve written before about learning and performance orientations in schools and the cultures they might produce. In turn, this has also directed me towards the difference in learning and performance right at the chalk face. I ask myself, how can I recognise the difference in my own pupils? How do I know children aren’t just performing; how do I know they’ve really learnt anything at all?

This has always troubled me as a teacher. How do any of us know whether children are learning, particularly in short observations? I’ve watched lessons with colleagues and during our subsequent discussions it seems hard to unravel the real difference between engagement, performance and actual learning. There are a range of poor proxies for learning that stump people into thinking they are witnessing it. Hives of activity, quiet focus, task completion, careful presentation or pages of correct answers can all look like learning.  Most people would agree that engagement is not learning; you can put a class of six-year olds in front of a mickey mouse cartoon and they are engaged, but not necessarily learning anything. Attention and focus maybe prerequisites for learning but can never be learning itself.

Recently, while researching further into the difference between learning and performance, I came across the work of Prof. Robert Bjork. He finds that it is very easy to mistake the two and that education has mixed up learning and performance in all sorts of ways for a long time and with negative consequences for learners and learning.

To begin with, we have to start by distinguishing learning and performance which doesn’t often happen in busy schools where teachers feel the need to ‘get through stuff’ and ‘produce results’. While learning refers to changes in long-term memory as a result of a task, performance merely shows how well pupils do in that task, and these are not the same thing. Learning itself is a hidden phenomenon; it is invisible, but its effects thankfully are not, therefore we can at least infer it has occurred, but the trouble is, not in the ways we might assume we can.

Bjork describes how learning and performance can act as inverse to one another so that when pupils perform particularly well in a task, the transfer of learning to long-term memory might actually be less than if they hadn’t performed as well as they did. Confused? Yes, doesn’t this just run contrary to how most people think about learning. Surely correct answers are a sign of learning?  Well, no. And this counters our intuitive conception of learning if it is possible to get pages of calculations correct, but not learn anything.  We confuse learning and performance in education all the time because as long as there is no change in long-term memory then there is no learning. There might have been recall of items stored in the long- term memory that were then processed in the working memory, hence lots of correct answers, but as long as no new connections have been made – it’s not learning. This is the problem: performance is  not the same as learning. One is showing, demonstrating, revealing what you already know while the other is the real-time creation of knowledge which can only be achieved through breaking through a period of ‘not knowing,’ otherwise known as confusion, misunderstanding, inaccurate thinking or what happens when kids look up frowning and say, ‘I don’t get it.’

No change in long- term memory = no learning.

Recall is not learning

Learning follows on from confusion

We find it hard to accept that struggling to succeed in a task is more likely to result in learning, rather than the straight forward successful completion of that task.  While this might seem obvious to seasoned teachers, it is not obvious to many and especially not children, who will usually avoid making mistakes at all cost. Yet, how many times do we look through books, ticking, tick, ticking away and interpret this as a sign of learning? ‘Oh good, they’ve learnt loads today?’  Except, it seems maybe not – it could be that they just performed the task and learned nothing at all?

Like this, Bjok refers to what he calls ‘desirable difficulties’ in that a task needs to be hard enough to trigger the level of processing that has the potential to shift new knowledge to the long-term memory, but not so hard that the pupil is unable to make any links at all. Just as Goldilocks’ needed it to be ‘just right’ so do learners need tasks to be just right too.  And has Daniel Willingham notes in his new and wonderful book (link below): ‘memory is the residue of thought’ so when learners have to think their way to success rather than just ‘do,’ or recall, then it is more likely that learning takes place.  The tricky task for teachers is  designing tasks that will make children think and as Willingham says, think about the right things! No doubt teachers will wince at those times they set up engaging hook activities only to find that all the children thought about was what people were wearing, or the types of animals in the background instead of the history or geography that was the focus!  I recall opening a fossil topic by burying little plastic dinosaurs in plaster of Paris, believing that this would help the children understand how fossils are formed, but all they talked about afterwards was who had the best dinosaurs with the best colours, not once thinking about the fossilisation process.  This is an example of not thinking carefully about what children are likely to think about when engaged in an activity. Perhaps I would have been better off demonstrating how remains become fossilised first, then let them make their own with less conspicuous dinosaurs? It all says a lot about what we use to hook children into learning and whether this is always necessary or effective.

“Memory is the residue of thought”

We learn what we think about

Design tasks that make children think specifically about what they need to learn

So, is this all just about pitch and putting the right task in front of the right child? Well, that in itself is hard enough; any teacher sat before thirty children will tell you that, but even then how do we know that learning really takes place? As Bjork notes, a teacher can teach something and the pupil seems to understand it, they can talk about it there and then, but then the next time that topic comes up the children appear to have learned nothing at all. Is this not the bane of all teachers and the cause of many a deep sigh while marking books? To our frustration as teachers, we know that learning might look like learning when it isn’t.

We can see and measure performance, but unfortunately current performance is not a reliable indicator that learning has happened and knowledge has been embedded in long-term memory. Conversely there can be considerable learning without much performance at all. Worryingly, performances can dramatically improve with no real effect on learning because with things like mass practice and cramming, pupils can appear to acquire knowledge, but later on it’s as if nothing ever actually happened. It seems that if we don’t get children thinking about the stuff we want them to for long enough and in the right way  knowledge doesn’t fix itself into long-term memory.  When this happens, it’s like writing your name in the air with a sparkler on bonfire night- you see it and you can read it, it’s real, but it quickly disappears. What we need is to write with indelible marker into the memories of our children!

Unless information is thought about enough and in different ways it will never move into the long-term memory. 

Bjork also talks about inadvertantly ‘priming’ pupils so that they appear to get better at tasks because their performance improves. Here, conditions are usually constant and pupils are in effect just repeating brain activity rather than making new connections. If teachers aren’t careful they can trick themselves into thinking children are learning because they mistakenly create an environment that doesn’t disturb this repeated brain activity hence it looks like good, solid learning. However, disrupt this and it soon becomes apparent it’s not. For example, change classrooms, have a supply teacher, use a different presentation format and suddenly this repeated brain activity has to shift, process this other information and that performance you thought was learning is interrupted; all of sudden they appear to have forgotten everything!

For example, you show your pupils how to find fractions by dividing the denominator and multiplying the numerator. You give them a page of fractions sums. At first a few pupils find it a bit tricky so you go back a few times and show them again. Perhaps use concrete resources and images to help them grasp the concept. Then they go ahead and complete a page of sums, getting seemingly more and more proficient. You think, ‘great, my pupils can find fractions of amounts!’  A few days later, someone else takes your class and you  leave them fraction sums to do again as you feel it would be good to consolidate their knowledge while you’re out of class.  When you meet the supply teacher later, they look flustered; no one seemed to understand how to find a fraction. He says he decided to use fractions of money instead but otherwise introduced it just the same way. How perplexing?  What happened when they did all those sheets of sums the first time? Well, not much it seems. With every calculation, the pupils only had to repeat an initial  process rather than do much thinking at all: ‘do this, do this and then you get that,’ but there was little opportunity for links to be created by putting finding fractions into a context or providing some cognitive variation to the process such as a trying it with different units of measurement.   This is why schemes like White Rose are so effective, because they build on variation so that pupils can’t just get into a rut with the fluency of repeated, mass practice. And this is why sheets of sums are not a good way to learn, only perform.

Repeat performances can look like improvements in learning.

Variation in the ways a concept can be thought about help avoid this.

So, it seems we can only know if learning has happened later when we can see evidence of transfer – such as being able to take finding a fraction of an amount and using that to find fractions of other things and in different ways.  It seems that mass practice leads to short-term performance but poor long-term retention. You might feel very pleased that pupils can complete pages of sums , but we need to ask whether this helps to create those links, the changes in long-term memory that mean learning as happened.  As Bjork notes, ‘the more things are massed together, the more you will see apparent benefits in the short term’, like the sheets of correct sums or repeated spellings that are correct. However, the more the learning of a specific things is spaced apart, the more benefit to long- term memory. This means that teachers need to think carefully about the latest craze for ‘slow learning’ where we stay with one block of for example fractions for several weeks. This is fine if we’re providing lots of variation in the fraction learning, but we should also come back to other areas and be deliberate about how we space them into learning cycles.

Bjork speaks extensively about the ‘power of forgetting’ so that when the brain forgets but is then triggered to remember a powerful link is created. In turn, there is benefit from allowing pupils to take a look at difficult material they don’t understand before you give direct instruction on it. There is something about that first moment of confusion and puzzlement that seems to prepare the brain for learning in that area. We have to understand that the brain is hungry to make links – those synapses are like bare wires waiting to zap the first thing they meet so puzzlement is like turning up the electricity a bit just before you make the connection – then whiz the lights come on! So there is real benefit in giving children a short pre-assessment of an area before you teach it, plus if you do that in a dialogic way and listen to them discuss it with their peers you can then pick up on the misconceptions you need to give direct instruction on.

That first moment of confusion and puzzlement prepares the brain for learning in that area.

Children need to feel this often and understand it leads to learning.

Bjork’s work also highlights the very positive effect of interleaving, so setting up learning so that the brain has to switch sometimes to another topic then come back. It’s almost like when you read a tricky paragraph in a paper and you can’t understand it, then you go and do a cross word (or in my case watch a soap opera), then you come back to the paper and somehow, it makes more sense.  It’s as if the connection you started to make around the tricky paper benefited from having that space. As Bjork suggests, for any given retention interval there will be an optimal spacing interval and this will probably be the hard part to gauge as too much spacing and interleaving will start to have a negative effect. This is where the relationship a teacher has with their pupils is integral – a good teacher will intuitively know when it’s right as they get to know  their pupils’ processing levels.  In essence, the conditions that actively produce forgetting like spacing, variation or introducing things in different contexts are the things that enhance learning, but the process needs careful planning and timing – all achieved by knowing pupils well. This also comes from the tactic knowledge of an experienced teacher – so let’s value them! It also tells us that teachers really do need time to plan their lessons and less time taken up with marking, admin and meetings about meetings!

To finish, if education is about anything it is about learning, but what a muddle it finds itself in because of the huge emphasis on accountability which relies so heavily on performances.  Ironically, those performances we need in order to prove that we’re any good will always be fine if we just focus on learning. Educators need to clarify the difference between learning and performance  in their minds and everywhere in schools. When schools openly value learning over performance – they do really well. They are fantastic places to learn and teach in. Teachers and children are focused. Less ticks, more head scratching makes an authentic place of learning.  Pupils should be hungry for confusion and puzzlement, but revel in the solutions they find; this makes learning addictive.  As teachers, we need to design and plan for puzzlement. Then we are really teaching!

Read and hear all about this from the experts:

Robert Bjork’s on line talks

Daniel Willingham’s fabulous book!