What is Great Learning?

In 2015 I started a journal about Teaching and Learning as part of the CPD strategy at my school. It included articles from writers with a national reputation as well as articles and research from teachers at the school.

I wrote the article below as a reading review summary of the best thought about learning as a statement of intent about where we were going as a school.

What is great learning?

Peter Tomkins – @leadlearntogethe

As teachers we often assume we know what learning is, but exploring the research into learning over the last year has helped me have a fuller understanding about what happens in my classroom: what makes a real difference and what may actually be a waste of time. This CPD session was about sharing some of that learning with particular reference to two books (both of which we have in the school library):

  • What If Everything You Thought You Knew About Education Was Wrong? David Didau
  • The Secret Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall

The idea behind the session was not about providing answers or approaches as these will differ depending on the subject, context and individual teacher’s ‘teaching style’. The aim of the session was to raise some of the more ‘troubling’ and ‘problematic’ concepts that have been revealed by research into the learning process.

Learning or Performance?

The desire by Ofsted to assess the progress of learning led them, and consequently, the whole teaching profession to think that it was possible to measure progress in a single lesson: use Assessment for Learning techniques at the start of a lesson and then again 50 minutes later to assess what students knew at the end of the lesson that they didn’t know at the start. What teachers ended up measuring however was students’ ability to ‘perform’ rather than what they had learned. The psychologist Robert Bjork explains the concept of ‘performance’ as follows:

The major goal of instruction—whether in the classroom or in the field—is, or at least should be, to equip the learner with the type of knowledge or skills that are durable (i.e., capable of sustaining long periods of disuse) and flexible (i.e., capable of being applied in different contexts). That is, the goal of instruction is to facilitate learning, which must be inferred at some point after instruction. Learning, however, must be distinguished from performance, which is what can be observed and measured during instruction or training.

One of the reasons why teachers have mistaken performance for learning is due to a confused understanding of the concept of Assessment for Learning, particularly the idea of formative assessment. On Twitter recently Dylan Wiliam was asked if he had ever made a mistake and subsequently learned from it.  His response was:


What is, perhaps, most dispiriting is that the there are decades’ worth of research and hundreds of studies which support the idea that learning is separate from performance and, more troubling, that performance might not lead to learning.

So why have teachers focussed so much on performance rather than on learning? The simple answer is that performance is measurable, but learning can only be inferred from performance. Learning itself cannot be observed directly.

If performance is different to learning then what is learning?

There is no simple answer to this question, but I will attempt to define learning in ways that make some sense.

Definition 1:

Learning is the residual of thought.

This arises from an idea posited by Marcel Proust: “We soon forget what we have not deeply thought about.”

Professor Rob Coe of Durham University has also explored this idea. He started from the idea that what those who observe lessons often assume indicate that learning occurs are actually only proxies for learning and provide no evidence that there is any learning in progress:


This, therefore, raises the issue of what learning really is and his response is very similar to Proust’s:

If it is true that teaching is sometimes not focussed on learning, how can we make them better aligned? One answer is that it may help to clarify exactly what we think learning is and how it happens. I have come up with a simple formulation:

Learning happens when people have to think hard

Obviously, this is over-simplistic, vague and not original. But if it helps teachers to ask questions like, ‘Where in this lesson will students have to think hard?’ it may be useful.

Definition 2:

The reason that performance does not equate with learning is because learning is the ability to retain skills and knowledge over the long term and to be able to transfer them to new contexts. This implies that learning must result in a change in self. Learning means an internal change that leads to seeing the world in a different way

This is one of the reasons why learning is difficult and requires challenge, resilience and, as Laura’s CPD session explores in greater depth, grit. It is also why learning cannot always be neatly planned and structured. The coverage of a curriculum does not mean that students have ‘learned’ it. In fact coverage might imply the opposite!

Dylan Wiliam, again, explains this in a pithy quotation:

Learning is a liminal process, at the boundary between control and chaos.

Don’t worry, I had to look up ‘liminality’ as well. It is defined as follows:


There is some fascinating research on this which is totally relevant to both the idea of challenge for learning and the concepts we need to build our curriculum around. A good starting point is Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning (2010) edited by Jan H. F. Meyer, Ray Land and Caroline Baillie. These threshold concepts are the ‘big ideas’ that students need to understand to move forward in your subject. Each threshold idea needs to be:

  • Integrative
  • Transformative
  • Irreversible
  • Reconstitutive
  • Troublesome
  • Discursive

We will explore liminal and threshold concepts further in later editions of The Montsaye Approach.

Graham Nuthall – The Hidden Lives of Learners

Graham Nuthall, and educational researcher from New Zealand whose book is available from the school library, undertook a huge longitudinal study of the learning patterns of students in schools. His research unpicked some of the beliefs that teachers had about learning and explored the evidence for in the way students’ learned.

Teacher belief: “Engaging in learning activities … transfers the content of the activity to the mind of the student.”

This is clearly simplistic, but is maybe not too far from what many teachers think. All teachers would tend to agree with Nuthall’s finding that:

Although students go through the same process their background, knowledge, experiences, interests and motivation can differ widely.

A step further may also not be too controversial:

Learning is making connections between what they bring to the classroom and what they encounter in the classroom.

To learn a student has to be able to attach the new learning to something they already know.  The connections they make depend on their current knowledge and so the learning in the classroom is very different for each student. In fact Nuthall claims:

Roughly a third of what each student learns in the classroom is unique to them.

In fact his research suggests that pupils already know about 40-50% of what we are trying to teach them in the classroom.  Which raises the question, ‘Why don’t we just teach them the other 50-50%?’ The problem, of course, is that they don’t know the same 40-50%!

What a messy business teaching is!

But Nuthall suggests it gets even more chaotic because what students learn is dependent upon how they encounter it in the classroom. The learning isn’t dependent upon the activities which we construct with the class, but on how each pupil experiences the activity: that is how they try to make sense of the experience.

It is at this point that, as teachers, we are most in danger of losing control of the learning as:

Pupils primary method for making sense of the classroom activities is to talk to each other.

Of itself this is not problematic until we move onto Nuthall’s next finding:

Nuthall estimates that roughly 80% of what students learn from each other is WRONG!

So where does this leave us as teachers, other than mired in the chaos of teaching and learning? I would suggest that one possible response is to consider using these potential problems in creating classroom activities:

Pupils make sense of activities through discussion with other pupils and so group work should assist this process.
As 80% of what pupils learn from each other is wrong the intervention of the teacher and their monitoring of the learning that is in process is crucial.

The next counter-intuitive concept to consider is the importance of forgetting. As David Didau explains:

“As learning occurs, so does forgetting … learning takes time and is not encapsulated in the visible here-and-now of classroom activities.”

We know from our own experience that it is a lot easier to learn something that we have forgotten than to learn something from scratch.  This suggests that forgetting is part of the learning process. Nuthall suggests that how effectively we learn something is dependent upon the number of times we encounter it.  The use of ‘encounter’ is useful here. We might come across new learning several times in the same context or encounter it in different contexts.

From Nuthall’s research he found that that the key to learning something was encountering it three times. If we encounter something three times the chance we will remember it in six months is 80%.