Saturday, November 19, 2011

How do you know when you've learnt something? - #change11

A question has been rattling around inside my head lately, and given that I am a teacher and a person who has always loved learning, it's a little embarrassing to think I haven't thought about it before:

How do you know when you've learnt something?

I asked a secondary student this question and he said, "I dunno. When I remember something." Hmmm, can't really argue with that. I remember that Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." But there's more to it than this, isn't there? I can remember 2 + 2 = 4 but does that mean I know 2 + 2 = 4? Does the idea of grabbing two of these objects and these other two objects, and putting them together to make four objects make sense to me? Can I use that knowledge regardless of the objects used? Can the objects I use be as abstract as squiggles on a piece of paper?

So I thought, "yes, there is more to learning than just remembering something," gave it a bit more thought and came up with the following:

  • When we see/hear/etc something that we haven't seen before, then we have learnt that this thing exists.
  • When we see multiple actions or things simultaneously then we have learnt of a relationship.
  • When we are able to perform an action then we have learnt a skill.
But how does one hang on to something that was learnt? Memory? Repeated practice? If its not in your memory have you learnt it? If I see something I haven't seen before and say to myself, "Wow, I haven't seen that before." but never think of it again, have I learnt something? How long does the learning have to be present in memory for it to be considered learnt?

After a little bit of research I came across the following article by Mark K. Smith where quotes a 1979 piece of research by Saljo, who saw:
  1. Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning is acquiring information or ‘knowing a lot’.
  2. Learning as memorising. Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.
  3. Learning as acquiring facts, skills, and methods that can be retained and used as necessary.
  4. Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. Learning involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.
  5. Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge. (quoted in Ramsden 1992: 26)
The first three of the above seemed to fit in with my ideas of learning above - acquiring and storing facts and skills, and then being able to use those facts and skills as needed. The last two seem to be that elusive quality of learning that leads to that magical moment where you go, "Ah-ha!" Its that magical moment teachers talk of when a student's eyes light up when they get something. Its that moment that we experience as learners, that sends a thrill through your being.

So, have I answered my original question? In some way I have. It seems to be that we have learnt something when how we see the world has changed, be it our knowledge of it or how we think it all fits together. But in other ways I haven't, there are more questions raised above that seem to require more thought, particularly in regards to assessing learning.


  1. I still like the idea of "learning" as taking some new idea and connecting it to what we already know. Sure, it's useful to have new facts. But for them to be useful to us, we have to connect them to things we already know and put them in a context. The really cool learning comes when we have to re-arrange what we already "know" in order to accommodate that new idea. Are you willing to re-shape your current understanding of a concept so this new knowledge fits in? That's where the powerful stuff comes in.

    There's also that "smug smile of satisfaction" that happens when the student makes the connection between the new idea and something they already "know." Those are the powerful learning moments, the times when they get excited about their learning.

  2. Good question. I would not know the answer.
    Learning is so much more than school.
    Hearing a tune and after some time you are whistling this tune.
    Somehow you did learn social skills, most without knowing you were learning.
    Connect a smell to an incident or a place or a person.
    Learn to recognize some important persons by the way they walk.
    You could learn to like foreign special food.
    You made me think,

  3. Schools tend to focus on the first three aspects of learning. Unfortunately, particularly here in Australia, universities seem to be heading down that path as well. Where do we go now for the more connective learning, that 'thing' that happens when everything makes a little more sense? This learning is more than just the accumulation of facts. Its what comes out of discussion and other collaborative actions - actions that are being squeezed out of the education system. My hope is that MOOCs are a step in this direction.

  4. I've wrote a bunch of my ideas here that made little to no sense. I'm sure you've been here has a teacher, you can provide all the ideas that you want, but your students will never learn until they take the initiative to apply and understand the fundamentals of these ideas themselves.

    It almost feels like you have to spoonfeed these concepts when you try to make them easier to understand.

    However, you probably know these concepts. I'll provide you with the exact phenomena that will clarify all of your thoughts and put this ramble to rest.

    It's something called Active Recall.