The Nature of Learning

The debate about education tends to ignore that learning only happens inside human brains. Much of the political debate about education revolves around the processes schools and teachers adopt, for example the Shanghai approach to teaching maths. It cannot be created without the active willingness of the learner to learn. The conversation is thus biased towards teaching rather than learning.

Education systems were originally created by people who wished to require young people to learn, first institutions needing suitably trained young people to retain the importance of the organisations in society, such as religions, the military and government bureaucrats, then employers such as the Victorian industrialists who established the mechanics institutes, and then finally governments concerned for the overall employability of the population. There have been people and organisations focused on the developmental needs of young people such as the Montessori schools, but they always have been and remain peripheral to mainstream national education systems.

There have for centuries been two opposing views of the nature of learners held by education policy makers and by teachers, some believing that learners’ brains are ‘vessels to be filled’ and others believing that the correct analogy is that of ‘wood to be ignited’. Those in power have tended to favour the first of these, feeling that the second could lead people to be rebellious and to have ‘ideas above their station’ in life.

Now that the nature of the world and of knowledge are that they are ever-changing and the knowledge and understanding the populace needs to have to be economically productive in the future is not predictable, education systems that are driven primarily by the needs of today and the past are insufficient. An debate about education that focuses on what teachers should teach children while they are in school will not necessarily produce the competent lifelong learners that are needed.

There is now thankfully a growing body of knowledge about how learning happens in human brains. Though it is not yet possible to create an education theory from the basics of neuroscience, it is clear that learning happens through connections being formed in the brain and we have considerable understanding of the chemical conditions necessary for this to happen. At a very basic level it is known that dopamine promotes the right conditions for learning and that stress and adrenaline tend to constrain learning.

Current research from observation of people rather than investigations of how their brains work is pointing to the importance of ‘growth mindset’ in enabling learning, which favours the ‘wood to be ignited’ analogy of young peoples’ brains. Vanguard schools are now using this effectively, with a key element identified in digitally evolved schools being a high degree of trust and empowerment of young people. It is astounding that there are still some who focus on how teachers think about this rather than on the young people themselves, as witnessed by the Sutton Trust study.

A theoretical basis for education in the digital age is needed. Academic understanding of education and learning has progressed through the efforts of education theorists who have over the years put forward various theories and these need to be reconsidered now that learners are digitally connected.

There is a remarkable reluctance amongst the community of academic educationalists to come to a consensus on the most appropriate educational approaches for our digitally supported connected world. This is probably because it is in their interest to keep the debate going without coming to firm conclusions but this is not in the interests of schools and learners who need guidance about the most effective educational approaches to adopt. Academics probably also fear negative reactions from colleagues should they advance a theory that claims to be the ‘right’ theory for our current education systems. A consensus does need to emerge so that there are forceful arguments to convince politicians to promote and not obstruct development of the most effective learning by young people.