How Learning Happens

This is the second article in a series of five that reflects on the journey ALA’s Two Year Diploma Program over the last strategic planning period, ALA 2023. Find the first article here.

What do we know about creating and facilitating experiences that produce the learning that matters?

This question matters to us today and tomorrow because we recognize today that our current actions are not sufficient to our mission. We are not seeing all the outcomes that meet the expectations of our mission across the population of our graduates. As teachers we must engage in professional learning that requires of us what we ask of our students. The question of how learning happens is a question we must ask and apply to our daily work of teaching, which is, at its best, a process of continuous reflective practice.

Let’s begin with a description of the “how of learning” from an observational perspective, using the research that Fred Newmann[1] and his colleagues[2] carried out to describe an idea of authentic learning. Authentic learning refers to qualities that reflect the knowledge making practices of the disciplines, which can be applied to learning at any age across the full range of human disciplines.[3]

There are three criteria:

  1. The construction of knowledge (not the repetition of established knowledge),
  2. Disciplined inquiry, which has three key elements:
  3. Use of prior knowledge,
  4. In-depth understanding,
  5. Elaborated communication, and
  6. Value beyond school (meaning transfer or the application of knowledge to a novel problem).[4]

 Accepting this description may leave us wondering about how we do this or, more specifically, what are the actions of learning that allow us to see how these things happen? More importantly, what are the principles of action that allow learning to meet these three criteria? I will use an example to help us think about this.

I have frequently used an activity with educators to help us answer this question. Everyone is given a copy of a short paragraph from an astronomy textbook[5] that offers a very clear description of why we only see one side of the moon as it revolves around the earth through its various phases. Everyone already has some knowledge about the moon and its phases, and this paragraph explains why we never see the so-called dark side of the moon.

I ask everyone to write and/or draw pictures in their notebooks to represent their understanding as a prelude to breaking into groups to act out this phenomenon, with individuals playing the parts of earth, moon, sun, and “director.” They quickly discover that they cannot make the modelling activity work to match the description. They cannot resolve the fact that the moon rotates on its axis yet shows only one “face” towards the earth. I have had many PhD scientists surprised and annoyed with themselves that they were struggling. One biologist complained, “I thought this would be so easy!”

During their struggles, I move from group to group offering only the assistance that questions might provide. Does what you are doing satisfy the description? How do these movements appear from the perspective of earth, moon, sun, or director? And so on.

Typically, I stop us after some struggle and before undue frustration sets in. Through direct instruction, I lead them to see how what they are doing is not so much a problem of their role-playing activity but a matter of perspective. We discuss, we replay the motions, and we begin to describe a concept of relative motion as well as the inferential construction of knowledge that allowed astronomers to figure things out from recorded observations thousands of years ago.

I ask them if they understand. They answer affirmatively. I then describe the phases of the planet Venus and ask them to create a model that explains these phases and the cyclic appearance (and disappearance) of Venus as the morning and evening star. This last challenge asks for transfer and is a good assessment of the depth of conceptual understanding.

How did the learning happen?

  • It began with a problem that caused what Festinger called “cognitive dissonance,”[6]
  • This feeling motivates learners to inquire to resolve the dissonance,
  • The problem is solved by building a new idea – construction of knowledge – or what Piaget defined as accommodation[7],
  • Accommodation is carried out through disciplined inquiry, deploying prior knowledge to build in-depth understanding, developed through successive efforts to communicate or describe that understanding, and
  • This understanding can be assessed by asking for transfer, or application to a new problem.

Sadly, many educators and educational researchers want us to believe that how learning happens is through a particular method. One method, often called direct instruction, argues that students learn through the instructional moves of a teacher engaging in explanation, assigning tasks for student practice, and guiding students to make that practice effective. In this model, it is unusual to ask students to engage in self-directed exploration of open-ended problems. This latter practice is just one example of what is often described as a student-directed inquiry-driven approach or discovery method. Direct instruction, which the teacher controls, can be justified if we believe that the learning that matters is the measure of student performance on standardized tests. There is research data that supports this.

If instead we believe that the learning that matters is characterized by deep conceptual understanding, assessed by tasks that require transfer, and advanced by the learner through practices of reflection and deliberate practice, a more authentic approach is required. This binary has been the source of endless debate.

Teachers are generally not well prepared to use an authentic approach, nor have they had the experience as learners to do so competently. Direct instruction is more readily adopted. Teachers can be trained through scripted approaches and the method seems warranted by the evidence of student results on standardized tests.

However, extensive research has demonstrated conclusively that students who are taught through more authentic approaches demonstrate better conceptual learning while also performing better on standardized tests than students who only experience direct instruction[8].

But authentic or inquiry-driven learning is complex or nuanced and difficult to do if one has not experienced this model of learning as a student. It is also worth noting that direct instruction was a “part” of the learning cycle for the learners trying to model the moon’s movements. In other words, how learning that matters happens is not about one or another method. The argument of the binary is a false construct.

Expert learners ask questions, leverage prior knowledge, form hypotheses, and seek help of various kinds in various ways, and will construct knowledge given the time, and the help they need when they need it. As teachers we should know and be able to explain the answers. Instead we must coach, supporting the student’s effort to construct knowledge through questions, suggestions, and the kinds of cues that together provide what is often referred to as scaffolding. We must never give students the answers because it is in the student’s act of building answers and explanations that the learning happens.

There is much more that might be said about the role of feedback and the social interactions between learners (both students and teachers) in fostering authentic learning. We should also consider how classroom culture can transform learner identities, as well as learner theories of learning and knowledge making, that moves students to be leaders of their own learning.

As teachers, how do we build our knowledge of these principles and practices? How do we come to understand in practical terms the areas of cognitive and affective development that will give us the conceptual fluency to design and implement authentic learning environments? The answers to these questions, as you may have already realized, have been the focus of these three pages.

The time has come to look more closely at how our professional culture as educators might shift increasingly towards practices of purposeful reflection on our work with students that engage us in learning and continuous improvement. Like our students, we need to engage in authentic forms of learning; they are the “sine qua non” of professional excellence.

Written by Ric Campbell, former Educator in Residence at ALA.

[1] Newmann, F. M. (2000). Authentic Intellectual Work: What and Why. Research/Practice8(1), 1-5.

[2] Newmann, F. M., Carmichael, D. L., & King, M. B. (2015). Authentic Intellectual Work: Improving teaching for rigorous learning. Corwin Press.

[3] Newmann, F. M. (1996). Authentic Achievement: Restructuring schools for intellectual quality. Jossey-Bass.

[4] Newmann, F. M., Secada, W. G., & Wehlage, G. (1995). A guide to authentic instruction and assessment: Vision, standards and scoring. Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

[5] Abell, G. O. (1975). Exploration of the Universe. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.

[6] Festinger, L. (1962). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford University Press.

[7] Sternberg, R. J., & Berg, C. A. (Eds.). (1992). Intellectual Development. Cambridge University Press.

[8] Newmann, F. M., Bryk, A. S., & Nagaoka, J. K. (2001). Authentic Intellectual Work and Standardized Tests: Conflict or Coexistence? Improving Chicago’s Schools.

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