Nick Pratt: What has happened to ‘learning’?

Nick Pratt

I came into teaching in 1989. It was the year that the National Curriculum started to appear, first in Science and then, hot on its heels, in the other curriculum areas. In those days we were interested in the notion of learning, as all teachers have been before and since; the purpose of education, for sure.

But something funny has happened since then. I repeatedly hear the word learning framed as a noun; a thing, an object, meaning that it can be ‘held’ by people, manipulated and carried about. Children (and students!) are described as having ‘their learning’. After school they ‘bring their learning home’ (in a bag … doesn’t it leak out?). If they miss school it ‘reduces their learning’. And, of course, ‘their learning’ is measured … endlessly, such that it becomes almost the entire focus of schooling/college/university.

Back in the 80s things were different. Children were given ‘work’ to do, in the form of exercises, activities, challenges etc. including, I may add, lots of repetitive tasks based on memorising key information – just in case anyone thought this retrospective was rose-tinted, a glorious age of some sort. It wasn’t. Schooling, just as now, was filled with dilemmas for teachers in terms of what to focus on, how to keep children interested and how to be successful as a teacher. Nonetheless, this ‘work’ was designed around twin questions: what do we want children to learn about; and, what could they do which will result in this?

Though ‘work’ – homework, classwork, group work etc. – was the commonly used term, what it really focused on was activity; doing things, actively engaging in something, even if this something was a memory task of some sort. Crucially, learning here was a verb, not a noun. Learning was what happened, not what you ‘got’. In that sense it wasn’t – couldn’t be – ‘delivered’, but had to be the result of something; activity. Indeed, isn’t this what all those famous educational theorists that I see in student essays said? Vygotsky’s focus was on how someone more knowledgeable could support someone less knowledgeable in engaging in a task that would bridge, or scaffold, the latter between not knowing and knowing. Language, he claimed, was crucial in this, in the active construction of meaning between the learner and the teacher. Activity again. Dewey’s was a theory of learning as experience. Activity again. Piaget talks of constructing meaning, albeit in developmental stages that we now consider less important. Again. And Bruner’s modes of representation start with ‘enactive’. And again.

I go as far as to call it a by-product, in the sense that it is the natural outcome of activity.

What I want to point to here, therefore, is that learning is not an object – though it can be objectified by us, but only as an idea so that we can think/talk about it, not as something tangible. Rather, as Biesta (2005) has eloquently pointed out, learning is a verb. Indeed, I go as far as to call it a by-product, in the sense that it is the natural outcome of activity. Consider this for a moment. When we breath we make use of the oxygen in the atmosphere for burning sugars to produce energy. Water, and CO2 are by-products of this process. Note that this is not to belittle them; as by-products they are important. If we are worried someone is ill or we want to assess their fitness, we might even measure them … but they are not the purpose of breathing.

Of course, schooling must organise this by-product. Rightly, in my view, we want it to be in particular forms, to focus on particular things and to allow young (and old) people to be able to achieve particular ends – a job, a sense of fulfilment and curiosity, knowledge of some important elements of our culture, and that of others too etc. But – and again, this is what all those theorists tell us – we can’t control this since it is constructed individually be each person in relation to their context; we can only influence it. How might we do so?

… if learning is a by-product of activity, then we need to think most carefully about the nature of the activity we want …

First, if learning is a by-product of activity, then we need to think most carefully about the nature of the activity we want. (Note that I’m using the word activity here to mean the nature of the behaviour that learners engage in, not, as you will see in a moment, to mean the thing we ask them to do.) If you ask me what this would look like then I might say that I want them to engage in discussion, to investigate something, to try and solve a problem, to prepare for a presentation together, or to learn something by heart. In each subject I might note that there are forms of disciplinary activity that I want too: generalising and proving in maths; redrafting in English; hypothesising in science; listening in music etc. Activity is therefore about the forms of behaviour that you want people to engage in which shape the by-product.

Next comes the task. Note that I call it a task because it is what we want people to do. Tasks have a purpose … and, goodness, don’t we need that in our current education system? With all the talk of disengagement of children (and teachers!) in school, let’s just give them something interesting to do! By using the word ‘task’ I’m able to save ‘activity’ for the purpose I used above – to describe the behaviour I want. I also like task because it describes the idea that this is something that needs to be ‘got done’. In doing it, pupils will engage in the activity I want and out will come learning, shaped by, but not magically controlled by, it.

Finally comes teaching which, though it includes the setting of the task, is then about how we can support the activity in different ways to help produce the by-product. We can alter the task itself for people who might find it too hard or too easy (differentiation by task); we can add more, or less, input ourselves (direct instruction and support); we can add, or remove, resources (manipulatives, software etc.) … and, of course, we can assess the outcome to decide what to do next.

But, I hear you ask, isn’t this what we already do? Well, maybe, but in my experience no. By placing the emphasis on ‘learning’ as an object, we tend to short-cut the activity. Think of some of the criticisms or concerns with formal education at the moment: not enough emphasis on being creative; needing to do more critical thinking; giving learners a sense of purpose and interest. A focus on learning as noun short-cuts past these – ‘today we must learn that …’ – and then tries to fill in the void by making these missing elements the object of the next lesson – ‘today we are learning to be critical/creative’. But that misses the point that creativity, critical thinking, imagination etc., all those things that we value in an education, are part and parcel of getting on with something that demands them as part of the task. And, if we make school intrinsically interesting by focusing on tasks which children will find stimulating – even involving them in planning them – then we might not need to resort to alternative forms of education to get our creativity in.

For those who want to follow this up …

These people have written about learning as an idea in itself:
  • Biesta, G. (2005) ‘Against learning’. Nordisk Pedagogik, 25 pp. 54-66.
  • Illeris, K. (2018) Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists… In Their Own Words. 2 edn. Milton: Milton: Routledge.
  • Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One’. Educational Researcher, 27 (2), pp. 4-13.
These people have written about teaching as responding to dilemmas and accountability:
  • Woods, P., Jeffrey, B., Troman, G. & Boyle, M. (1997) Restructuring schools, reconstructing teachers. Responding to change in the primary school. Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Berlak, A. & Berlak, H. (1981) Dilemmas of schooling : teaching and social change. London ; New York: Methuen.
  • Pratt, N. (2018) ‘Playing the levelling field: teachers’ management of assessment in English primary schools’. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 25 (5), pp. 504-518.
These people have written about making activity discipline-specific:
  • Pratt, N. (2009) ‘Process skills and knowledge: what does it mean to learn science?’. Primary Science, 106 pp. 27 – 29.
  • Mason, J. (2000) ‘Asking mathematical questions mathematically’. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 31 (1), pp. 97-111.