Making sense of the learning glossary: should this be “the knowledge” for educators?

by James Mannion |

This follows on from my last 2 blogs:


In this post, I would like to explain (to myself, as much as anything) why I have spent much of the last week pulling together a glossary of 225 learning terms, weighing in at a whopping 22.5K words.

My central argument is simply that learning is complex, multidimensional and dynamic. And so for an educator to speak only of ‘learning’ is like a weather presenter doing a bulletin using only the word ‘weather’, or a London tour guide referring to every passing attraction as ‘London’.

Recently, lots of teachers have become very excited about Cognitive Science. This is a welcome development, and it is notable that cognitive science features centrally in the learning glossary. But Cog Sci is not the only game in town, and it should not replace everything that has gone before.

To illustrate this point, consider two typical teaching scenarios: balancing equations in Chemistry, and drugs education in PSHE. The former requires modelling, explaining, rehearsal, repetition, deliberate practice, assessment, feedback. The latter requires a safe environment, the establishment of ground rules, clarity of expectations around confidentiality vs child protection; student research into different kinds of drugs, or local news stories perhaps; discussions around various scenarios; role play exercises; opportunities for quiet reflection. It might also involve a dramatic technique such as forum theatre, so that students can visualise the different ways in which someone might respond if they were offered drugs, rewinding and running the action to consider how different choices might play out. Such lessons are less concerned with the acquisition and retention of declarative knowledge (although it might involve this), and more concerned with notions of choices, consequences and responsibilities; developing and internalising viewpoints, attitudes and dispositions… in short, learning that is concerned with behaviour change. In this sense, a PSHE teacher might draw upon notions of experiential learning, exploratory talk, significant learning and the core conditions that enable personal growth and self-actualisation to unfold.

Here are a few more example of ways in which glossary entries might be of relevance to schoolteachers:

Accidental learning: Lessons often centre around students learning a small number of predetermined ‘learning objectives’. For students and teachers, it is important to recognise that other kinds of learning exist, which can be of equal value to that which is prescribed. Is it possible to find ways to recognise and celebrate such accidental learning, rather than seeing it as existing in opposition to the “order of business”?

Accredited learning: Schools do not typically support non-accredited learning, except through optional after-school clubs and enrichment programmes. Even prior to GCSE, learning is organised and frequently justified with a view to gaining accreditation down the line. For students and teachers, it is worth remembering that non-accredited learning also exists (e.g. interests, hobbies) which are healthy and valuable, and worthy of recognition and celebration. Some truly exceptional piano players choose never to sit graded exams. Can schools do more to recognise and build upon the non-accredited learning that many students do outside of school? Could schools justify running non-accredited courses, should students wish to pursue them?

Action research: In relation to professional development, simply practising “what has worked elsewhere” is no guarantee that that thing will “work” in any given context. In fact, well-intentioned, evidence-informed interventions are frequently found to be less effective than doing “business as usual”. The only way around this problem is for practitioners to systematically evaluate the impact of what they do, with a view to continually improving their practice through what Dylan Wiliam refers to as ‘disciplined inquiry’.

Attentional capture: This may be useful to consider in relation to aspects of classroom layout, behaviour management or helping students develop strategies for “managing distractions”.

I think I’ll leave it there, before I get into the B’s…

Should this glossary, or something like it, be seen as “the knowledge” for educators?

Recently, there was some debate about whether schools should require all young people to learn the name of every capital city in the world. Regardless of whether you think we should do this or not, we should recognise the idea for what it is: a proposal to institutionally enforce the acquisition and retention, presumably through repeated exposure, rehearsal, retrieval and assessment until each student has achieved mastery of a fairly large, arbitrarily selected body of explicit, declarative knowledge.

When it comes to professional knowledge, the case for establishing a common understanding between members of a profession becomes somewhat stronger. As such I think there is a compelling case for suggesting that all teachers, as society’s entrusted architects and engineers of learning, should seek to familiarise themselves with the concepts and definitions featured in the glossary. Different types of learning relate to different types of activities, and the more we know and understand about the minutiae of learning, the better at learning we all will be – teachers and students alike. What do you think?

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