Thoughts on the learning process

Thoughts on the learning process


A mind isn’t like a cup, waiting to be filled, but rather, a fire waiting to be kindled; We spend too much time passing on information to students and not enough time encouraging them to do research themselves into the topic ; it’s important that students take on the role of learning for themselves because this is where the passion comes for the subject .

Students may well learn the grammar rule by heart or repeat the rule of thermodynamics or what the first ionization energy is, but understanding comes from practice through practical experiments and research deeper into the subject. The search for “why?” Is a way to encourage students.In science , then this is a way to stir imaginations. And in language too. The search for “why” however, is difficult and sometimes the answer is ‘because’ or we really don’t need to know “why”, just that it “does”. Just as when we walk we don’t need to understand friction or gravity or mechanics.


Take language. We learn our native language, or at least I did, not by learning what the present simple is or learning the Saxon genitive by heart, but by simple practice. It sounds easy, but in reality it hides hours of reading, writing, listening and speaking, with correction from teachers as well as encouragement and discipline. Simple practice , by its very definition, means finding the time and energy, or being given the time and then getting the encouragement to develop. It is not simple then! It was only when I came to teach English that I brushed up my grammar, and discovered how challenging it really is, with its technical terms and obtuse descriptions. You cannot tell students these technical terms, you need to keep it simple. We spend too much time with students telling them ‘this is the present simple’ when it doesn’t matter, really; they need to use the language and make the mistakes before they understand it. Just as we use a car, but don’t need to know how the engine works, or ride a bike but don’t need to understand gears, or moments, or even gravity. Its only when we want to repair the car or bike that we need to understand it more, as our language.

When we make mistakes in language, then, it shows a desire to improve, to progress, and a need for explanation, to repair our errors.

Students need to be able to use the language almost instinctively, and to do that they need exposure and vocabulary. They need to listen and read, speak and write, and THEN they need correction and control. Students don’t need boring dusty lessons on grammar points in the beginning, rather, they need to be listened to and corrected, to be told that it isn’t “she say” but “she says”. Then we can explain to them WHY its “she says” in the indicative third person, or even better tell them to find it out for themselves. When they ask why, THEN they start to learn. Students and teachers have to WANT to learn and improve .



What is learning?


  • is a potential change in behavior. This is where we note the opportunities to improve. Learning starts with the acknowledgement by the student of the need to improve or to change. We cannot state that a thing has been learnt until it is reproduced at a later date CONSISTENTLY. Understanding comes when the student looks deeper into what they learnt. When they go beyond.


  • Translation of this potential into behaviour .A change in HABIT and PROCESS. Performance comes through practice, using the CORRECT knowledge and reproducing the knowledge at a later date in a consistent way.
  • A teacher cannot let a student regress to the comfort of prior habits and errors/mistakes, so they have to reward (and punish) to promote the behavior they desire.

Latent learning

  • A form of learning that is not immediately expressed in an overt response – it occurs without obvious reinforcement
  • Occurs when knowledge has been acquired at a certain date, but is not demonstrated until a later date when knowledge is required.(eg in an exam)

Learning isn’t about knowledge, but behavior.

So a teacher has to decide what is the target behavior and ‘a new comfort zone’

Learning then involves CONDITIONING and that is profound as it seems to suggest that we must brainwash and manipulate, which seems to be counter intuitive to a healthy learning environment.

We can see some schools and companies and organisations that have a culture the newcomer has to accept and learn, and this involves changing and adapting behavior. Darwin’s observations that it is not the fastest or strongest that survive, but the most adaptable ,really become important in learning.

The student who can change and adapt will then, be the most successful and not the most ‘intelligent’ whatever that means.

Humans then will change behavior for rewards,or,change behavior to avoid punishment just as dogs do as Pavlov discovered.

Stimuli need to be used.

Why does a student learn…. Because they accept to change their behavior.

Why does the dog dribble? Because it’s a biological reflex on seeing food. Add a bell, and the dog will dribble when it hears the bell because it associated food with the bell.

So a teacher needs to associate change with reward or punishment.

Behaviors are chosen because of their consequences , as observed by Thorndike. However, personal observations show me several things:

  1. Students are not always aware of the consequences or in denial about this, or refuse the consequences, as they want to avoid the punishment. For behavior to be chosen consequences have to be enforced.
  2. Final consequences are often not seen and a student will test what the envelope is. Habit and ‘it only happens to others and not me’ play a role.
  3. Comfort zones are actively sought as change is challenging and comfort is not.
  4. Errors repeat and students continue with the error when they have been taught the correction when there is no consequence, or the consequence isn’t seen as important, or the student has a habit that they cant break.
  5. Refusal to accept the standard social norms leads to counter cultures and independent thought processes and disintegration.
  6. Teachers are human and make mistakes and students will take the mistake as ‘reality’ and reproduce it in situ or students/teachers think they know/understand but don’t, or there is a change in the knowledge base which the student or teacher are not aware of and the error is handed on.  (A student insisting that the group Pink Floyd was named after Pink Flamingos when in fact it is after the jazz man Floyd Pinkerton, but the student refuses to accept that they are wrong. Here the student refuses the authority and knowledge base of the teacher. They are convinced they are right, as they have heard this information somewhere else, and it is learnt. But you need to explain to them that even you , as the teacher, could be wrong, so the teacher that told them this could be wrong, (or the internet site or whatever the source is of their information)) Not keeping an open mind, or questioning anything, or worshiping knowledge rather than questioning it are dangerous things in education.

EG Marram Grass use in sand dunes. (Before it was seen as good, today not so much)

7 Adaptation to punishment can happen. Punishment needs to be swift, fair and proportional as well as consistent.  So 1 conduct mark for no homework for Jimmy means one conduct mark for no homework for Sally and 5 conduct marks means a detention and no arguments. Administrating the punishment needs a well developed system.

Failure in schools and university or in jobs and careers, or in learning, means several things. Perhaps the child is outside the spectrum of ‘normal’(whatever that means) and has special educational needs. Certainly Asperger’s syndrome children could fall into this category. But failure in education is often a way for the child to succeed with his peer group. Moving class for a child or changing peer group should be explored, involving parents or colleague.

Most (in my experience ALL)children and adults want to do a good job, and perhaps even think they do, and need to be shown that , in fact, they could improve; however, we could all improve and it is often a question of how can I improve. What next? Showing children or adults  a benchmark and how to get there is one solution, but they need to see for themselves too. (When you do a bad job, this is what happens. A recent visit to a prison made me realize that if we don’t succeed, then the result is this)


The student who seeks punishment as a way of having kudos from his peers needs special treatment and effective punishment. Often pupils and students who are boys will brag about how many conduct marks they’ve had this week, as it’s a way to excel in something, and excelling is good, isn’t it? This kind of behavior needs special treatment and consequences and a need to make the punishment personal but not humiliating. Often I’ve found that sit down discussions work better than shouting or rambling ranting. Positive reinforcement needs to take place for these students.


Students need to know what the consequences are and to feel them for themselves so that they can change their behavior to learn effectively.


Just an end point, I’m not saying that subject knowledge isn’t important, indeed, I think that a teacher needs to have a sound grasp of the ideas they are trying to get across, to have the authority needed to convince they student that they do indeed know what they are talking about, and to encourage the learner to LOOK FOR THEMSELVES but they also need to encourage the student to think for themselves and not to take the road of ‘don’t question my knowledge or experience’ ,as a good student should do exactly that.


One thought on “Thoughts on the learning process

  1. Related to this post…

    I have always heard that Spanish people, including myself, are not good at languages, specially as far as pronunciation is concerned. Why (without taking into account historical or geographical reasons)? Well, according to some German friends (who, by the way, can boast about having a high level of languages), here there are some of our conclusions (most of them make reference to what it is said in this post):

    * Firstly, Spanish words are pronounced as they are written. There are not vowel combinations with different pronunciation depending on their position or whatever. However, as far as I know, in German “ie” is pronounced “ii” or “ä” is pronounced “e”; in French we rarely pronounce the end of the verbs; in English, we say “uu” when we read “oo” or “f” when there is “ph”. We are not used to that “letter games”.

    * In Germany, the most important point to make progress on a language is to start talking as soon as possible. They are taught to keep an English conversation at an early age. This way, grammar and speaking get the same importance.

    * However, in Spain, if we speak in a foreign language, we need to have some notes or an scheme in front. We work too much grammar points and exceptions, living the speaking automatically,.

    * There is another problem, according to the impression of a bilangual girl (German and American) who worked as a language assistant in a Spanish high school. After having analysed the books students had, she realized that there was any progression: they had to check the same skills every year and there were very few things to learn from scratch. I had not thought about this until I met her, but she is right. If I had to describe my case, I would recognise that I have seen the same verb tenses absolutely every year, no matter in which year I was.

    * To finish with, I think Spanish schools do not put emphasis on teaching pronunciation. Mountains of compositions, but never phonetic classes. At least, that was my case. Maybe, this system is changing (or about to). You know: English is needed everywhere you go and in all types of work; globalization, technology and mix of cultures are spreading, etc. So we had better start changing some teaching methods.

    With this comment, I justed wanted to express my agreement with what I have read in the post. We need to fly, to put our skills into practice, not to be afraid of mistakes, to be brave and try to talk to foreigners, etc. I am not saying that we do not have to practise grammar; the key is to find an equilibrium among all points in languages (grammar, speaking, listening, expression, communication, reading, writing).

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