What is learning?

Learning is basically about committing something to memory and then being able to use that memory.

Someone who has difficulties with spelling isn’t able to lay the spellings to memory so they can be automatically recalled, as efficiently as someone who doesn’t have difficulties. Genetics as well as the environment you’re brought up in will impact what you’re able to learn. In others words, nature (genetics) and nurture (your environment in its widest sense – being the total of all your experiences as you grow) will impact what you’re able to learn and how easily.

The ‘machine’ which enables learning to happen is, of course, the brain and it’ll be the brain which will determine what can be learned, how much, how fast and how easily, along with controlling emotions and personality. To help children learn you need to understand that each person brings their own genetics, emotion, personality and environmental experiences to any learning situation.

What needs to be learned can be narrowed down to possibly four things: skills, knowledge, understanding and attitudes. If you take something like reading for example:

  • The skill is about the eyes being able to work effectively together to see the page and words, and to be able to read the words and send messages back and forth to the brain about that information
  • The understanding aspect takes a long time for a young child to grasp. To be able to read there needs to be an understanding that the words we speak can also be written, and that the symbols on the page represent the spoken words.
  • The knowledge is about what the words mean and that there are patterns and rules, such as phonetics and grammar
  • The attitude is the desire to read and to see its purpose

This example shows that everything you do has a body and mind connection, which involves motor development which you’ll explore later this Week. It also demonstrates how complex learning is and it’s not just about gaining knowledge or skills, because what’s the point of learning the skill of reading if there’s no desire to read?

Although there are fairly clear stages or phases to development, such as you need to walk before you can run, or that learning to speak comes before learning to read, it has to be noted that children are all different and will, given the right environment and care, reach the important milestones when they’re ready. It also has to be remembered that some children have developmental disorders which may impact their learning, for example, severely autistic children are not able to lay down memories as other children can. Some children may struggle with organisation as they’ve developmental coordination disorder (DCD), also known as dyspraxia.

“Be open and encouraging and develop a relationship of trust…encourage their independence; be a positive role model and have the safeguarding of the children at the forefront of your mind.” - Sarah Nimmey

In the next Step, you’ll have the chance to view the world through a child’s eyes in a classroom scenario, and how an adult’s actions and expectations can affect their learning.


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Supporting Successful Learning in Primary School

University of Reading

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