Thoughts and Tools

Learning is a Process

Learning is a process of discovery, understanding, and skill acquisition in a particular context that is facilitated by deliberate practice, focused attention and thought, evaluation of mistakes by the learner for a purpose.

Learning is a process…


Learning just never ends.  This is the bane of the unmotivated student and the joy of anyone into learning for a lifetime.  There is always more to learn, always greater mastery to be earned and always better skill to hone. It is a part of being alive and finding life fulfilling.


…of discovery…


I recently decided to challenge myself to do something I’ve never done before: a pullup.  Lot’s of people can do them, but, until this week, I never had!  I have learned TONS about my body, my mind, my motivations.  I can talk about the actual exercise now in ways that I never could before because I learned (discovered) new things along the way.


…of understanding…


When I think about understanding, I think about the relationships between facts and constructs.  For instance, as a student in algebra learns more and more about a straight line, they begin to not just know that m = slope, but see how it relates to y = mx + b.  Then how that equation relates to graphs of things. Then how those graphs relate to real-life models of objects and processes and how those very graphs and equations can help make predictions and become tools to use in business or science. The breadth of facts weaves in with the depth of mathematical constructs and application to become rich understanding.


…of skill acquisition…


You can’t say that you have learned how to program in Java unless you’ve actually written some programs on your own.  And doing that requires skills.  You have to, at some point, gain an understanding of variable types, programming structures, and other basics of Object Oriented Programing (such as class construction).  But then you have to put that understanding to use.  Only the one who can solve a problem with a program can say they’ve learned how to program!


…in a particular context…


We never learn in a vacuum.  Granted, in today’s educational environment, the context may be shallow, forced, and associated poorly with things like ‘test scores’ or ‘GPA’, but the context still matters.  Facts without relationships don’t make learning at all.  And the richest learning happens when all of life becomes integrated into the process of discovery, understanding and acquiring skill.  When the learner sees how their new understanding or skill fits into a larger set of constructs, internal motivation explodes!


…and is facilitated by deliberate practice…


10,000 hours.  That’s the estimated time it takes to be an expert at something.  Some may choose to be an expert at procrastination or video-gaming.  But those that endeavor to learn deeply know that time spent on-task in deliberate practice makes all the difference in the world. As the old quip goes: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice.”


… focused attention and thought…


You don’t bake a cake accidentally.  You don’t solve algebra problems whimsically.  You can’t write tight prose without attention to connotative nuance.  Learning takes focus by the learner.  No one else can do it, and nothing is more effective than concentrated time on a problem.


… and evaluation of mistakes …


For humans, making mistakes isn’t a problem.  It is the way we learn.  Refusing to learn from our mistakes or grow out of our misunderstanding is the way to shallow understanding and foolishness.  Or, to put it a different way: metacognitive skills are vital to learning.


…by the learner…


Ultimately, if the one learning isn’t doing any of the work, something is horribly wrong.  Learning isn’t something that happens TO you, it is something that happens IN you.  Everything (and everyone) else around the learner is a tool to help the process of learning take place.


… for a purpose…


Everyone learns for some reason or another.  It might be to feel good about themselves, or to pass a test.  But the best learning will come from the richest and best motivations. Without a goal of growing in discretion, wisdom, truth, and virtue, learning is vanity at best or evil at worst.  Without the purpose of becoming better global citizens and finding ways to leverage our tools, talents, and passions for the good of others we’re doomed.  Unless our learning helps us love our neighbor, it will all be wasted. 


Does anyone else agree with my ideas?

Thankfully, yes.  Although I borrow my philosophy of learning from a variety of views, they are all based on research.  Here are some resources that parallel my thoughts:


How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice (1999). M. S. Donovan, Bransford J. D., & Pellegrino, J. W, (Ed.)   Retrieved from  a cogent look at the research behind learning.  Learning environments must be student-centered, address prior student conceptions, be designed thoughtfully, teach metacognition and aim for both depth and breadth. The website of the PhD of Tony Bates.  This particular article is a nice synthesis of constructivist learning theories for an online context.  His whole website is full of interesting and useful reflections.


Borich, Gary D. (2014). Effective Teaching Methods; Research-based Practice (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.  While this is a textbook on teaching methods, you have to think quite a bit about how one learns when reading it!  In particular, the implications of research regarding the use of direct vs. indirect teaching methods for varying subjects is insightful.  We don’t learn all things in the same way.  Facts are not best learned by discovery.  Depth is not best learned via lecture.


Chaipichit, Dudduan, Jantharajit, Nirat, & Chookhampaeng, Sumalee. (2015). Development of Learning Management Model Based on Constructivist Theory and Reasoning Strategies for Enhancing the Critical Thinking of Secondary Students. Educational Research and Reviews, 10(16), 2324-2330.  When you teach critical thinking, students learn better; laboratory research paper.


Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: Ballantine Books. A powerful look into how the way we think about ourselves affects how we learn and what we learn in life.


Gladwell, M. (2011). Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown and Company.  10,000 hours isn’t just a made-up number.  It is backed by research after studying those people who have become experts in their fields.


Greene, Albert E. (2003). Reclaiming the Future of Christian Education (2nd ed.): Purposeful Design Publications.  This is an excellent resource for understanding the philosophies that drive education and learning.


Slavin, Robert E. (2012). Educational Psychology; Theory and Practice (10th edition ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.  A solid book of the basic learning and growth theories out there.  Included are the Behaviorist (like Skinner), Information Processing (Atkinson & Shiffrin), and Constructivist (Vygotsky) theories that drive many educational practices today.


Yung, Benny Hin Wai, & Tao, Ping Kee. (2004). Advancing Pupils within the Motivational Zone of Proximal Development: A Case Study in Science Teaching. Research in Science Education, 34(4), 403-426. A look at the use of ZPD in teaching science.

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Curtis White, M.S., M.C.E.
High School Faculty
Math, Science, Bible & Computers
Abundant Life Christian School
A Madison Christian School