Is your learning falling off the edges?

Learning is messy. Sometimes someone can explain a complicated mathematical equation and you not understand a word and sometimes you can grasp every aspect of how numerous causes link together in a historical argument with ease. We see such situations unfold in our classrooms all the time, often we are surprised with the speed with which children gain new knowledge, skills and understanding and other times we can become frustrated that learning does not progress in the manner we predicted.

My fascination with how we learn stemmed from the philosophy of knowledge module that I studied as part of my degree and has developed throughout my teaching career thus far. It is important to reflect on how we learn before we embark on planning learning sequences in the same way a chemist will know how the human body works before designing medicines to cure it.


I visualise our body of knowledge and understanding as a collection of points all linked to each other in a complex 3D model with bonds of various strength and quantity. Some points of learning are right at the heart of this structure and are linked to numerous others with many strong bonds whilst others are at the edges with only a limited number of links that are not very strong.

New learning is more likely to be accepted by the human brain when it can be linked to understanding that already exists. When our brains can attach what is being taught to what we already know in this structure then we are more likely to understand. When it is connected to the heart of this structure then it is likely to remain but when it is attached to the periphery then new knowledge and understanding is likely to fade quickly. This is because around the edges the new learning points will only have limited links to others and at first these links are not likely to be very strong. As a result these new links will be broken very easily and the new learning will fall off the edge, it will be forgotten or understanding will fade. This is especially problematic when it is required for yet more learning points to be added to what has just been added around the edges.

This is why a spiral model of learning is very important. In this model teachers introduce new concepts whilst continually revisiting and consolidating what has previously been learnt. In this manner the bonds are continually strengthened and greater links with other learning points are formed. As a result new learning does not drop off from the edges of the structure but instead quickly gains a place at its growing heart.

 How will you aid the learning of your students this week?

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