How Do We Really Learn?

This is a very big question that will and should never be concluded, but I came across a book called The Hidden Lives of Learners by Graham Nuthall that offers some insight that I hadn’t previously thought about.

Now we all know that students learn in a classroom, they learn from their peers, they learn by themselves and they learn by experimenting and so on. We also know that there have been many discussions about different learning styles and it was both interesting and shocking to see that Nuthall claims that learning styles have nothing to do with learning per se. He says that learning styles are nothing more than preferences in that some prefer to learn visually, some prefer to learn verbally and some like to learn by doing. Nothing new there. He also points out learning styles are cultural in that people should be given freedom of choice. That’s not to say he dismisses the learners’ choices, but it’s interesting when he draws comparison to groceries shopping:

We all have different food preferences, more so now than a generation ago when the variety of food was much more limited. The fact that we all have different food preferences does not mean the metabolic processes by which we digest and use food are different. (Nuthall, 2010, p.34)

Fundamentally, how we learn, how we process information neurologically hasn’t really changed, except now we have many more choices in terms of how we learn the same thing and because of this, how we learn is very different.

Before technology became our everyday’s life and I am not even talking about years and years, I am talking about a mere 10-15 years ago when I was a teenager, I leaned how to do a lot of things on a computer by reading from a book and trying it out, Internet was at a snail pace to put it politely. There was very much a correct and an incorrect way of doing things due to the limited variation of learning resources offered.

Fast forward to today, we learn through multiple channels, often at the same time. Using learning digital as an example, because this is, after all, the bread and butter of my research interest. So how do we learn, let say, Photoshop? We attend a workshop, we watch some YouTube videos, we play around on a computer, we watch more YouTube videos, we ask questions on different forums, the list goes on… What we rarely do now, is learn Photoshop from a book. Admittedly some of the methods like workshop and speaking with peers haven’t changed, but now we have many more choices and these choices impact how we experience our learning and what we take away from it.

Nuthall points out that, “Learning does not come directly from classroom activities. Learning comes from the way students experience these activities. What matters is what students extract from experiences. (2010, p.155)

This presents a challenge for us in a classroom, a challenge that should be seen as positive – a lot of students will most likely already have knowledge of whatever it is that we are about to teach them, different prior knowledge I must point out. How do we help them to build on their own experiences is the key question.

We help them to connect their prior knowledge to what we are about to teach them, we show curiosity in how they intent to use their knowledge and experience, we help them to apply the new and old knowledge in some practical ways. This might include completely overturning their prior knowledge of what they thought they know. Because of the very many self directed learning methods and clearly a lot of students prefer these, we really ought to rethink how we spend our time with our students. There will always be a demand for workshops of an instructional nature, as we will always have to cater for different learning preferences. However, I wonder would contact time be more productive if we emphasise more on exploring how students could use the digital tools already in their toolkit creatively that works for them?

So how do we really learn? I am not sure. What I do know is that with advancing technology, how we learn will only get more confusing and complicated. We also ought to keep evaluating what already know more regularly and rigorously, particularly with digital technology because what we know today might become obsolete tomorrow.


– Nuthall, G.  (2010)  The hidden lives of learners.  Wellington:  Nzcer Press

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