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What we know about learning

Elizabeth Bray, Former Head of Dover Campus and Nancy Fairburn, Former Curriculum Articulation Leader, UWCSEA

UWCSEA's curriculum articulation project aims to build foundations for lifelong learning.

“The innate learning appetite is highly intelligent, because learning is the gateway to everything.” Guy Claxton, What’s the Point of School?

At UWCSEA, we define learning as a life-long process in which learners engage with and reflect upon information and experiences to construct new or modify existing understanding as well as develop and apply skills and qualities. Defining learning provokes the question, “How do we learn?”

Intuitively, many of us know the answer. We listen, we ask questions, we seek advice, we try something else. Early thinkers understood the complexity of learning. Socrates described education as “… the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” In recent times, the research about learning has substantially increased and has been popularised across all media platforms. claims to have more than 400,000 books connected to learning. At the College, it is our responsibility to ensure that the best research is informing our practice to create optimal learning for our students.

The 10 statements that comprise the UWCSEA learning principles are a synthesis of current research from around the world. They are derived from a perspective that is developmental and holistic and are not placed in any particular order.

While each principle is identified separately, they must be treated as interconnected. The learning process relies on this complexity. When learners are challenged in developmentally appropriate ways, there is a feeling of achievement. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this feeling flow. Flow is when learners are so engrossed in their work that time seems to pass without distraction. “Successful students at school know the value of ‘flow’ and derive pleasure from the effort.” This opportunity for challenge is enhanced in an environment where learners feel secure and supported. Trusting relationships create a safe place to learn from mistakes and an ideal situation for collaboration so students can gain timely and goal-directed feedback to guide the next steps in learning. John Hattie’s meta-analysis of the research claims that timely and goal-oriented feedback has one of the greatest impacts on learning. To support our understanding of feedback, Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London, recently spent two days working with teachers from across the College to further their understanding about strategies for providing this essential feedback for learning. When learners work toward their specific goals they have ownership of their learning. According to Wiliam, “Good feedback leaves learning with the learner.”

Learning and developing the independence to be capable of taking responsibility for shaping a better world are central to a UWCSEA education. Requiring this learning to take place across all five elements of the learning programme provides the opportunity for different pathways through which students can develop the skills and qualities for their future.

We know learning is effective when:

learners construct new understanding by activating prior knowledge and experiences
Therefore, it is important that new learning is connected to what the learner has previously experienced or understood.

learners use timely and goal-directed feedback
Therefore, ongoing assessment should be regular and structured in a manner that allows for specific feedback to guide the learner in constructing meaning.

learners collaborate
Therefore, learners must have opportunities to interact with others in a variety of situations and groupings.

learners are challenged
Therefore, learners need to be challenged in developmentally appropriate ways.

learners feel secure and supported
Therefore, learners need a safe and respectful learning environment.

learners construct meaning by seeing patterns and making connections
Therefore, learning needs to be organised around core concepts.

learners actively process and reflect
Therefore, time is required for learners to practise, reflect and consolidate learning.

learners apply metacognitive skills
Therefore, learners should develop an awareness of their own thinking processes to develop intellectual habits.

learners understand the purpose of the learning
Therefore, learning should occur in context with clear connections to real world.

learners have ownership of their learning
Therefore, opportunities for self-directed learning are needed to sustain and motivate learning.