The unbearable mystery of learning

knowing Images: @jasonramasami

We have always liked to holiday in European cities. Before our son was born, one of our habits was to take the metro to a random place beyond the predictability of the inner-city environs. One stop a few miles from the centre of Hamburg, the name of which I have long forgotten, comes to mind. We stepped onto a platform set in flat fields with nothing around apart from a tidy set of allotments to one side, and a gaggle of unfriendly, low-set apartments to the other. It was completely unremarkable in every way.

I can’t put my finger on why I enjoy visiting such empty places. However, one of the reasons might be to do with the mysterious sense of transience they evoke. It is strange how two large chunks of concrete, two long lines of steel and a corrugated iron roof can bring meaning to what was once emptiness. Before the metro line was constructed, did these fields mean anything to anyone other than the farmer who tilled them? Not so long ago, would they have even been considered a place at all?

For the woman sitting on the train on the way to work – flicking through her newspaper, perhaps, or sipping a coffee – this station and this field have a concrete meaning. They are a name on a map, joined by a straight blue line to two other names, one in each direction.

Yet for the farmer whose field has now been cut in two, this station and train line have another significance. Most likely, they are an unnecessary nuisance that add extra difficulty to his work. And for the Turkish grandfather, now too weak to leave his top floor apartment, the station and train line in the distance are a sharp reminder that this new, inexplicable world is fast leaving him behind.

As a society, as an education system and as teachers we create similar tube maps. These are our curricular, schemes of work and learning objectives. We choose, rightly or wrongly, the best getting-off points and we teach with these certainties in mind. This is simple, clear and logical. How could we do it any other way?

Yet what we often forget is that what we intend to teach is not necessarily what is experienced or learnt by the people and minds we tend to. The clear, well-connected tube maps we carry so comfortably ourselves are rarely, if ever, received as carbon-copy replicas by our students. Even though learning science seems to suggest that how we learn is remarkably similar, what we learn is often very personal indeed.

It never ceases to amaze me that despite my methodical, largely traditional approach to classroom teaching, my students learn such different things. While I aim for some degree of uniformity, it rarely happens; the input never seems to match the output. Yes, there are patterns, patterns they and I can learn from. Yet every essay is different and every spelling test shows a remarkable array of strengths and weaknesses. The same student on a another day can produce markedly different work.

Graham Nuthall estimated that around a third of an individual student’s learning is unique to them and is not learnt by others in the same classroom. Why? The reasons are myriad and complicated and involve a heady mix of prior knowledge, motivation, social relationships and contextual ‘in-the-moment’ factors.

I enjoyed reading this passage from John Holt’s How Children Fail (1964) this week:

It has become clear over the year that these children see school almost entirely in terms of the day-to-day and hour-to-hour tasks that we impose on them. This is not at all the way the teacher thinks of it. The conscientious teacher thinks of himself as taking his students (at least part way) on a journey to some glorious destination, well worth the pains of the trip.

Perhaps we have gone some way towards reversing this discrepancy in recent years but I rather suspect that it still exists, even in the best schools. Many times, despite having shared what I thought to be clear learning objectives, my students will come to the next lesson asking “Are we still finishing off that sheet?” rather than “Are we still analysing Dickens’ use of language in Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol?”

Other more recent thinkers, such as David Didau, have got me thinking about the invisibility and liminality of learning. What a student says and the work he produces do not tell us reliably whether he has learnt something or not. And, in the case of complex concepts, our students rarely know or don’t know something – they are often grappling in a space somewhere in between.


I think it is time to consign certainty to a place far away (maybe to a field somewhere in northern Germany?) and face up to the unbearable. Data and spreadsheets, and words like ‘progress’ and ‘impact’, are not completely meaningless; they have their uses. But they just have far less meaning than many will have you believe.

There are ‘best bets’ when it comes to teaching practice; Shaun Allison and I have written about challenge, explanation, modelling, lots of practice, feedback and questioning in our book Making Every Lesson Count. Nevertheless, there are no silver bullets and learning remains confusing and, at times, illogical.

Let’s enjoy it for what it is.


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