If you can’t read minds, choose words carefully.

I wrote a post a couple of years ago about learning and performance, inspired by David Didau’s own blog and a workshop I attended that really opened my eyes. This blog post was removed after causing a bit of controversy with a previous employer. I have decided to repost it due to a number of things. 1. I feel as a sector we are at a point where challenging beliefs is more acceptable. 2. I have read/heard a lot of comments lately that have been made with authority, which reinforce messages which are wrong (particularly on LinkedIn).

I mean no disrespect to any professional colleagues, but I feel we all need to reflect on this post and select our language carefully when talking about teaching and learning.

This post was written in May 2014:

I have come across several comments lately and I have come to the decision that we (educators) need to be careful about the language we use when we talk about learning. Now I am no linguist, but hear me out…

“Learning was clearly taking place as all learners were engaged”
“They were learning well in the session which was evident in the amount of written work”


Do comments like these sound familiar? 


If ever a definition of learning could be agreed, it would certainly involve something about knowledge acquisition and probably something to do with long term memory and being able to retrieve information (that’s me drawing upon numerous information sources and amalgamating them). 


Of course, we cannot see what knowledge has been acquired and stored in the long term memory in a snapshot observation. How can we? How could we possibly see the amazing (or not so) neural connections that learners are making between their environment and long term memory? 


At Pedagoo London earlier this year I had the pleasure of listening to David Didau (@learningspy). He gave a great presentation about learning and performance. One example used emphasised how we see learner performance rather than learning in the classroom. He began by asking:

“Who knows what the Capital of Poland is?”


Most of the audience put their hand up. To one lady who didn’t know, David informed her that it was Warsaw (teaching). He then asked her to tell him what the capital of Poland was. She of course immediately answered Warsaw. She had performed! 


Had she learnt? Well it isn’t clear. I don’t suppose David ever tracked her down to find out if she can still answer that question, but when I have used this exact example, the people I ask later down the line have nearly always forgotten. They didn’t learn from me, despite at the time me thinking they had.


This simplistic way at looking at learning and performance is really quite useful. This brings me back to the comments that we see on observation reports. Whether graded or ungraded, learning walk or formal observation, we cannot make a judgement on ‘learning’ without continued observation over time, discussion with learners, examination of learner work etc etc. In all honesty, we may never understand what learning has occurred. With so many other variables in a young persons life – TV, family, friends and the internet how could we possibly know?


What observers tends to use in lessons as ‘evidence’ for learning are some of the things listed below. Prof Robert Coe (2013) informs us that these are poor indicators for learning:


Poor Proxies for Learning 

(Easily observed, but not really about learning) 

1. Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work) 

2. Students are engaged, interested, motivated 

3. Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations 

4. Classroom is ordered, calm, under control 

5. Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (ie presented to students in some form) 

6. (At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they 

really understood them or could reproduce them independently) 

Coe (2013) states that ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’. This is corroborated by Nuthall (2007), Willingham (2009) and Brown, Roediger and Mcdaniel, (2014). So when learners appear ‘stuck’ in lessons rather than doing all or some of the above, there may indeed be a lot more learning taking place. 

Learning is a complex beast. As observers, the language we use needs to be clear and abstain from comments such as those above. For all of those observers out there – do not say that you saw learning taking place. Choose your words wisely. 

Learning is invisible and what we think may help learning, is probably not. 
In summary, when we talk about teaching and learning, we have to be careful with the assumption that learners are or are not learning. Until we develop some sort of ability to mind read, we will never truly know what has been learnt. In the meantime, we need to make do with the collection evidence over time to enable us to come close to making such claims and be mindful of the fact that even then, we may be wrong.
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One thought on “If you can’t read minds, choose words carefully.

  1. Alleluia Amen etc. What sense. Learners hate it when they get stuck, can’t answer, have to think, work it out. As educators it can make us feel uncomfortable that there is no immediate response. But they have to be learning this way, surely?! I teach in excess of 200 students a week. It’s hard. All different needs and abilities and I always thought I was good at differentiation. More and more my teaching has changed to fit with a more prescribed way of dancing to the observation tune. Frustrating. We need more collaboration, team teaching and peer support. Less interference from management. They should be following us. There I’ve said it.
    Keep going and speaking up.

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