Suppose you are having a parent-teacher conference, it’s the end of the first six weeks, and the parent says, “Has my child learned much in your class? Are the kids really learning anything important from the subject you teach?” How would you answer? What would you say? On what would you base your answer?

In 2009, the two of us began investigating the subject of learning. We wondered if a deeper understanding of human learning could inform a better design of teacher-developed lessons and student practice. At the same time, we were sharing our learning journey about learning with teachers who attended our professional development sessions.  About five years later, we realized that our teachers were designing great lessons, getting excellent results, but we had not really defined learning itself. It was a definition we had taken for granted. When we were pressed to answer this for ourselves, we were in trouble. As we begin In a series of articles on learning sciences, we thought it best to start with an answer to “What does it mean to have learned?” and “How do we know it happened?” The following summarizes our thinking.

  1. Measured – Learning is inferred by a measured, visible demonstration of memory retrieval and application. The measurement might simply be in a conversation or it could be a test but it is an inferred judgment that we make based on some kind of measurement and we do it all the time. When we converse with someone, we expect them to participate with knowledge that they can recall. We infer that they learned based on their responses. In a classroom we make inferences about learning from student responses, projects, or completed assignments. While a baseline would be helpful, we usually infer learning as though there was a baseline – there was once a blank slate, so to speak.
  2. Durable – If a student has really learned something, we want them to remember it over time – even into adulthood. Unfortunately, the brain is wired to forget, not to remember. This has implications for learning and measurement. For learning it means that we need spaced memory retrieval – spaced repetition. It also means that learning must be measured multiple times over time. The nice thing about measuring learning is that the process of measurement is a learning activity in itself. The act of remembering and applying strengthens the memory. Measurement also provides feedback.
  3. Flexible – To have learned also means that knowledge can be recalled in different contexts and used in a variety of ways and circumstances. Unfortunately, our brains look for the path of least resistance, which generally means the memory path most frequently taken. Using the same neuronal pathway again and again narrows the range of circumstances in which we can recall and use a memory. As a result, both practice and measurement needs to be varied. It can range from a multiple-choice test, to a project or essay, to a conversation. One type of measurement is both insufficient and unfair.
  4. Learning is sustainable and has two parts. It is the desire to learn more and the ability to pursue it successfully but how does one measure desire? In our case we encourage teachers to provide post lesson activities that a student can choose to do. Choosing is an indication of interest and desire. Then the question is whether the student finishes successfully – knows how to learn. This idea of having both an interest in learning and an ability to learn is becoming more and more important in preparing students for a world that includes accelerating rates of change.

Certain knowledge or skills may have other requirements. For example, something like computation within a certain range of problems and phonics both require a certain amount of automaticity. Any expert in a field requires automaticity over a great range of skills and knowledge required by that field but we view that as an extension of durability.  Keeping these characteristics of learning in mind can help us design better learning opportunities for students.

They also help explain why certain effect sizes of John Hattie’s are ranked so high. Something like having a strategy to use prior knowledge in a lesson helps durability through repetition, flexibility through association, and sustainability because the linking of prior knowledge to new knowledge creates meaning. Framing the design of learning against these characteristics makes the design process both easier and more effective.

Now, going back to that parent-teacher conference, here’s a possible answer. “Based on measurements of the content of our last six weeks, I’d say that, at the present time, it appears that your child has learned a great deal about our subject matter. In fact, right now, by measurements of his class work, his participation and collaboration, and some assessments, he’s learned about 80% of the material we’ve been covering. It’s a little early to know whether he’s sustaining that new knowledge, but we will keep refreshing it and bringing it back in new ways, to make sure the important concepts are retained. We will also try to make sure that what we are learning is flexible and can be useful in different contexts. I really hope he’s going to pursue some further study on his own of one of the topics I’ve introduced. Then we will know that his learning is going to be sustained over time and useful to him as he matures into a good citizen. For now, I’d say he’s learning a lot about the subject we are studying. When we meet again, in six more weeks, we will review this first six weeks and see if he’s curious and working independently. Then we know he’s learning and not just filling in the blanks to get through the course. My goal for your child is lifelong learning-durable, flexible, and sustainable. I can assure you that he’s on track for that right now.”