Saturday, 14 April 2018

The case for a 'theory of learning'.

Why we need a shared theory of learning.

“If we know how they learn,
we can see how to improve our teaching?”

Why Learning Theory?

 “A theory…is a model that accurately explains large groups of observations….and allow us to make definite predictions about future events”  Stephen Hawking

(We are using the term 'theory' in the scientific sense of something derived from the evidence, not in the everyday 'that's only a theory' sense.  Alternative words are:  Shared model, shared understanding, shared conceptual framework.)

Professionalising teaching

Teachers’ universal complaint is the endless flow of initiatives from government.  Within a few years, most of these either fade away, or are found to fail.   The level of “policy failure” is very high.

Why is it that, of all the professions, education is the one where government, journalists, parents and gurus all feel they are better-informed that teachers?  Why is it that engineers, midwives, archaeologists, meteorologists etc are all consulted for their expertise, while teachers are lectured?

What the other professions have, which teaching lacks, is that shared model which forms the foundation of their professional understanding.  Wherever in the world you study midwifery, using the evidence-based medical model, you will be taught roughly that same material.  

The precondition for a shared theory is wide agreement on the evidence.  In the past there has been little agreement, but more recently the level of agreement almost all those who look at the evidence about learning has increased dramatically.  All sorts of books, blogs and websites are offering very similar ideas.

What makes a good theory?  

Any theory is a simplification of reality.  Good theories:

  • explain a high percentage of observations
  • make predictions which can be tested
  • are not easily falsified

The role of neuroscience

Most observers agree that we are very far from the point where we can ask neuroscientists for advice on how to teach.  However, neuroscience - the study of the brain - can be used as the basis for an explanation of the evidence.

The evidence-sources we can use are:
  • classroom experiments
  • cognitive sciences

 Let's 'give it a go'.  

Would you agree with the following draft statements?  They are brain-based explanations for the evidence we see in learning.  (This is not meant to be comprehensive, just for starters!)

Principles and Implications

Learning happens when new connections are made between neurons in the brain of the learner.  For the connections to be long-term memories, the same pathway needs to be activated several times.  Unless this happens, the synapses gradually reset to their original state and no memory exists (forgetting).
- Spaced repetition is vital for this process.

For the new learning to be understood, it must link to existing, prior knowledge.
- If the prior knowledge is missing, the new learning may only be retained by rote.

Sense data enters the student’s brain all the time from many sources.
- The student needs to maintain attention on the learning material.

The information which is attended to enters Working Memory.
- The student’s WM is easily overloaded.

Accessing secure long-term memories uses less WM space.
- Mastery of the basics is essential for higher learning.

Repeated pathways create long-term memories whether they are correct or incorrect.
 - Feedback is needed during the learning process to avoid misconceptions.

The brain has a huge capacity to process visual material with little effort.
- Teaching materials should combine visual/images and words.

If you would be interested to help develop this model/shared understanding/theory, please contact me at

Other sources

The theory we build will not be our own invention!  The theory is simply the patterns we see in the evidence and several people have 'had a go'.  


“I’ve found an exception:  this disproves your theory.”  If this theory can explain the majority of the evidence - then it is good/useful. Simply finding exceptions does not invalidate the theory.  If a competing theory can explain more observations and make better predictions, then we can say our theory is defunct.

“I don’t believe in theory – I’m only interested in getting the job done”. Many people are sceptical of the need for theory: However, whenever we apply any teaching method or policy, we are basing these decisions, consciously or not, on a set of values and assumptions.  If we do not examine these underlying elements we will not find out if we agree with them, or whether there is any evidence that they are valid.

“Don’t you mean “Teaching Theory?”  We share the view that “There is no such thing as teaching, only learning”.  “Teaching” is the word we give to a number of different activities which may end in learning.  It is Learning Theory which informs teaching practice, not the other way around.

Draft Mike Bell EBTN April 2018


  1. Why ‘brain based’ rather than behaviour based?

    1. Can you explain what you mean by a 'behaviour based' theory? Give some examples?

  2. Hello Mike,
    Your reflections provoke a lot of collective research. However, when unified such theories become outdated as humans evolve, develop and invent new tools. Another area of concern is the possibility of expIoitation by a few like the case of'Facebook'.
    Furthermore, I am still to stumble upon a Neuro-scientific study of learners in a multi-cultural/ ethnic classrooms. Individual behaviour changes in a collaborative/ gang situation.

    1. 1 Can you explain what you mean by " the possibility of exploitation by a few". I'm not sure how theories of gravity. plate tectonics, blood circulation, bacterial infection etc have done this.
      2 You mention "Neuro-scientific study of learners in a multi-cultural/ ethnic classrooms". I don't see the relevance for learning theory. All cultural orethnic groups have brains which learn the same way.

  3. we ae moving or advancing at a very fast pace, any research into learning how we learn can only benefit us all. Evidence based learning is the way forward. Some comments elude to us evolving, I'd agree, but it is at a very slow process - EVOLUTION - the technology revolution has fooled everyone into thinking we are all some sort of higher order beings. maybe in a few millennia, but not yet!!! in the meantime, discovering how we learn,(we haven't evolved that much in the last thousand years) and finding out how technology might be changing the way we think and learn? it's got to be a good thing. looking forward to reading more on this blog.
    all the best, Tony

  4. I fail to understand how anyone involved in education can choose to ignore the magnitude of the evidence from cognitive science. It is SUCH an exciting time for teaching and learning. Yes, also a little overwhelming. Yes, also a little scary... but to finally have answers to the questions I've been asking myself over my career is invigorating as I know, without doubt, that I will be a better teacher over the next decade than I have been over the last. I'm a keen research geek and passionate that evidence-based teaching can't be reserved for the select few who have chosen to consult EduTwitter as part of their ongoing CPD.

    1. Great to have you on the project. Evidence is liberation for teachers AND learners.

  5. I use a lot of your evidence to develop my teaching and to help my students to learn better. I have also been using it with parents so they can support their children at home. I have been teaching for 27 years - it now feels like now there is some rationale behind ideas that have always 'felt right'. This is really powerful when convincing my students to learn effectively.

    1. Great. Another EBTNer told me that, once she had explained about strengthening synapses etc to her students, the % who handed in homework increased.

  6. I have been using evidence based education like this to dramatically improve my results for my students. I find any research at worst, grounds for academic discussion and at best, invaluable

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  8. Information is knowledge . . . and with more information teachers have more knowledge about how to best serve their students. However, the challenge comes when too much questionable information is readily available. An evidenced-based approach encourages educators to make decisions not on the one-off studies or sound-bite conclusions that are sometimes presented in popular media (and in the staffroom), but to instead make decisions based on what has been shown to be effective across a wide range of students and disciplines. Consolidating these understandings into a theory of learning could help provide teachers with a framework through which to view their practice and any potential improvements they may be considering.

    1. Absolutely! Are you already on the Learning Theory team?

  9. I would be interested and have bid to Erasmus to fund a project across six schools to look at a wide range of learning methods. This includes a school from Spain, France, Crete, Croatia, Cyprus and ourselves in UK.
    It may be our project if given the green light may partner this initiative quite well.

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  11. Our current education system is not fit for purpose, a fact accepted by the DfE.
    All of the latest research into learning provides detailed scientific details into how the brain works.
    Yet Teaching fails to embrace this and let’s our children down on the process!
    Schools are regarded as Examination Factories that crushes the creativity of our children and impacts upon their attitude towards education.
    Much of what we do as a Teacher - such as marking, serves to contribute to a ‘tick bix’ Mentality, without having any impact upon the academic progression of the child.
    The Michaela School in London is taking steps to revitalise learning, although I do not agree with all of their ideology.
    I am a passionate advocate of lifelong learning, but fear that our current model of teaching puts many children off!

    1. Perhaps "not fit for purpose" is going a bit far! However, I agree that there is loads of good evidence on how to improve the learning, reduce stress on teachers and also good cognitive-science explanations which are not being used.