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Different ways of thinking about learning

Different ways of thinking about learning Rosemary Hipkins, NZCER


I love reading short snippets of gold and this paper (first in a series of papers from NCZER that discusses the challenges of future focused learning) provides a summary of ideas about learning itself - in six short pages. Discussions around what we think about know about learning are always vital, on-going conversations to have. Here are some of my own summaries on this paper.

Learning as a cognitive activity – beyond simply adding new concepts and knowledge to the known. Learning involves metacognition, deeper thinking, analysis and application. It’s more about what we do with the knowledge, rather than an emphasis on knowledge retention itself.

The experiential nature of learning – thinking and learning processes are directly related to experiences, involving the whole body and not just the brain. Students bring a wide variety of experiences with them to school, not all on the ‘same level playing field’. This affects how we teach, what we teach and how we assess learning.

Learning as a social activity – learning involves interaction. Learners bring a variety of experiences and diverse thinking with them, which inevitably enriches learning – beyond the view that learning is an individual cognitive process. The other skills needed to engage successfully socially, are also paramount in learning. Having a safe, inclusive, culturally responsive learning environment is vital.

Motivation as a key enabler – learners have to want to learn, they can see the value of learning and have the dispositions to learn. The power of 'learning to learn' conversations with students, helps them understand what makes for good learning. They can then use this knowledge to further develop dispositions needed for successful learning.

Personalising learning Personalising learning – learning needs to personalised and not ‘one size fits all’ or standardised. "What changes most is the understanding of opportunities to learn.” (p 6) I'd also add what conversations, resources and tools can be used for students to gain accessibility and ownership of learning.

All of this understanding about learning itself can challenge our beliefs and practices in terms of:

  • Enabling conditions (eg; pedagogy)
  • What should be learned (eg; curriculum)
  • What evidence of learning looks like (eg; assessment)



Envision a classroom, possibly your own. What resonates for you here? How are some of these understandings reflected in the classroom you visualise? You may even have a photo to exemplify this.


Image sources: image 1, image 2, image 3 (Enabling e-Learning)


  • Jim

    set up the mindset or mindframe of learning is important.

    And ignite the thinking is the most important and sometimes the difficult part of teaching and learning.

  • Tara O'Neill

    The Magic of Today.  Learning in a Year 1/2 foundation community.

    One chid asked to make a dragon mask.  It caught on like wild fire.  Another child bought a paper plane from home and a teacher showed how to make another by using a pattern from the first.  

    One child creates with lego while another learns from a reading app on an iPad.

    One creates a box for Nan.  Another colours in detail.  One child watches a documentary on dragons while the mess spreads to every corner.

    And the surprise of finding that playing with clay opens up conversation beyond expectation.  "This is smooth like a worm. My snowman.  My snail with many eyes.  My mask from clay.  A basketball glove.  A sandwich to eat." 

    Searching for more mask patterns, another cuts delicately around a mask.

    ​One smiles in delight at the mask created while a group photo captures the essence of learning together.  The satisfaction of completion and the fun of pretending.

    ​The magic of engagement and flow combined.  A day well spent in learning.

    Tara O'Neill

    Photo:  Steve and the Foundation Years class at Te Karaka Area School.


  • Tara O'Neill

    Opps can't remember how to put a photo on.

  • Tessa Gray

    Really nice snapshot Tara, the kind that puts a smile on your face as you imagine all of this unfolding, thank you for sharing. Exemplifies so many natural, enjoyable elements of learning. smiley

    Someone once said to me, "If it's not spinning your wheels, then it's not spinning theirs either." This must have been rewarding and enjoyable for you as a teacher as well? 

    We'd still love to see how you've captured this. Go >>> Embed content (top right hand link above the comment box) >>> Upload a file >>> choose the file from your computer, name and click on this to insert.

    Magic indeed! yes

  • Tessa Gray

    Thanks for your comments Jim. Mindset is important, as both an individual and group endeavor and like you say 'difficult part of teaching and learning'. 

    Sometimes I'll hear myself say something about education and I catch myself, and say...how come I think like that? What proves that belief is accurate? Are my thoughts coming from a biased or learned generalisation?

    For example, I've just been learning about twice-exceptional students - gifted in some areas with special education needs in others. Sounds a little ignorant, but I really didn't have a mental picture of this before now. With a little professional learning and access to other people's stories, resources and research I'm changing my paradigm. Doesn't come easy, I find I slip back into my old ways of thinking and have to catch myself again. 

    Any advice to help change mind-sets?

  • Tara O'Neill

    Thanks for Replying Tessa. You are right I just hadn't thought of it.  I was very inspired.  And it is wonderful to go home each night exhausted but enthusiastic.  How lucky am I that I see learning everyday from passionate children.  How lucky am I that I can go with their directions.  

    Check out my blog on assessment within an inquiry play environment.

    http://www.tkaslessons.blogspot.co.nz   -   Assessment that actually makes a difference.  It has a lot to do with what you are writing about and the evidence of learning.  


  • Tessa Gray

    This is the first time we've had some visual sharing in a thread for a while Tara, again thank you. Without being cliche, they're very moving images that capture the essence of learning at 'your place'! 

    Wonderful reflection on Learning Stories too. I've posted a response on your blog smiley.  Tino pai to mahi.

  • Barrie Matthews

    Interesting when we put LEARNZ virtual field trips under this lens. 1. Learning as a cognitive activity. Each field trip has content that encourages students to think deeply and apply new knowledge to local situations. 2. Experiential nature of learning. Each field trip is more of an "experience" , albeit virtual, than a resource. Students feel like they are "there". 3. Learning is a social activity. Teachers use LEARNZ in collaborative ways with their classes and LEARNZ teachers build relationships between students and experts in the field. 4. Motivation as a key enabler. LEARNZ field trips link into big ideas that young people are thinking about and use New Zealand locations, which many teachers report as engaging. 5. Personalising learning. Students on a LEARNZ field trip can read material, listen to it, watch videos, ask questions orally or post questions online. LEARNZ is flexible so teahcers can adapt it and all students can engage in ways that suit them. Find out more about how teachers are using LEARNZ.

  • Tessa Gray

    Thanks for this summary Barrie Matthews. Learning activities make more sense when we can helicopter up to shared understandings about effective learning. On an aside, what does LEARNZ have anything special planned for ANZAC Day?

  • Barrie Matthews

    LEARNZ has just completed a series of 4 virtual field trips about the creation of Pukeahu National War Memorial Park which is now complete. The web site material will be relevant for any study of ANZAC Day or First World War Centenary Commemorations.

    Register with LEARNZ and Enrol in the field trip to listen to the recorded audioconferences between schools and experts like designers, engineers and historians.

    Have a look at this week's videos, which include yesterday's 4am ceremony where the Park was blesed by iwi, at http://www.learnz.org.nz/memorialpark151/videos

  • Tara O'Neill

    Thanks Barrie, I have signed up and am looking forward to trying the Virtual Field trips out in our learning community.