James Dalziel

November 20 2020


This article explores the ways your school might develop an effective definition of learning and some strategies for improving learning in your school as a result.

Learning, not conditions for learning.

Defining and developing a shared understanding of learning can be one of the most significant elements for any school. It not only helps us define our target learning, it also identifies what is not our priority so that we can identify when we have wandered off the path and provides us with the means to re-orientate and realign. It is important as well that we understand the difference between the actual internal learning that is taking place within people and the external conditions for learning that may be in place around us.

Any definition of ‘learning’ must arise out of our school’s shared culture and context. At the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore we explain the way our culture and our learning mesh in this sense making graphic, and at the heart of it are our Learning Principles.

Learning Principles

What makes a good definition of learning?

Learning principles have a definition of learning (learning is….) and conditions for learning (learning is often improved when…). To help every member of our community learn, we must focus on learning itself before looking at conditions for learning.

Martin Skelton, Director of Fieldwork Education, often uses a medical analogy to explain the difference between focusing on conditions for learning, and learning itself. Imagine a hospital that focused on “things that help health”, rather than patients’ “health”.

Surgeon 1: Was the operation a success?
Surgeon 2: Yes, I did everything I was supposed to: scrubbed before surgery, completed the procedure as described in the textbook, debriefed with staff, and it was a complete success.
Surgeon 1: How is the patient?
Surgeon 2: Oh, well, he died.

Unfortunately, this is similar to some conversations we hear in our schools: “I taught a great lesson but for some reason, some kids didn’t get it”, or “I love that teacher’s classroom, students always look engaged and he uses popsicle sticks to randomise questions, so kids must be learning.” What can exacerbate this is Learning Principles that only describe the conditions for learning. For example, ‘Learning is when I ask questions’, to which you want to reply ‘Sometimes!’. We must also identify when learning is taking place.

A good definition of learning ensures we focus on learning, before considering how the learning might have been supported by the conditions for learning. A good definition of learning helps our teachers and students identify the learning taking place and respond with congruent behaviours to improve learning.

How do we go about making a definition of learning?

Let’s start with what we know: we know that knowledge, skills and understanding are taught, learnt and assessed differently; we know that new learning is acquired and feels different to the consolidation of existing learning; we know that learning is something all of us do at varying rates our whole life. So our definition of learning should call attention to these fundamentals.

What an effective definition of learning might sound like will depend on your school’s culture and beliefs around learning.

An example is a UWCSEA student defining learning:

We learn all the time ­ we learn ​about​ things, ​how to do​ things and ​to​ ​understand things. Sometimes we learn something new; sometimes we are getting better at something we’ve done before. When we learn we change the way we think and feel.

The words must make sense for students, and so you might be talking about ‘doing new things’ to emphasize new skills and risk taking; ‘play’ in the early years; in a faith school you might be talking about ‘getting to know more about my spirituality’; you might name ‘transcultural learning’; you might talk about making neural pathways ­ the details and nuances should naturally arise from your culture and be age appropriate for your students. The point is that they should name learning, and give language to learning so that we no longer ask ‘how did the teaching go?’ but rather make the professional transition toward: ‘what learning took place for students?’

What difference does a good definition of learning make to students?

Let me give you an example from a Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class, when a students was learning about ‘ways of knowing’ and how to use them to explore how we ‘know’ something to be ‘true’. This example is paraphrased but real.

“​Because this is ​skill, and it is new for me, it still feels really awkward. I just need more practice with a partner to build habits around this. I ​understand​ the concept of ‘ways of knowing’. I ​know​ the different ways of knowing in TOK ­ that was easy I just make an acronym with an online anagram maker. So, I guess what is most important is to get some more practice and feedback on the ​skills​ until they are a bit more solid.

This kind of sense making and self direction is built upon the foundation of students and teachers knowing about learning.

What do great schools do?

Great schools define greatness by the learning of their students. Great schools have a common and culturally accepted definition of learning woven into their cultural fabric. Students and teachers in great schools use this language to make sense of what they are doing, and assume congruent behaviours. Great schools focus on actual learning gains and are not distracted by perceived improvements in the ‘conditions’ for learning.

Great schools review their definition of learning and keep it up to date, both with research and with practical examples from the precise context of the school. They are disciplined in their focus on the definition and conditions that affect learning and hold colleagues professionally responsible in conversations to differentiate the conditions for learning from the actual learning itself. They also are tenacious collectors of learning data ­ not in terms of quantity, but instead in terms of quality. Quality learning data (high quality evidence of student learning) can only be planned, opportunities provided, and data collected and analysed if there is a high degree of shared understanding and accuracy regarding the desired learning and the numerous ways that students might demonstration learning gains in knowledge, skill, understanding or dispositional learning.

Here are five things a Head of School may consider when to increase their school’s focus on learning:

1. If you do not yet have a strong shared definition of learning, then bring your community together to talk about your core purpose: how is learning defined in your context?

  • How might we define learning in terms of what is happening in people as a result?
  • Thinking about our school’s mission, vision, and values, what learning (what our members of our school community should know, be able to do, and understand) are we obligated to identify and address within our definition?


2. Use your definition of learning to provide your school with a metric for your strategic goals. Do not set goals around learning conditions (‘we will embed formative assessment strategies’) but rather around learning goals (‘we will improve student learning of mathematical concepts, by exploring a range of strategies.’)

  • How might we recognize the learning when it is happening?
  • What evidence might we gather to measure the new knowledge, skills or understanding?
  • What might we need to change to provide increased opportunities for learning?

3. Facilitate staff looking for learning in classrooms so that they can become responsive and reflective practitioners with craftsmanship around learning.

  • What common terminology, structures, or protocols might we employ to enhance our professional conversations focused on learning?
  • How might our school culture need to change to support effective conversations regarding evidence of learning and professional practice

4. Use your definition of learning to articulate what professional learning is important in your school in terms of knowledge, skills and understanding of staff, and then be intentional in ensuring your entire community is learning.

  • Given what we know about effective learning, are our practices consistent across all educational domains (for staff development, parent information sessions, etc)?
  • What knowledge, skills, and understandings might our teachers, support staff, and parents need to have to support our school’s mission, vision, and values?

5. Help students understand what strategies to use for learning knowledge, skills and understandings, so that student can improve their learning.

  • How might we structure our learning so that our community becomes conscious of their learning in a way that is appropriate for their level of development?
  • How might we shape our school culture to support all members within our community by increasing their efficacy and improve the interdependent trusting relationships that support the target learning for our school?