Question of the Day: What Does Learning Look Like and How Do We Stimulate it in Students?

One of the foundational questions all educators must continuously grapple with is what exactly does learning look like? If we ignore this question or gloss over it’s importance, we are failing to truly engage in the craft that we have been called to. You might also be thinking, “Aren’t you in an educational technology program? Shouldn’t you be focusing on all the pretty shiny toys?” The reality is the use of technology is just one piece of a three piece puzzle.

In one corner, you have pedagogy (how we teach).  In another corner, you have content knowledge specific to your discipline (what you teach).  In the third and final corner, you have technology (what you can use to best teach the content). There is a framework for this called TPACK.  The goal is to find the sweet spot between the three.  Why is it important to think about these things then?  The more we know about how students learn and what learning itself is the more capable we are of using the right pedagogy with the right technology to deliver the necessary content that students need to be successful.


In some conversations I have heard teachers (and parents) have, there appears to be a distinction made between learning and understanding. This seems to be generational to a certain extent as Bransford (2000) mention. He quotes Herbert Simon, who said, “‘knowing’ has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it” (5).  If we hold to this concept, Bransford (2000) notes an important shift in our pedagogy and practice.  Essentially, he tells us that education is better thought of in terms of helping students develop the tools and learning strategies that will allow them to think critically and effectively throughout the curriculum, not just in our class.

Knowing something doesn’t mean that it has been learned.  As a student, I was consistently labeled “Student of the Month” in Calculus, because I could do all of the stuff the teacher showed us to do.  I could even show how to do it.  If someone ever asked me why you do it that way or how it works, I would have been clueless.  I did not learn Calculus; I could just do it.  Our goal should be for students to understand the underlying principals so that they can transfer the information and skills toward any logical realm of inquiry and practice.

If we hold to the idea that learning and understanding are not just synonyms but irrevocably intertwined, we must have a concept of how to get students to a place where they understand.  Bransford (2000) goes to great pains throughout his book to tell and retell the important concept that you can’t divorce facts from understanding.  There is sometimes a misconception in this area; people view the movement as being unconcerned with facts. That’s untrue; students must go well beyond facts to carry the label of understanding/knowing.

Additionally, students must learn metacognitive processes that will assist them in learning/understanding.  Bransford (2000) relates that when experts are asked to speak their internal dialogue when facing a problem related to their expertise they carefully monitor their understanding, make note of any information they lack and need to find, compare/contrast new information with what they already know, and look for ways they can apply this knew information to other situations that they may face in the future (18). Students develop these skills over time through practice, exploration, and modeling by the teacher, family members, and experts they come into contact with.


In thinking about learning and understanding, it is helpful to look at the example of the novice vs. the expert.  In general, novices lack the metacognitive skills necessary to effectively see all the relevant parts of a situation, apply knowledge from past experiences to the necessary scenario, know what they need to know, formulate an expert plan, and execute that plan allowing for unexpected variables.  In order for a novice to move to an expert, they need to learn to think like one.

Bransford (2000) gives us some ways that experts differ from novices:  experts notice patterns novices miss, have more knowledge in the area, have knowledge that isn’t just facts but deep understanding, can retrieve information in a flexible way, and aren’t all necessarily the same kind of expert (adaptive versus static) (31).

What do you think? What does learning mean to you?


Bransford, J., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Koehler, M.J., & Mishra, P. (2008). Introducing TPCK. In AACTE Committee on Innovation and Technology (Eds.) Handbook of technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPCK) for educators (pp. 3-30) New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. Retrieved from


[Untitled illustration of a Understanding Sign]. CC BY-SA 3.0. Retrieved June 27, 2016

Einstein Meme. Picture in Public Domain.  Picture modified using


2 thoughts on “Question of the Day: What Does Learning Look Like and How Do We Stimulate it in Students?

  1. whittem4 says:

    Cut from the end of the third paragraph:
    My viewpoint is that learning the facts is analogous to the first step of an infant; it is a moment to celebrate, but we surely don’t want the infant to clap his/her hands and say, “Boom! I don’t have to do that again.” We want the child to walk and then run and then leap. Learning/understanding is the same. One more thing before we move on, Bransford (2000) explains that in order for a student to truly understand they need foundational information, understand it in context, and organize it in ways they can remember and use it (16).


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