What is Learning?

I asked my class this question this week and had them work in pairs to write down some thoughts on what they thought ‘learning’ was.  The reasons behind my questioning were mostly coming from frustrations – with trying to get my class to add things in their portfolio that showed their learning (rather than just ‘best work’) as well as frustrations with our current classroom environment which resembled a lot of non-thoughtful chaos rather than a culture of thinking.  I was trying to reflect on how I could help them to understand portfolios and how I could get our classroom culture back on track….when it occurred to me that we use the word ‘learning’ with kids all of the time, but do they really know what that means?

I have become a big fan lately of asking my students to define words – partly because I love how they amaze me with their thoughts when they do and partly because I am understanding the important words we use is a key part of the process and helps make sure we know what direction we are heading in.  The pairs of students came up with so many ideas of what they thought learning was, that I realized there were too many things to immediately put up, so I had them look over their list and each pair added two they thought were new but important things to add.

According to our class, learning is….


We took a break to think and later on in the day, we looked at our ideas and applied them to our learning environment (which the kids said was an area where something, human or animal, spends time learning). I gave the students this question to think about in pairs:

IF learning is…….(one of our thoughts), then what do we need in our environment to make it one where we learn?

They had so many ideas that they then got in groups of four and had a discussion in order to choose the three things (from all of their ideas) that they thought were the MOST important things to have in a good learning environment.

A good learning environment needs…

– inquiring minds (yes, their words…surprised me too)

–  willing to talk and discuss things

– supporting others, helping not laughing at them

– respectful listeners

– cooperating and risk-taking (they felt like those when together, not separate)

– creative ideas

– push ourselves (I taught them about the word perseverance to go with that idea)

– new information (access to it)

– teachers (they pointed out that it could be an adult or another student – they teach each other things)

– books

– technology – computers

– calm

– time to be independent

–  communicating

– honesty

What do you add to the learning environment?

At that point, with all of those things in mind, we did an individual reflection (because I wanted to try and get our environment back into these things…it currently wasn’t many of them).  Who makes the learning environment?  All of us, not just me but every person who is in it.  If that is so, what do you add/do in the learning environment right now?  What things would you like to start adding or doing more often?

As always, this class continues to surprise me with their honesty and openness in reflecting and desire to be learners….

Here are just a few examples (though their reflections were all as different and unique as they tend to be)

I am good at having creative ideas, sharing my ideas, using my brain, my listening brain, discussing things and doing poems.  I would like to do better at my inquiring mind, being independent in getting new information, my reading brain, not fiddling around and writing stories.

I am good at working with others and remembering what I am supposed to do.  I want to improve at working on my own, looking at what is going on and sharing my ideas.

Right now I am sometimes not a risk-taker because I do not try new things.  I want to be a risk-taker.

I am good at supporting others and risk-taking.  I want to be a more respectful listener and add creative ideas.

I am good at being confident, listening to instructions, taking my time, thinking, pushing my limits and inspiring. I am not always respectful, sometimes noisy and waste my time.


I valued this time a lot and though we were supposed to be learning about a few types of poetry during that time in my planning, I feel like this was more valuable in helping re-direct the culture of our classroom and learning, as well as giving them a better idea of what learning is.  Later on in the week one of my students took a picture of a book and told me she wanted to add it to her Evernote portfolio.  I was a bit frustrated at first that she missed the point of learning portfolios and asked her, “How does a picture of a book show learning?” She responded, “I have learned how to understand stories better and that’s why I got to choose a new level of readers.  This is my new reader – it shows that before I didn’t know what was happening in the stories and I couldn’t have understood this book, but now I do.”  We added it in, with those thoughts included 🙂

Categories: Education | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “What is Learning?

  1. Mark Thomas

    Great article. The comments by the students show how much they see learning as a process. BTW, you. have very good writing..my board is always awful!

  2. I enjoyed reading your post so much and I can see how valuable the use of class time was – even though it was poetry on the agenda! Noticing, naming and describing learning is tough and I’m blown away with your students’ responses. Sometimes what initially takes a long time, ends up saving heaps of time in the long run as the students have a common understanding of what learning looks like in your classroom. I also appreciate your ‘letting go’ action – it was awesome to read how your student initiated a portfolio piece and was able to beautifully articulate her evidence of progress. Isn’t this what we are ultimately aiming for – students taking responsibility for their own learning? I look forward to hearing more ………

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