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4 counterintuitive concepts about how we learn

4 counterintuitive concepts about how we learn

5 min read
  • The science of learning

The problem: learning takes place in the brains of our pupils. We can’t see it. We can only make inferences based on what our pupils say and do. A faulty understanding of learning means a faulty conception of how we should teach.

In this blog written by Sarah Cottinghatt, we uncover 4 ways learning occurs that run counter to our intuitions. If we understand better how learning works, we can make better decisions about how to teach.

1. Avoid just imitating the experts

It’s tempting to look to the end goal of learning and try to get pupils to imitate that. This would mean describing what an “expert” in a subject does and setting pupils tasks to copy the expert. For example, imitating an artist’s style or practising exam questions before we’ve covered much of the topic. This ignores the learning process experts take to develop their expertise.

I like Daisy Christodoulou’s marathon analogy: you don’t start training for a marathon by running marathons. You eat healthily, you get enough sleep, you do short, fast runs and slower, longer ones. In essence, you build up to running a marathon using activities that don’t look very much like running a marathon at all.

This is the same for our lessons. If the end goal is that pupils can transfer their knowledge across topics, so they can answer exam questions and use this knowledge in the future, then the tasks they need to build this knowledge won’t mirror exam questions, at least not at first.

4 counterintuitive concepts about how we learn

2. Pupils don’t learn what you teach

The meaning pupils make from what you say is a combination of what you say (or at least the bits they attend to) and the relevant knowledge they already have. Each pupil will use at least slightly different knowledge to understand what you say. This means the resultant meaning made by each pupil will be at least slightly different. In other words, once you’ve explained something new to pupils, you have 30 different interpretations sitting in front of you.

Pupils don’t learn what you teach. Pupils learn their interpretation of what you teach.

This means we need to be meticulous about checking pupils’ relevant prior knowledge before we introduce something new, e.g., do they securely understand what symbolism is before I start explaining how the author is using it? I need to link to this secure knowledge and build from it in my explanation, then I need to check again that they have an accurate understanding of what I’ve explained.

Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

3. Performance isn’t the same as learning

This one’s pretty unfair. As teachers, we’re in the learning business but learning can’t be seen and can only be inferred. What do we use to infer learning? The only thing we can: pupil performance (what they say and do). So, to find out that performance may not be a good indicator of learning is pretty inconvenient.

Why might performance not be a good indicator of learning?

Immediate, good performance may look as if pupils have learned what you taught them. But “learning” or at least, the learning we want for our pupils, is a long-term process. This means we have to look for it over the long term. When we have indicators over many lessons and many weeks that pupils understand a concept, then we can start to infer learning.

Moreover, conditions that impair performance in the short term can improve learning in the long term and conditions that make performance improve quickly, often fail to support long-term learning (Bjork & Bjork, 2020). Impair to improve… what could be more counterintuitive?

So, how do we impair performance to promote learning?

At the appropriate time, we can use techniques like retrieval practice (low-stakes testing), spacing (leaving gaps of time between revisiting the material) and interleaving (alternating material/questions from different areas of study). These are dubbed “desirable difficulties” (Bjork & Bjork, 2011) because they make things harder for pupils in the short term (i.e., make performance worse) but may improve long-term learning.

These can be tricky to implement well though, so do look into these further, and considering pupils’ motivation may be important here too.

4. Don’t divorce knowledge from skills

As teachers, we think hard about the important skills we want to teach pupils. This can lead us to teach skills as generic processes. For example, I might teach my pupils a lesson on how to “evaluate” by explaining what it is and giving them a set of steps to take to answer an “evaluate” question. While it’s definitely important that pupils understand what evaluation means and generally what they need to do to exercise this skill, teaching skills as generic processes ignores something really fundamental: skills are us practising using knowledge. The two cannot be divorced. This means I can’t become a good “evaluator” or “analyser” in general. How good I am will depend on my knowledge in that area.

Give this a go:

Evaluate which of the factors affecting the sinking of the Titanic played the most important role.

A general understanding of evaluation and a set of generic steps won’t get you very far without domain-specific knowledge of the factors affecting the Titanic’s sinking. With rich knowledge of this area however, you’ll go far beyond the answer “it hit an iceberg” and produce a far more nuanced response regarding the weather conditions that night, the speed and structure of the ship etc.

These rich, nuance answers are the kinds of responses we want from our pupils. This means we need to steer clear of lessons that treat skills as generic and content ambivalent. Instead, we need to focus on building bodies of knowledge and getting pupils to practise applying this knowledge to develop their understanding.

A big thank you to Sarah Cottingham for writing this blog. Follow her at @SCottinghatt on Twitter (and check out the thread she wrote that inspired this blog and graphic), and read her excellent blogs over at

About the author

Sarah Cottinghatt

Sarah Cottinghatt is a former English teacher with 10 years of experience in education. She now works as an Associate Dean at the Ambition Institute, a national educational charity helping schools to tackle educational disadvantage through teacher and school leader training. She holds a Masters in Educational Neuroscience. Through her blog, Sarah shares evidence-informed practices and valuable resources to engage with the teaching community and foster effective strategies for professional development.

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