Teachers’ Beliefs and Philosophies – What is Learning?

What is Learning? This question has many answers, as it is rarely explicitly defined for or by teachers.

“Learning … that reflective activity which enables the learner to draw upon previous experience to understand and evaluate the present, so as to shape future action and formulate new knowledge” (Abbott, in National School Improvement Network, 2002, p1)

Carnell and Lodge (2002), define the conceptions of learning. These are widely echoed in professional circles; these are what the learner is doing while learning is happening:

  • Getting more knowledge;
  • Memorising and reproducing;
  • Applying facts or procedures;
  • Understanding;
  • Seeing something in a different way;
  • Changing as a person (Marton et al., 1993; Saljo, 1979).

In today’s teacher culture, two schools of thought exist, one which concentrates its attention on content (traditionalist) and the other which puts greater emphasis upon skills (progressive). It is easy to visualise the above points 1-4 being achieved by the sole transmission of knowledge. Where in achieving points 5 and 6 learners will have to embrace the learning and deconstruct/construct their lens and identity as a result. Points 5 and 6 will have to involve a change in the pupils epistemological and ontological stances; pupil reactions will not be addressed in this assignment. I would also point out that teachers will have to be flexible enough in their lens to allow for this to happen.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization UNESCO (1996) define the purpose of education as:

  • learning to know;
  • learning to do;
  • learning to live together;
  • learning to be.

It is difficult to see how the third and fourth points, learning to be and learning to live together can be achieved solely through the transmission of knowledge. The first two points can be, and historically have been, taught in the classroom through a traditionalist approach.

Learning to ‘know’ and ‘do’ are essential, knowing is not necessarily based around the acquisition of academic knowledge, the knowledge that we have already is constantly growing and evolving (Carnell and Lodge 2002 p.8). Consequently, the learning to do is the ability to be flexible and to learn and work with others that is increasingly being required.’ (ibid. p. 9).

Models of Teaching: Reception to Co-Construction

Historically teaching has been based on a system of depositing knowledge from teacher to student, Freire refers to this as banking. Teachers are the bank of knowledge that student that withdraws from and incorporate this knowledge into their balance. Banking has and is taught through a didactic method of lecture, dictation and direction.

Do teachers and adults favour this method of learning? There are various examples of non-didactic teacher/sage led models of knowledge transmission in our society: The offside rule, how to play a computer game? How to build IKEA flatpack, etc. As adults, actually, as humans, in my experience, we rarely reach for the instructions. We construct between our interaction between ourselves and our tools, even when wholly stumped personally rather than follow rote instructions I am more likely to reach out to another human being for help, reaching for an opportunity to co-construct together.

‘Cognitive constructivism suggests that everything individuals learns is due to the mental schemes we construct as we interact with our environment’ (Schunk, 2016, in Black and Allen, 2018).

It could be argued that those people who would reach for the instructions first and foremost are also utilising the social interaction between author and reader and hence a social act. Black and Allen 2017 concludes that ‘learning is also almost always a social act’. (Black and Allen, 2017)

‘effective reading of texts as finding meaningful connections within the text that the author is trying to communicate to the reader, or between the author’s expressions to the reader and the knowledge the reader already possesses.’

(Kintsch 1986, in Black and Allen 2017)

I’d suspect in the reception/traditionalist model of an expert to novice, and the natural preference is towards the other pole of the spectrum (developed from Carnell and Lodge 2011).

Where Piaget explains that children form schema as fundamental building blocks of learning, these then interact with their experiences and environment to cement development — through assimilation, using schemata on a new entity, accommodation, adapting schema, equilibration where new schemata are formed as a result of the new entity being unable to be assimilated or accommodated. Assimilation and accommodation are rarely completed without the aid of the environment and people around children. (Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development, 2018)

“To do this (a generality of knowing), teachers need to be able to channel pupils thinking in ways that relate to contexts beyond schools and schooling, classrooms and classroom culture. They need not only to understand the concepts and skills they are trying to develop but also how they relate to broader inter-connected frameworks that are not limited by the boundaries of the curriculum or school.” (Twiselton 2002)

Learning leads to use outside the classroom but also it is intrinsically linked to the learning process within the classroom. This point is echoed by Dennison and Kirk who describe four elements in a learning process, drawing on the model by Kolb and Biggs and Moore (National School Improvement Network, 2002, p1)

‘This cycle highlights activity in learning (Do), the need for reflection and evaluation (Review), the extraction of meaning from the review (Learn), and the planned use of learning in future action (Apply). (ibid.  p1)

(ibid.  p1)

The ‘apply’ falls firmly in the realm of constructivism and co-constructivism. Learning is not confined to the four walls of the classroom it is ‘applied’ within the classroom context and the school and wider contexts. This is even echoed by traditionalist classicists who believe that race is a predeterminer for IQ and success. ‘Surely, one could not learn any cognitive skill, such as learning a native or foreign language, without environmental support. Even in Indeed, the most ardent classicists contend that heritability for intelligence lies between .40 and .80. Assuming this range is accurate, that leaves between 20% and 60% of cognitive ability to be explained by other factors, presumably environmental.’ (Herrnstein & Murray, in Onwuegbuzie and Daley 2001. P213)

My current work is primarily with adults, adult education, andragogy, is generally centred around the learning, the learning ‘to live’ and ‘be’ and as a result generally constructivist in its nature.

‘A key attribute of andragogy is self-directed learning, defined by Knowles (1975) as a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes. (Blaschke 2012)’

If we are to train teachers to teach pupils to be able to adapt in a future global economy; we must move to a more heautagogical model of education, where the aim is to develop capability as opposed to competency (traditionalist to constructivist) for the learner to self-direct and to engage in double-loop learning in both teachers and learners. (Blaschke 2012)

Double-loop learning has its parallels to Kolb’s cycle where learners do, review and apply but with the addition of a second loop in where the learning process changes/impacts the learner’s beliefs and actions for this to happen the learner has to be aware of their original stance.

A key concept in heutagogy is that of double-loop learning and self-reflection (Argyris & Schön, 1996, as cited in Hase & Kenyon, 2000). In double-loop learning, learners consider the problem and the resulting action and outcomes, in addition to reflecting upon the problem-solving process and how it influences the learner’s own beliefs and actions. Double-loop learning occurs when learners “question and test one’s personal values and assumptions as being central to enhancing learning how to learn” (Argyris & Schön, 1978, as cited in Hase, 2009, pp. 45-46).

Moving from Reception to Co-Construction 

There has been a movement towards two further models of constructivism and co-constructivism. Where meaning and knowledge are constructed from one’s experience, co constructivist like the name suggests meaning is constructed within a social dynamic.

Examples of where the models are used,

Reception ModelConstruction ModelCo-construction Model
Terminal examinations GCSE/A Level



National Curricula

Formative Assessment


Research Activities

Investigative activities

Problem- Solving dialogue between;


Dialogue between learners and learners.



Investigative activities

Problem- Solving dialogue between;

Dialogue between learners and learners

Carnell and Lodge 2011

Earlier, I described the activities within a spectrum of reception to co-constructivist where these two models are at the poles, where the teacher is seen as a facilitator at one end and the other end a holistic guide.

To construct and co-construct schema is a function of humanity, to find meaning in the context of the individual’s whole experience. Sugata Mitra’s project found that Indian pupils learned to construct meaning and learning and picked up a foreign language with no external support in various rural locations.

Sugata Mitra 2013, set up a computer in a hole in a wall and left and returned hours, weeks and months later,

‘And I went away. About eight hours later, we found them browsing and teaching each other how to browse. So I said, “Well that’s impossible, because — How is it possible? They don’t know anything.”‘

In an irritated voice, they said, “You’ve given us a machine that works only in English, so we had to teach ourselves English in order to use it.” (Laughter) That’s the first time, as a teacher, that I had heard the word “teach ourselves” said so casually.

Learners actually picked up a language, albeit with mispronunciations, through constructing a schema through their experience, in Mitra’s TED talk, he described learners first constructing and then co-constructing meaning together. They had utterly skipped the need for the reception model and the need for a sage on the stage.

Learning is a cognitive and a constructive act. That is, people actively build meaning as they learn. This perspective on how people learn is known as individual cognitive constructivism and is based on Piaget’s cognitive development theory. (Miller 2010 in Black 2017).


References will be included at the end of the series.

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