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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford

How Learning Happens

Leadership Thoughts | Issue #103

The 101st edition of Leadership Thoughts posed the question, what is learning? In response, I outlined a few interpretations and added my perspective. My esteemed colleague and friend, Bea McGarvey, sent me an email emphasizing the importance for other teachers and us to comprehend the learning process.

Bea McGarvey

Bea, alongside Charles Schwahn, wrote the renowned books Inevitable and Inevitable Too. Besides being Executive Director of Education in Portland's Maine Public Schools, Bea was also a Senior Associate at the Robert Marzano Research Laboratory. Not only is she an expert in instruction, but she is an excellent educator and school leader. Bea's message to me included her thoughts on why it is so vital to understand how learning happens. This issue of Leadership Thoughts is honored to present Bea's opinions to you.

"As a teacher – I think it's important for me (and all teachers) to understand how learning happens. Because if I don't understand that, how can I help learners to learn in my role as "learning facilitator?" – Bea McGarvey


Bea's Sharing of Her Thoughts

You've heard me describe the "systems of learning." I use the comparison: we all have systems of the human body, and "being healthy" requires that all those systems operate on all cylinders. If my medical advisors don't understand how those systems of the human body work, how can they accurately guide me to engage in healthy living habits?

So, how DOES learning happen? How do we get new knowledge? Early cognitive scientists provided us educators with two "domains of learning." Remember those? The Cognitive and Affective Domains. As a young educator, I understood that the cognitive domain was about what we wanted the student to get (learn), and the affective domain was about how they felt about themselves as a learner. Like most teachers, I dutifully wrote an objective to satisfy my supervisor, put them on a shelf, and then created activities for my students.

Let me go on. I know you have described my explanations of learning as "taking a graduate course;" however, learning IS complex. And, we teachers do, indeed, need to be experts on "how learning happens." Fortunately, recent cognitive scientists have further defined those two domains…. a gift to anyone who is a facilitator of learning.

To continue with my comparison: Just as healthcare professionals need to understand how the systems of the body function, so do we as educators need to understand the systems of learning . . . and how they function individually and collectively.

The Affective Domain can be broken into two sub-systems: self and meta-cognitive or, using more user-friendly language: attitudes, and habits of mind. These are an integral part of learning – as some of the experts you cited have referenced (values, mindset, etc.). As a teacher, I need to understand what makes for "healthy" attitudes and "healthy" habits of mind AND what I need to know strategies I can use (strategies) if someone (a student) has unhealthy ones.

The Cognitive Domain is a complex system focusing on content knowledge (concepts and skills). Everything has concepts and skills in it. Golf, math, English Lit, cooking, gardening, roller skating, etc..... As a teacher, I must understand what has to happen in the brain for me (or a student) to "learn" a concept or a skill. It's different for each of those . . . touched upon in your "learning, relearning, extending learning" sequence. If I, as a facilitator of learning, don't understand how we learn or acquire a concept or a skill, then . . . here's a tough statement . . . then my interventions are just winging it!!

"Learning" means processing the knowledge we are acquiring . . . processing the concept or skill . . . We "process" knowledge using a taxonomy of thinking (or reasoning): retrieving, comprehending, analyzing, and using. These four levels of processing all include specific complex reasoning processes which can be learned and should be explicitly taught to students.

Good coaches . . . good teachers . . . understand these systems of learning. Often, good teachers and coaches intuitively know how to help students learn. A wise principal once told me, "Teachers need to be literate on why they are doing what they are doing." You see, my health care providers ARE literate on knowing why they are prescribing for me. We need to make what's implicit – explicit.

Well…. that's my two cents.


It's been a long time since I took Ed Psych 101 as an undergrad, and no one has explained how we learn better than you did. Bea, the value of your contribution is worth far more than two cents! I'm grateful that you are willing to share it with the readers of Leadership Thoughts.

I highly recommend taking Bea's course in Quality Instruction at EduPlanet21. She plainly describes the eleven paths to quality instruction.

You can find "Quality Instruction" and other courses developed by Bea can at:


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