Five Core Principles for Effective Learning

I started teaching in 1979, when, as a third year undergraduate student, I was given a 1st year class to teach. Since then I’ve taught thousands of students, designed courses from short courses to Masters degrees and bailed out courses that were in trouble. Over 43 years I have had enormous fun and learned so much from my students. I’ve also learned a lot about teaching.


In this article I am going to discuss the key guiding principles that I have come to hold sacred in teaching. It has taken a lifetime of teaching, huge amounts of reading, observation, experiments on groups of students (but no use of electrodes applied to sensitive body parts) and lots of discussions with colleagues and students alike.

In follow-on articles I’ll cover how to effectively embrace these principles, examine ways in which education screws them up currently and we’ll dive into the particular issues of embracing these principles in different learning environments, from the face-to-face to the online learning world.

Five Principles

Since this is a Manifesto, we must have some guiding principles. Of a vast number of ideas that are important in effective education, I have distilled these down to the five core principles outlined here. I will introduce these five principles in sufficient detail to provide understanding. Then later articles will expand on this presentation, going into much more detail about how they work in practice. So let’s begin.

Unique Learners

This is the first principle. Every individual truly is unique. Yes, when one looks superficially at people we see similarities and the illusion that people are the same. But when you dig deeper, the individual traits emerge.

From a learning perspective, we can get even more specific. Genetics, upbringing and environment will all affect an individual’s learning. While it is unpopular to say so, genetics definitely plays a significant role in intelligence in the broadest sense. Most of the badly named learning disorders, like dyslexia, autism, Asperger’s and such are clearly genetic in origin. They are badly named because I would argue that rather than conditions, they simply represent the diversity in brain structure and function that occur naturally.

Upbringing further impacts on this neurodiversity, by determining how well we make use of what genetics has presented us with, determines how dedicated, confident, willing to make mistakes and learn from them, we are and how open or closed minded we are willing to be. Upbringing feeds into the character traits which have a major effect on our approach to as well as attitudes to learning. Upbringing also influences the early learning we do and thus the foundation on which our later learning is built.

Environment in the broadest sense also feeds into how we approach learning. Environmental factors can be influential in whether existing genetic characteristics are expressed or not. So while I do not accept the claims that vaccines cause autism, I am open to the possibility (note I say possibility only) that some ingredient in some vaccines or an immune response in some people to a vaccine may cause existing genes for autism to express themselves whereas they may have remained dormant otherwise. But environmental factors stretch well beyond this. Childhood traumas can impact neuroplasticity, causing changes in the brain that may not be helpful. This explains why I have seen things like dyslexia suddenly get much worse in an individual. Also the broader Gen-X, Gen-Y type of discussion is really a reflection of environment. If one grew up in an age of print, of radio, or of television or now of pervasive computers there will be major differences in attitudes, preferences and things like attention span. One could argue that widespread consumption of television programming has made people more interested in passive activities, rather than the active construction of one’s own entertainment that might have been required in previous ages.

Combine genetics, upbringing and environment and we get massive variation between people. Then you have to add in existing knowledge and life experience. Students never come to learning as an empty vessel, despite the jokes most teachers make about their students at some time or another. Humans are preprogrammed to learn and so from birth (or before) we are learning about the world. At any age learners have some existing knowledge base to work with. Our existing knowledge is both an asset and a liability for learning, as some prior knowledge is enabling and some is quite disabling.

The currently popular cohort concept in learning is, at best, a possible reflection of some common environmental characteristics in a group of students. But my experience is that cohorts are so massively diverse that I am not convinced it is an overly useful concept.

Learner Preferences

Learning styles is a hugely controversial topic in education, and so I have chosen to discuss it as learner preferences. The concept of learning styles is that individuals learn in different ways. So people get labelled as visual learners or some other style. Much of the controversy about learning styles I believe stems from a tendency to over emphasise things. When you label someone as a visual learner or a practical learner there is an implication that they can only learn in this way. My experience tells me this is never the case.

Experience has shown me that learners do have preferences in the way they learn, and that catering to these preferences provides a more effective learning experience for that person. I’ve also seen people have different preferences for learning method in different domains of knowledge acquisition.

The lesson from learner preferences is twofold: diversity of approach and learner control. Given that learners will have different preferred ways of approaching a topic, it is wise to provide a diversity of learning experiences and methods, and then to allow the learner to decide for themselves how to learn. We’ll have more to say about learner control later, so we will focus on learning experience diversity here.

Since we usually can’t determine in advance which single learning approach will work for a given group of learners, it makes sense to provide choice. Now it is important to understand that you do not need to duplicate a particular piece of learning in every possible learning style. Rather what is needed is choice between at least two, and preferably ones which are quite far apart in approach.

Cognitive Load

Cognitive load is an extremely powerful and yet tricky concept in education design. It refers, naturally enough, to the degree of difficulty in a particular piece of learning, either due to the inherent nature of the subject or to the way it is being presented or worked through.

The powerful nature of cognitive load is that it forces the learning designer to consider the impact of their choices on the learner. This learner-centred viewpoint is critical, and yet is often ignored by people who are too ‘topic centred’. Topic centred learning is too often encountered in university teaching, where the academic is, to be honest, an amateur in teaching (usually with no formal training in teaching) and too time poor to be able to remedy the situation. The effective use of cognitive load entails asking questions like:

  • Have I made this as simple to understand as possible?
  • How much additional information must the learner keep in front of themselves for this to make sense?
  • Is this too large a chunk of information to absorb?
  • Have I focused on only core matters or do I have unnecessary ‘fluff’?

What’s tricky about cognitive load is that learners differ greatly on what cognitive load they can deal with and even what cognitive load causes optimal learning. People differ in the size of their ‘working memory’, how much discomfort they can deal with and with the amount of cognitive load associated with different types of activity, for example. A highly introverted learner might experience a high cognitive load in a collaborative learning activity whilst an extreme extrovert may experience a low load, for example.

Minimising the cognitive load in any given piece of learning is useful. By doing so we have the learning fit within the cognitive load limits of the largest group of learners. We also reduce the fatigue such learning with incur and maximise the speed with which is can occur.

Play with the Comfort Zone

You will hopefully already be familiar with the comfort zone concept. The comfort zone is the area of knowledge we already have, techniques, mental models and ways of thinking that we have achieved sufficient familiarity with, experiences we have absorbed and so on. You are not learning when you are within your comfort zone. Learning only happens when you are outside of it.

The further a learner is from their comfort zone the greater the potential learning, until you push them too far. The too far is the ‘OMG (Oh my God), I can’t deal with this’ response, that causes the learner to rush back inside their comfort zone and put up barriers to what they were trying to learn (or you were pushing on them).

The challenge is that not only do we all differ in how far we can operate from our comfort zone effectively, but that this distance can also vary from day to day, hour to hour and also from topic to topic. This variability, even for a given person, creates a great challenge for the educator. The key to overcoming it lies in the other four core principles.

Learner Control

Much is made in education circles of the difference between adult learners and, one can only presume, non-adult learners. One of the supposed big differences is that adult learners have to be in control of their learning. This implies that child learners do not have to be in control. And this is rubbish. Effective learning only happens when the learner is in control, no matter how old the learner is. Adults may feel more empowered to demand this, but it doesn’t mean that children feel any less strongly about it. Believing this is not the case is one of the big things that are wrong with primary and secondary education of children. It says a lot about how with disempower, disenfranchise, attempt to control and generally treat children as a possession. But we’ll get into that elsewhere and another time.

Since learning, when and if it actually occurs, happens inside the head of the learner, it is only the learner who can control this process. To think otherwise is delusion. Failure to provide this control manifests in various ways, from learning that doesn’t ‘take’, that evaporates like dew on a hot day, to acts of rebellion or plain disengagement.

What Do We Do With This?

In the next article, we will make a start on unpacking this.

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