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All Learning is Personal

By Dr. Karen L. Taylor
All Learning is Personal

A profound understanding of the conditions necessary for deep learning leads naturally to high quality teaching. Consequently, classroom practice is ideally based on research-informed principles of learning that draw from a wide range of current research in education, cognitive and social psychology, and neurobiology, all of which contribute to deepening our understanding of how human beings acquire and retain knowledge to make meaning of their world.

Ten research-informed principles of learning

  1. Learning occurs at various levels of complexity.
  2. Solving meaningful problems and transferring knowledge across domains contributes to deep learning.
  3. The ability to follow thoughts carefully and control one’s attention are prerequisites for learning.
  4. Making mistakes is a normal, inevitable, and even a fertile part of learning.
  5. Building understanding is enhanced through a culture of thinking.
  6. Cognitive overload causes inefficient, ineffective learning.
  7. Learning occurs in a space where objectives are just beyond but not too far from the learner.
  8. Learning progresses more productively with effective feedback.
  9. Affectively and socially healthy environments promote learning.
  10.  All learning is personal.

Writing this series of articles has pushed me to think deeply and purposefully about recurring themes in the discourse on education today. Perhaps I continue to hold on to certain assumptions about learning and teaching; writing about the learning principles has helped me to understand why that is so.

The diversity of student populations, school cultures, and curricula that exist across the globe is vast, complex, and natural, as each school seeks to meet the needs of its students within a given context (linguistic, cultural, philosophical, and pedagogical). The learning principles may serve to bind us together as educators, despite our differences. They are about what takes place in the classroom, and they inform teaching and learning at every stage of a child’s development. The science behind them may change over time, in which case our practices will need to adapt.  For the moment, though, I hold these things to be true.

Schools are communities of learners consisting of both adults and children, each of whom has the capacity to engage in a meaningful and personally challenging learning journey.

Inclusive pedagogy rests on a fundamental belief in the personal and individualized nature of the learning process. Our professional stance as educators is one that should perceive cultural, linguistic, and neurodiversity not as a problem to overcome, but rather as an opportunity for learning that enriches the experience of both students and teachers. The ultimate aim of which is an education for social justice.

Certain key approaches are central to a commitment to high quality learning and teaching: concept and problem-based learning, mastery learning, transdisciplinary, and visible thinking. Together, these approaches enable students to develop the self-management and metacognitive skills that will help them to become increasingly autonomous and effective agents of their own learning. Although, the concepts of autonomy and agency may be defined differently from one place to another. 

Encouraging students to become independent learners

George Couros offers three reasons why learning is personal:

  1. Each person has their own experiences and acquired knowledge (past).
  2. Each person creates their own connections to content based on the reason mentioned above (present).
  3. What interests each person biases what they are interested in learning moving forward (future).[1]

We often talk about the importance of checking for prior knowledge before delving into a new subject. Doing so allows us to understand where students are in their learning and in consequence to modify our practice to meet their needs. As practitioners, an awareness of the ways in which learning is personal and individual means that we engage in teaching practices that

  • promote self-efficacy in learners,
  • contribute to intrinsic motivation by responding to our students’ natural curiosity and passions,
  • promote student voice and agency,
  • and provide opportunities for metacognitive thinking, self-reflection, and self-assessment.

The Learning Principles serve collectively as reminders of the cognitive processes and environmental and affective factors to which we need to be attentive in order to create the best possible learning environment for children, each of whom we accompany on their own personal learning journey. The Learning Principles do not exist independently of one another; they are both interconnected and interrelated. And, in the end, they come down to five essential elements:

  1. I know my students.
  2. I check to see what they already know and can do before starting something new.
  3. I use diverse resources and pedagogical approaches to support their learning.
  4. I check along the way for their understanding.
  5. I give my students choices in the way they express their learning.

Suggested reading

Akkari, A., & Radhouane, M. (2019). Les approches interculturelles en e´ducation: Entre the´orie et pratique. Presses de l'universite´ Laval.

Bandura, A. (2012). Self-efficacy the exercise of control. Freeman.

Benassi, V., et al. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers college Press.

George. (2016, January 30). 3 Reasons Why All Learning is Personal. Retrieved from

Pajares, F. (1996). Self-Efficacy Beliefs in Academic Settings. Review of Educational Research, 66(4), 543-578. doi:10.3102/00346543066004543

Pintrich, P. R. (2002). The Role of Metacognitive Knowledge in Learning, Teaching, and Assessing. Theory Into Practice, 41(4), 219-225. doi:10.1207/s15430421tip4104_3

Dr Karen L. Taylor is Director of Education and of the Institute of Learning and Teaching, Ecolint

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