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What is Learning Anyway?

With the start of the school year fast approaching comes a time for reflection about learning in all its facets. Amidst the back-to-school prep and lesson planning lies the shared parent-educator goal of promoting a smooth return to the classroom. But what is learning anyway?

In their seminal article, Alexander, Schallert, & Reynolds (2009) characterize learning as falling along four dimensions: what, where, who, and when. This perspective may be linked to best practices in education to promote more meaningful home-school-community collaboration.

  • This definition of learning challenges the historical over-emphasis on the what of learning. Our classrooms are becoming increasingly dynamic, so student needs can be best matched to the instructional methods implemented. Inquiry-based learning offers a bi-directional relationship between learners and the learning process. Students take agency over their learning by formulating questions, investigating topics, and drawing conclusions. The interactive nature of inquiry encourages a two-way flow of information between students and their learning environment, promoting deeper understanding and skill development.

  • The where of learning highlights the importance of the environmental and ecological contexts in which learning occurs. In the context of BC’s revised curriculum, place-based learning may be integrated with Big Ideas to foster holistic and authentic educational experiences. Students may engage with important overarching concepts in the curriculum while drawing connections between their learning and the unique characteristics of their local environment, community, and culture. This approach encourages students to apply their knowledge in real-world contexts, promoting a deeper understanding of both subject matter and their surroundings.

  • The who of learning reflects the nature of the learner. Person-centred planning is an approach that tailors goals and plans to an individual's unique preferences, needs, and aspirations. It focuses on involving the person in defining their own objectives, promoting empowerment and a sense of ownership in the goal-setting process. This approach is essential to successful and affirming individualized education planning for our neurodivergent learners.

  • The when of learning requires careful consideration of the optimal times of day and required levels of maturation to benefit from instructional experiences. By aligning instruction with an individual's neurodevelopmental needs, prior knowledge, and cultural and linguistic diversity, we can promote more inclusive practices for all learners.

Finding consilience – unity of knowledge – across all four dimensions of learning may be key to connecting research on learning to the educational practices and policies of the future.

Happy September Start-Up!

Harkiran Thandi, M.Ed., Assessment Clinician

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Harkiran has extensive experience providing therapeutic intervention to children and adolescents of diverse abilities in school, community, and home environments as a behaviour interventionist, applied behavioural analysis support worker, and program manager. Harkiran currently works as a Certified School Psychologist in a public School District. For more information, please check her profile here


ALEXANDER, P. A., SCHALLERT, D. L., & REYNOLDS, R. E. (2009). What is learning anyway? A topographical perspective considered. Educational Psychologist, 44(3), 176–192. doi:10.1080/00461520903029006


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