The Learning Process


THERE will always be a good deal of mystery about how learning occurs. Concepts are derived, ideas originate, facts are memorized; but the devices that make these things happen vary widely with individuals or even with the same individual under different circumstances. Children can be given hundreds of standardized group tests — there is irony in the fact that these series of tests are called ‘batteries’ — and the net result will be some information about the ability of each individual child so examined to meet the conditions of the test in question. The rating of each child among some thousands of other children of his age in this particular ability can be so determined. But, though these results may help the teacher to question the efficacy of his own work or to believe in it, they do not tell us very much about how children learn. They tell us that certain children can or cannot do these specific things at this time. They do not tell us what has led to success or failure, or how vastly any one child differs in mental qualities and scope from his neighbor who has an identical record on the same test. Although individual tests are far more descriptive, and although certain recently devised group tests indicate specific powers more clearly, the real nature of the act of learning eludes measurement.

Teachers have very little chance to become complacent, for if they notice children at all they realize with devastating clarity how much that is taught is not learned, and how much that is learned is not taught by those paid to teach. Webster’s initial definition of a pedagogue as ‘a slave who attended his master’s sons to and from school’ will always have a special point for the teacher who has faced his job squarely enough to notice the humor of his own position. He will realize that although he is frequently present while learning occurs he has often been more like an interested bystander than a chief agent.

The nature of each child, his energies, his doubts, his enthusiasms, his emotional balance and reserve, all have influence upon his learning. The quality of family life, the type of daily routine in which the child lives, his relations with his teacher, and what he makes out of his experiences, create the setting for learning. Trivial subject matter may frustrate excellent teaching, but subject matter which has beauty, depth, and relation to life or to ideas, can sometimes reach across a wilderness of poor teaching to a child’s mind. However, for one who can learn despite barrenness in the leaching there are many who slip away from learning because no illumination of thought has occurred.

When learning turns into unintelligible drudgery, it usually ceases to be productive. Learning does not occur easily or casually; it requires discipline, careful direction, and hard work. But when work is related to meaning, the result is a motion towards something definite and a deepening of discipline. The teacher who understands little of the logic, quality, and intrinsic discipline of his subject, or who is unable to translate these faithfully into terms that can be dealt with by the children in his classes, will be bored by his own teaching. If his relation to his subject is superficial, the children will not be enlisted, since learning depends partly upon a contagion of thought from one person to another.

With so many forces at play in the process of learning, it is evident that a group of teachers working together in a school must themselves always continue to learn. Otherwise the children will be submitted to patches of information and rules of order, instead of being brought to the experience of learning. They will meet the obvious external requirements of the school, but will find ways of withdrawing mentally from school in order to live their real lives elsewhere.

A child in school, and at home, is a whole person and not a collection of separate receptacles into which are deposited various units of habit, discipline, skill, and subject matter. There is an important corollary of this fact: that learning is an affair of the entire personality. If you listen to any young child’s questions about the things he deals with, or about the nature of the universe, you cannot fail to see that his curiosity of mind, his zest for knowledge and for experience, are part of his being. To see this, and to direct these superb energies without letting them become dimmed or scattered, is part of the job of a school.


A second-grade class, of children between seven and eight years of age, had been studying about weather in their science work. It is easy to see how the questions of what air is and what it can do would arise in such a study. A dishpan full of water and a tumbler were brought into the classroom. The glass was pushed down into the pan, bottom side up, and the children saw that it remained empty and that it bobbed up to the surface when someone’s hand stopped pressing it down. They noticed that when the glass was immersed upside down it remained empty, but that when it was tilted a little from this position large bubbles began coming to the surface of the water. The more it was tilted the more air escaped, until, when it lay on its side in the water, it was full of water and no more bubbles appeared. Why did the inverted glass remain empty of water though the water covered it? What were these bubbles and what made them come?

The next day two glasses were used. One was filled with water and the other with air, and both were submerged. The air was passed from one glass to the other, and the children saw that it displaced the water in the second glass and that water took its place in the first glass. What was happening here? Why? Can air move water out of the way? As each child repeated the process the others watched and discussed it.

As they continued with simple experiments of this sort, the romantic approach was beginning to give way to a secure body of facts and to the ideas arrived at through those facts. Their questions reached a clearer focus, and in order to find the answers they were now ready to use apparatus in a workmanlike way. Each child was given a pan of water, some straight and crooked glass tubes, and tumblers. Each one thought out his own experiment and tried it out for himself. Then all the children listened while one member after another explained his plan, and they watched while each carried on his brief experiment before them. The experiments varied greatly, but included such things as blowing downward through a tube toward the pan of water ‘to make a hollow’ in the surface of the water, and blowing through a bent tube into a submerged inverted glass of water ‘to make the water in the glass go down.’ The fact that air has certain properties was now apparent to them, and they realized that even though one cannot see it one can see what it does.

Other forms of evidence were found. Scraps of paper were let go at different heights and were watched as they fluttered to the floor. As one piece was made into a wad and fell without fluttering, a child remarked that it was like the experiment done a long time before when the class was finding out why boats float, and two pieces of tinfoil were moulded, one into a tight wad and one into an open boat-shape, and the first one sank and the second floated.

Throughout this study the teacher had done very little talking. The children had been given plenty of time to work with materials. They assembled facts for themselves, asked questions, and repeated experiments until some of their questions were answered and until they understood as much as seven-year-olds can be expected to understand of the scientific concepts contained within the facts. They had avoided that pseudo-knowledge which often results from purely verbal teaching. The teacher thinks she has explained things clearly, and the seven-year-old, with fatal facility of memory, recites to the teacher the words she has just spoken to him. For the time being no one is the wiser. The teacher is unaware that the child understands little of what he is saying; the child sees that he has said something acceptable, and does not realize that its meaning has eluded him. These children who worked with the tumblers and tubes, however, could not have made this slip of understanding, for they observed the facts before they stated them in words. They made their own explanations, the accuracy of which was carefully checked by the teacher. When a child gave a false or inadequate explanation, he went back again to observe the facts.

Inability to master what high-school students could about such a topic is no reason for depriving seven-year-olds of the chance to discover what they can about the natural phenomena surrounding them. They can study these phenomena directly. When facts are garnished ‘to make them appeal to children,’ or ‘to make learning easier,’ the facts are obscured and the children are needlessly confused. When, however, children are permitted to learn directly from the facts, and when the sequence of their learning is guided, their natural curiosity is kept alive. They continue to learn by experiment, checking their conclusions with concrete evidence. As they grow older they find more and more of the relationships within the facts they study, until a background of knowledge and a way of thinking become slowly and surely established.


Ideas can be as real to children as are the things they see and handle. Long before they are ready to meet the term ‘ratio,’ for instance, children are able to deal with the relationship which it describes. The thing that often bewilders them in the learning of abstractions is the fact that most of us teachers habitually thrust the label for an idea upon our pupils before they have had a chance to learn what the idea is. Mathematics particularly suffers from this fallacy in teaching. Its content is so formalized and its manipulation is so clearly established that to be very busy about memorizing tables and doing examples may easily become the chief aim for teacher and pupils as well.

There are two frequent pitfalls. If the idea is presented only in the shape of a formula with required practice, it is likely to remain unidentified with children’s thinking. Or if it is buried under a turmoil of practical classroom activities, organized ‘to make mathematics real,’ the children are likely to spend all their energies in the detail of practice.

They thus remain enmeshed either in the processes or in the incident, without meeting the reality of the concept which controls both. In both these circumstances mathematics is relegated to the position of tool subject, and its quality of thought is missed. Children need at first to deal with a very limited number of mathematical facts, thinking about them in various ways and using many forms of evidence. When they approach learning in this way, they become able to perceive the idea embedded in the facts they study, and later to think in terms of the idea.

In the fifth-grade arithmetic class the children first became familiar with the idea of fractions through dividing actual lines, surfaces, and volumes into equal parts, and through noticing this type of equal division in all sorts of things with which they were acquainted, such as windows, floors, and football fields. Next, in order really to understand equalities among fractions, they must come to see the distinction between form and quantity. To present this clearly the teacher drew a number of small squares all the same size on the blackboard. One after another the children went to the board, each one dividing one of those squares into halves in a different way. Then they were asked to consider how many such equal divisions are possible. The replies soon reached a high figure — hundreds, thousands, millions — until finally with the triumph of certainty someone declared, ‘There’s no number! You could go on dividing them forever!’

The children who had come to see this distinction between form and quantity — that the shapes may differ endlessly, while the amount or size remains the same — had encountered a very important idea. After some discussion and explanation by the teacher, the whole class began to see this idea more clearly. Each incident of this sort helped to determine for them the importance of mathematics. They might find it difficult or puzzling, and at times tiresome, but not insignificant. They enjoyed testing out the idea in examples of all sorts, from their own experience, wherein quantity remains the same but form differs: a dime and two nickels; a yard and three feet; a quart and two pints — and so on. They were then ready really to understand how 1/2 can equal 2/4 or 50/100, and they could work with fractions with a sense of what they indicate.

If they had approached this point only through memory work and practice, the net result from such procedure would have been confusion and anxiety, or the mere manipulation of symbols, rather than learning. If practice is introduced too soon, before its meaning is clear, it often becomes merely a game of chance, and the integrity of learning is endangered. It is through much repetition of experience directed by the teacher, rather than through much memorizing of formulas and devices, that the ideas finally begin to be clear to children. From that time the daily practice with the symbols of these ideas becomes not only a process intelligible to children, but an important phase of their learning.


Children fourteen years old are on the margin of adult living. They want to know what makes people behave as they do, and what is at the root of questions that concern the adults of their own day. Yet they feel very inexperienced, and often evade the questions which command their interest, lest they expose their inadequacy. The teacher of ninth-grade English devoted part of the year’s English course to something which would place a contemporary problem against historical background, and which would help the children to see that most contemporary questions are the current phases of problems that have existed in human society for a very long time, and that they are surrounded with complex social implications. A six or seven weeks’ study was organized around a general topic, which involved consideration of the individual in relation to authority. The class read together a number of things: the Constitution of the United States and its Amendments, in order to get some idea of what our government expects from the individual and offers to him; a large part of the court record of the trial of Jeanne d’Arc; Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, and part of the Preface; and the Trial of Socrates. The Latin teacher, who joined the English teacher and the class in many of the discussions, at the same time read with them in Latin from the Vulgate the account of the trial of Jesus before Pilate. Individual members of the class worked on special topics. Some of the subjects for these were taken from literature, such as the analysis of a part of Milton’s Areopagitica; some were taken from current affairs, such as an inquiry about control of broadcasting in the United States and in Great Britain.

Current issues which were related to this general idea were discussed. News clippings describing specific events were brought in, and in studying them the class attempted to discriminate between those which were highly tinged with editorial opinion and those which confined themselves to the statement of fact. Many questions came up in the course of the study upon which information was wanted. Some of these questions, as formulated by the children, were: How have the laws on freedom of the press and of speech in the United States differed in times of peace and in times of war? How do our laws on these subjects differ from those of other countries? May advertisers make false statements about their own or competitors’ goods without having legal action brought against them by the state? Have we had wartime censorship of the press? May soap-box orators say anything they want to? Do our laws specifically discriminate against foreigners or special groups? Would it be possible in the United States for one political party to control all speeches printed in the press or broadcast during a campaign? Does truth constitute a sure defense in a libel suit?

The class organized these questions under several main headings and referred them to one of the parents, a lawyer who had made a special study of such matters. He came to class two or three times and discussed some of the questions with the children from the point of view of lawmaking, law enforcement, and the rights and obligations of the individual in a commonwealth.

In the process of the work the children learned a good deal about how to find information from varied sources. They had practice in the use of both primary and secondary sources, in assembling material systematically for study, in careful definition, in note making and outlining, and in expository writing with subject matter that was not easy. They analyzed new situations for their known and unknown content. They started an acquaintance with certain living documents. They wrestled with a good many incidents in the search for the ideas within them. Although, at fourteen, they could not fully assimilate certain of these ideas, they perceived them and established a basis for later encounters.

They realized some of the reasons why human affairs are not capable of the same clear-cut definitions, with the same visible consistency of application, that is true of mathematical principles. Looking back upon their own dealings with each other as younger children, they identified some of the motives beneath their behavior. They were then able to consider some of their present actions with the same kind of discernment, a problem much more difficult for fourteenyear-olds. They began to see that objective thinking comes hard to the human race, and that motives are often wrapped up in formulas which have little to do with the case: Socrates was ‘corrupting the youth’; Jesus was ‘destroying the law’; Jeanne was ‘a heretic.’ They watched three great and courageous persons coping with the forces that were out to defeat them.

Complex human situations make a difficult laboratory for learning. The sequence of learning is less apparent in such a field than in mathematics, science, or a foreign language. Yet the essential elements are present. The children may be comparing the conditions of travel, employment, or community life in the time of the ancient Greeks or the time of the American pioneers with what they know of these conditions to-day. They may be trying to find out why the settlement of this continent proceeded geographically as it did. As they study these things they observe facts and find relationships. They learn a systematized technique. And there are vivid moments when concepts are unearthed, such as the influence of the character of the land in determining the life of the people upon it, or such as the idea of the heroic as it is seen in the Iliad, in the journal of an American family crossing the plains in a covered wagon, and in some aspect of twentieth-century life.

It is in complex human situations that a person must work throughout life. Children’s learning may well be concerned, therefore, in part with the questions of how people have struggled to solve the problems of society. Such learning may help them to realize that human affairs demand much from the individual — intelligence, imagination about other people, and self-direction toward purposes beyond the self— and that as far as matters of life are concerned the evidence is never fully assembled.


Imposed competition, the more one thinks about it, seems to clutter learning unnecessarily. It is an oblique rather than a direct approach. It is unrealistic in that it takes too little cognizance of growth or circumstance. Comparison is a universal mental habit, and there is probably no adult society in which forms of competition have not evolved. But the difference between competing, as an adult, for more responsibility or salary or opportunity within one’s own field, and competing, as a child, for a moroccobound book as a recognition for one’s skill in a year’s course in algebra, is immense. Intellect and character, though they may develop in a setting of awards and prizes, have a way of finding their own channels and their own rewards.

A confusion seems to exist about the nature of the will and the intellect in relation to learning. A fainting will can be momentarily revived, or a weak one kept going, by means of external stimuli. But it is doubtful whether either the will or the intellect is changed for the better when subjected to the prize system. The will, thus aroused, is likely to attach itself to the idea of winning rather than to the idea of learning. For the faculty’s purposes a school naturally needs a system of grading and a system of records, but the systems thus far devised are clearly inadequate as the chief basis for judging the individual. Children must be kept informed regularly of their progress, in the terms of the work they are doing. But a school cannot measure a child’s mental ability and achievement in terms which can be used accurately for organized intellectual competition. When a school uses a system of public grading and prize giving as the chief energizing factor in its pupils’ work, confusion of values seems almost inevitable.

To enlist children’s attention and will directly toward the growth of their understanding seems more relevant to the facts and to the encouragement of learning. And this is usually possible. Occasionally one finds a child who has lost his self-confidence so long ago that all effort seems to him impossible, or a child for whom no facts or ideas seem to have any interest or value whatever, or a child who is totally unable to look objectively at his own progress. Such children must for a time be shown, daily or weekly, a chart of their own progress. But these same children might easily be prostrated at that time by having their relative academic standing publicly announced or exhibited. The terms of such a comparison are inaccessible to them. They have some basis for competing with their own work of the previous week, but they have no clear basis for intellectual competition with their neighbor, who is a different person altogether.

The sooner children can learn, with the teachers’ help, to recognize their own difficulties, the more likely are they to lend their own will power to the business of solving them. The intrusion of prizes into this simple situation adds an element of chance which obscures the facts of growth, of legitimate individual differences, and of the subject studied. It diverts the attention from the real object. Children who from the start are shown over and over again the relation of facts to ideas and the relation of their own way of work to its outcome begin to discover for themselves the discipline of their studies. It is then that the teacher’s insistence upon accuracy and thoroughness in work is convincing to the children and secures their best efforts.

Their energies are more available for learning when the setting is orderly than when it is confused. Order is a convenience which must not be denied to children, and when the idea of it is clearly accepted in a school each person in it not only thinks and works better, but is likely to show more consideration for his neighbor. When order becomes an end in itself for a school administration, it is often enforced in ways so untrue to children’s ways of living that it becomes incomprehensible to them and by its very rigidity impedes their learning. Vagueness has, however, a worse effect than rigidity upon a school community. If children are not given a fairly clear understanding as to what is expected of them, they become easily tormented by a sense of chaos or of injustice. When that occurs they sometimes lose all sense of balance about people and about regulations. They fail to see any connection between the needs of the school and a rule. They consider its enforcement an unreasonable use of power by a grownup, and therefore they feel free to evade or resist such enforcement.

If the school’s requirements are reasonable, and if mutual trust and mutual enjoyment exist between teachers and children, the teachers’ authority is likely to be accepted as part of the whole business of living. Such a relationship makes it possible for children, even when an issue appears which they cannot at the moment understand, to carry on their affairs in good faith because the total life of the school makes sense to them. Since they can see that the teacher is initiated where they are not, and that he has the authority of longer experience, they are not likely to consider him an alien intruder. Moreover, they can also see that, either in the development of specific mental powers or in the education of a person as a member of society, the discipline of facts and of ideas is a discipline to which grownups and children alike submit, and through which they learn.

This is the first of a series of papers on the progressive methods in secondary education. The November issue will contain an article by M. E. Herriot describing the advance in the junior high schools and one by Edwin R. Embree marking the improvement in the rural schools.—THE EDITORS