Learning: A Broader Category Than Education

Over the last several months we have been reading and studying the text, Made for Learning: How the Conditions of Learning Guide Teaching Decisions, by Debra Crouch and Brian Cambourne. We give this book our highest recommendation for every educator. If you would like to join us for a virtual book study, please go here for more information.

The text, Made for Learning: How the Conditions of Learning Guide Teaching Decisions (Crouch & Cambourne, 2020) opens with these words: “Learning is a much broader category than education,” a quote by David N. Perkins from his 2009 publication, Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education (2009). Crouch and Cambourne’s newest book asks educators to examine their own beliefs about theories of teaching and to look for mismatches between theory and instructional practice. While the book focuses primarily on literacy learning, the content easily applies to all areas of learning. The text lays out the Conditions of Learning derived from Brian Cambourne’s research from which you can think more deeply about how theory and practice work together for effective teaching and learning.

Learning is a much broader category than education.

David N. Perkins

Students’ language experiences are a key factor in literacy learning, but an educator’s instructional language can have just as great an impact on a student’s learning. Crouch & Cambourne (2020) note that, “Mismatches between theory and practices often surface and manifest in the language we use in our interactions with our learners.” These types of mismatches create unfavorable conditions in students’ learning environments. To optimize learning conditions, teachers must fully understand their own philosophies for teaching and learning. The authors discuss two types of Discourse, “the theory of the varied relationships within a particular way of… thinking and behaving (Crouch & Cambourne, 2020).”

Discourse of Acquisition

  • Characterized by language and behaviors consistent with the theory that learning is a thing to be done, a task that can be measured. A cycle of teaching and assessment that collect data without moving learning forward. The academic metaphor is that of a vessel needing to be filled.

Discourse of Meaning-Making

  • Characterized by language and behaviors consistent with the theory that all learning is derived by constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing meaning, rather than the belief that meaning is an entity that exists statically. It is often referred to as a constructivist theory. This reframing leads to a conceptual metaphor that “knowledge-building is a continuous process involving human meaning-making, using abstract symbol systems (Crouch & Cambourne, 2020).”

Educators must understand the theories of learning and develop their own understandings. For effective instruction, we must ensure that our teaching behaviors and language are consistent with sound theory and philosophy. The authors refer to this as Discourse, and they call upon us to do our due diligence in learning the theory behind what we do and exude that theory in our day to day practices.

Conditions of Learning

In 1988, Brian Cambourne used his own years of research and data to identify the conditions under which complex learning could thrive. For the next nearly twenty years, Cambourne and his team analyzed the ways in which teachers implemented the the conditions, specifically for literacy instruction. After decades of research and analysis, Cambourne has concluded that one major barrier to optimal complex learning for students is a disconnect or dissonance between teachers’ philosophies and their actions and language in the classroom. “Our discourse, used in both reflection and discussion, greatly impacts the instructional decisions we make. This mismatch in our beliefs and our discourse also communicates mixed messages to the students we teach regarding their purpose in the classroom (Crouch & Cambourne, 2020).”

Our discourse, used in both reflection and discussion, greatly impacts the instructional decisions we make.

Debra Crouch & brian Cambourne

Immersion: allows the learner to understand and approximate within the complete picture of what is to be learned.

Demonstration: allows students plenty of opportunities to know, understand, and apply skills.

Engagement: students understand the importance of what they are learning and to see themselves as “doers.”

Expectation: students develop a belief system of their capabilities based on how they view themselves and the language used by their surrounding educators and significant others.

Responsibility: learners to become independent when educators trust them to make their own learning decisions without dependence on the teacher or others.

Employment: learners have time to to practice and apply their evolving skill development.

Approximation: learners make attempts with the expectation of responses that will honor their approximations and nudge their understanding further.

Response: honest and positive communication between educators and students with no hidden agendas.

In order for the conditions to be effective, Crouch and Cambourne (2020) assert that there are four Processes that Empower Learning that must coexist within and around the Conditions to “support the durability and transferability of what is learned.”

  • Transformation
  • Discussion/Reflection
  • Application
  • Evaluation

Crouch and Cambourne (2020) explain that when the Conditions of Learning are employed with the Processes that Empower Learning, they embody a balanced pedagogy, or a balanced literacy classroom.

Theory of Learning Shapes Instruction

The authors call upon educators to consider developing our understanding of theory, and using it to change our instructional practices and language. They provide the following example of mismatches between philosophy and practice, “…a teacher may say to students, “When you finish your work, you will have time to read your book.” This language positions “reading our book” as something less important than “work.”” When evaluating practices and resources, Crouch and Cambourne ask us to consider the following questions:

  • How does what I’m hearing affect the Conditions of Learning?
  • Does it encourage true engagement or is it based on compliance?
  • Does it offer students space to approximate and take responsibility for decisions leading to meaning-making?
  • Do the demonstrations I’m being encouraged to provide build on the students’ experience of wholes so what is being taught is meaningful?

We must determine which daily experiences are the most meaningful for our students and ensure that those experiences occur every day. Once those experiences are prioritized, we can make decisions about the accompanying physical settings, routines, and instructional language that create the ideal conditions for learning. Crouch and Cambourne (2020) ask us “to be intentional about our linguistic choices and sensitive to the worthwhileness of those who inhabit our learning settings.”

Using the Conditions of Learning

Crouch and Cambourne offer an in-depth look at each Condition and Process and conclude with recommendations on how to use them to examine our teaching decisions and reflect in a meaningful way. Professional exercises of reflection and templates for exploring practices are provided, however, the authors emphasize that there is not a “right” way to use the Conditions for Learning to influence your instruction, rather, “the goal is to strengthen the learning setting by bringing intentionality to decisions that make learning more likely to occur (Crouch and Cambourne, 2020).”

Debra Crouch and Brian Cambourne’s latest book is an essential read for any educator, in-service or pre-service, who is interested in a deep understanding of pedagogy straight from the research and researcher. We strongly encourage educators to develop their beliefs about literacy teaching and learning that are based on sound theory. In an era of teaching products and heated debates, we must do our due diligence when it comes to correlating our philosophy with our practice.


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