What happens when we learn?

Joining together biological and social research on the effects of environment and nutrition on the body and the effects of social and institutional processes on children’s school experiences and outcomes has made me think more about learning. This has made me think that shared meanings, gene expression, electrochemical signals, the everyday of the classroom, and a sense of self are actually all part of one phenomenon that is learning.

In the media and in policy the emphasis is on students’ performance in tests, taken at set points in their education, and this can easily leave us thinking that learning and how we do on tests is the same thing. But test performance is only what a student does in that test, on the day of that test. It might say something about what they have learnt, the limits of what they know and can do, but it might not. Test performance can only speak to what the test itself allows for as knowledge or skills. And it is not the learning itself.

In my own sociological work on how students come to be seen by teachers and themselves as ‘good learners’, I have paid close attention to the nuances of everyday life in classrooms, looking especially at how meanings stick to particular sorts of people and activities. This tells us a lot about how students are included (or not) in classrooms, and why some students are thought of and think of themselves as good learners, but it doesn’t tell us much about what happens when we learn.

In education research, ideas about learning as gaining skills and knowledge have been replaced by ideas that try to account for all sorts of social influences on learning. The revolutionary educator Paolo Friere criticised education based on ‘banking’ important information in the minds of learners. He saw learning as tied up with the social, economic and political situation that learners are in. This led him to think of learning as ‘conscientization’ –learner coming to see and understand their situation and generate strategies for engaging with and transforming it.

Friere’s revolutionary project has slipped from most education theories of learning, but the idea that the local and wider situation is important remains. These theories often suggest a complex interplay of social, personal and educational factors that influence learning. Yrjo Engerstrom’s activity theory offers a useful example where rules, community, the division of labour, and the symbolic mediate the sense that is made to the thing to be learnt by the learner – seen Engerstrom. As does Etienne Wenger’s, where learning takes place in, and makes, ‘communities of practice’ and identity, community, practice and and meaning come together – see wenger.

These models of learning make sense to me – learning is part of experience and doing, it is part of our belonging and who we are becoming, and shared meanings are crucial. But this still doesn’t quite tell us what happens when we learn.

Reading epigenetic research on the way environmental influences effect the way genes are expressed, and so how the cells of the body function, has led me to some unexpected work on learning. In epigenetics the nature of the question and its answer is quite different. We find learning taken to be the making of memory, and memory taken as the biochemical changes in the brain that occur when something is learnt. As we can’t take tissue samples from human brains while they learn, epigenticists set up experiments in which model animals (rats, mice or flies) learn and then the animal is killed so that its brain tissue can be examined. When rats learn fear of/in a new environment by being given an electric shock the learning shows up in their brain tissue – David Molfese shows how histones (that DNA is stored around) in certain parts of the brain are differently methylated (turned off and on). Strange, fascinating, and a long way from a ‘community of practice’. In neuroscience, Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI scanning) is used to identify learning inside the brain as it happens. For instance, work by Kim Sharpiro and colleagues showing how working memory activates particular regions of the brain as identified in fMRI.

These are only some, albeit important, approaches to thinking about and identifying learning. So do we have to choose an account? Or can I put them together?

What happens if I claim that all of these might be true at the same time? Learning is an interaction between a person and a thing; it is embedded in ways of being and understanding that are shared across communities; it is influenced by the social and cultural and economic conditions of lives; it involves changes to how genes are expressed in brain cells because it changes the histones that store DNA; it means that certain parts of the brain are provoked into electrochemical activity; and it relies on a person being recognised by others, and recognising themselves, as someone who learns. And if I am going this far, then it makes sense to suggest that these might be interacting with each other – shared meanings, gene expression, electrochemical signals, the everyday of the classroom, and a sense of self are actually all part of one phenomenon that is learning.