What do we Mean by Pedagogy?Characterising learning (part 2)

‘One cannot begin to understand the true nature of human learning without embracing its interactional complexity.’ (Alexander et al, 2009: 176)

Alexander et al (2009) attempt to create a series of criteria which together characterise learning. From these principles, they then try to outline the dimensions of learning within which they argue the principles operate. One crucial part of their argument is the notion that no single theory of learning has created a fully adequate representation of learning. They identify nine foundational principles of learning:

1 Learning is change – this is inherent in learning, but has a number of possible characteristics, so can occur at group or social level as well as individual, and can be from the obvious to the imperceptible and can occur over a number of different time scales.

2 Learning is inevitable, essential and ubiquitous – to be alive is to learn as it is an inevitable process, and is also essential if we are to survive as individuals. We learn wherever we are, ‘the processes of learning are in operation whenever and wherever humans are situated.’ (178)

3 Learning can be resisted – Humans can resist learning, perhaps due to a lack of effort/interest, or from a fear of failure. If learning might lead to cognitive, social or cultural dissonance there can be also be a resistance to learning.

4 Learning may be disadvantageous – Learning can be a negative process, for example, learning how to disrupt the efforts of others, or how to cheat. Also, disadvantageous learning can take different forms, for example the learner might wish they hadn’t learned something (e.g. how veal is reared and produced), whilst in other cases, the learner might see their learning as positive even though it might have negative impacts (e.g. excessive use of social media).

5 Learning can be tacit and incidental – Much of our learning falls into the category, particularly outside of formal educational settings. This can include much of first language learning, especially in the early stages, and contextual learning.

6 Learning is framed by our humanness – learning is framed by our neurobiology, but varied between individuals leading to variation in our learning capabilities.

7 Learning is both process and product – As a process, learning is something which happens over time, whilst product is the durable change which occurs as a result of the process. Formal assessment and much research tends to focus on the product. ‘Indeed, much research in which the focus is only on learning as a product may oversimplify our conception of the learning process.’ (180) However, the same bias can occur if we only focus on the process.

8 Learning is different at different points in time – Change occurs over time, and learning is affected by where the learner is in the process. For example, the what and how of learning by young children is different to adults in part as the level or iteration and recursivity is different.

9 Learning is interactional – Learning is shaped by biological, social and cultural factors which interact in a dynamic environment. ‘Learners are influenced by, and at the same time push back, take from, change, control, and create the environment in which learning is situated.’ (180)

These principles interact to give the basis for learning, and show a complex mixture of biological, cognitive, social and cultural dynamics to the process and product of learning. However, in addition to these principles, Alexander et al argue that four dimensions of learning set the context for the principles, the ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘who’ and ‘when’ of learning.

The what of learning – Learning always focuses on something. It can be a simple focus, or a more complex one, and generally speaking as the what is developed over time, it becomes more complex. Take as an example, any academic subject, which becomes increasingly detailed, complex and abstract as expertise develops. The what includes both the process and product of learning and the increasing intricacy involved is defined as interactive complexification.

The where of learning – this is the ecological context of learning. It includes the physical, social and cultural contexts of learning and can be critical to the process of learning. In some cases, the where can lead to problems of learning becoming ‘contextually restricted

The who of learning – This covers the characteristics of the learner, the biological, cognitive, experiential and affective (including motivational) factors which are important in both the process and product of learning.

The when of learning – This emphasises the importance of time and flow of experiences in learning. Different elements of learning are most pertinently explained over different time frames, from the evolutionary to short term individual.

What the principles and dimensions of learning discussed by Alexander et al demonstrate is that learning is multi-faceted, and cannot be collapsed into a simple process, such as seeing it as synonymous with memory. As they state:

‘objects of learning become increasingly more complex and….the processes and products of learning mirror that growing complexity.’ (185-186)

This leads to the following definition of learning:

‘Learning is a multidimensional process that results in a relatively enduring change in a person or persons, and consequently how that person or persons will perceive the world and reciprocally respond to its affordances physically, psychologically, and socially. The process of learning has as its foundation the systemic, dynamic, and interactive relation between the nature of the learner and the object of the learning as ecologically situated in a given time and place as well as over time.’ (186)

Geary (2009) agrees that the what, where, who and when are important, but adds that there also needs to be the ‘why’. In the short term the why is important in relation to motivation. At a simple level, he distinguishes between the learning which takes/took place in traditional societies and cultures where the why is related to survival and reproduction. Therefore, much of learning was inherently practical and required for a quality of life. This has shifted rapidly in modern societies so that the why is increasingly related to a where, what, and when which is not in alignment with these basic needs. This shift and the complexity it brings with it needs to be considered in relation to enhancing motivation and focus on learning in educational contexts.

The characterisation of learning presented by Alexander et al, and augmented by Geary is one of complexity and interaction. They stress that these various elements should not be seen as ‘independent contributors’ to learning, in other words they cannot be isolated and measured separately – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. They describe them as facets of an intricate and fluid system. I would take this further and state that their work very clearly demonstrates learning as a complex adaptive system, one of the four interpenetrating systems which make up the concept of pedagogy.


Alexander, P.A.; Schallert, D.L. & Reynolds, R.E. (2009) What is learning anyway? A topographical perspective considered. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 176-192.

Geary, D.C. (2009) The why of learning. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 198-201.


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