(This article has been originally published in Dare to Learn blog in October 2017.)

Learning and education are, for a good reason, a matter of wide public discourse. If you take a look at any major newspaper in any country, there are articles covering education and learning-related issues almost daily. During the past month, two leading Finnish weekly magazines, Suomen Kuvalehti and Image both had front-cover stories on education. These articles are widely discussed on social media. Everybody is interested in learning and education.

When there are a lot of people taking part in a debate, concepts and meanings tend to get a bit mixed. This has also happened with education-related topics, a lot. We misunderstand what other people are talking about, and then get easily provoked. We think there is a disagreement when there is not. We see evidence for our beliefs where none is available. And this makes the discussion very difficult. 

Common misunderstanding in educational discussion

In my experience, the most common misunderstandings springs from mixing up three basic concepts: 1) learning, 2) teaching and 3) educational aims. Let me give you a made-up example: A newspaper publishes an online article that tells about research findings. A study conducted at an elementary school indicates that using yoga as part of teaching helps reduce bullying. The article is about a particular teaching method aiming towards one goal, reducing bullying.

The public debate around the article in various Facebook groups involves arguments about schools turning into amusement parks, new methods of sports education, digital skills practicing taking time from handwriting and a links to learning studies related to physical activity. So an article about how to teach a specific topic is taken as evidence for how learning happens, and as an argument for what should be taught. This story was made up, but similar debates take place weekly.

How to solve the problem: a cheat sheet

In my opinion, the discussion around education could be so much more fruitful if we could separate these three issues:

  1. How learning happens (psychology)
  2. How should we help learning through teaching (educational science & practice)
  3. What should be learned and taught (politics, philosophy of education)

The below cheat sheet lists some of the most common conceptions and topics in educational science, and divides them into the three topics above. So next time there is an educational debate around you, take the cheat sheet and check whether the disagreement seems to be about learning theory, educational theory or educational aims. Then you can separate the two other topics where you agree with each other, and focus on argumenting about the one that you disagree on.

Feel free to use it, comment it or disagree with the cheat sheet. I’m more than happy of any comments here or through social media. What is missing? Where I have simplified too much? Where I got it wrong? If you find this useful, you can also download it as PDF here:

Not the whole story

Of course, these three cannot really be separated in actual world. Nor should they be fully separated. Psychological research on how learning happens should inform theories on how to teach. Nationwide aims of education should affect teaching practices. Learning always happens in a context, and the context always includes all three of these. So the concepts of teaching, learning and educational aims are interrelated.

But still, if we for example take the educational aim that computer programming should be taught, we can still decide whether we use computers or analogical, paper and pen tools as Hello Ruby and Linda Liukas do. So we can and should for clarity’s sake always state what is the learning theory, what the educational theory and what are the aims behind a certain opinion about education. Even though these three affect each other.

The above list is not at all exhaustive. Only some theories or aspects are included under each topic. Moreover, there are plenty of other topics in education and learning. In addition to theories on how we learn, how should learning be helped through teaching and what should be taught there are tons of other important issues to debate.

For example: Who should arrange learning and pay for it? Why education exists in the first place? What other functions there are to education than learning? What is knowledge? Who has the right to educate others? How do small children develop? How artificial intelligence can be made to learn? And the list goes on.

But to start with let’s be clear about the three topics of learning, teaching and aims. Have a fruitful discussion!

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