Does it Matter HOW you Learn?

Education & Technology

Effective learning

Well, …..YES & NO!!!

How you FEEL about learning is more important than ‘HOW’ you learn.

If you teach, ‘perform’ and idolise your own teaching approaches above and beyond what goes on inside the minds of your students, you may lose the ability to ‘see’ beyond the rows of masks staring blankly back at you.

When you do eventually try to see beyond your own or anybody else’s mask, you may even find yourself startled beyond belief.


So what are ‘methods’ then? Are they a blessing or a curse? If ‘HOW’ you learn depends on personalisation alone, what have we been doing all this time?


What if poor learning outcomes were not just caused by factory style education? What if they were also caused by too much diversity?

Diversity without personalisation is chaos and information overload.

Diversity attached to a unifying principle is the organised chaos that causes neurons to fire and connections to be made.

When we think about the ‘HOW’ of learning we usually think about methodologies and different approaches to learning. Personally speaking, ‘HOW’ we teach and learn fascinates me on multiple levels. My website is described as:

“Brain-friendly learning methods, tools, environments and communities”

Apart from this focus on my website and blog, my online presence, social networking and professional development have all evolved around this elusive ‘HOW’. I am a teacher who has tried and tested a lot, and who studies what other teachers are doing, saying, thinking and writing.

My book ‘Mindsight‘ by Daniel J Siegal has a chapter called “The brain in the palm of your hand”. It explains how emotion is central to how we live, learn, and how we make decisions, or react spontaneously through the low roads of the primeval mind. How we learn is influenced entirely by how we feel.


I am swimming in eclectic methodologies, sometimes sinking, and sometimes, at other perfect moments, surfing the wave of clarity. I’m trying to access this clarity now, as my current work involves blogging about education, writing materials, writing about MOOCs and facilitating MOOCS. To give you one example of how vast the practical ‘HOWs’ of learning are, here’s a kaleidoscope of possibilities from a tiny slice of online MOOCing life.

If we have infinite approaches, ideas, and activities just for listening and pronunciation in ELT, you can imagine that we have enough collective creativity to keep inspiring teachers around the world with continuous professional development through MOOCs online forever. I’ve got so many ideas for aspects of teaching I want to set up and share online – it’s infinite.

Yet, what do we do with this infinity? What happens if you’re sinking in too much information or so bedazzled that nothing makes sense anymore?

The potential to become lost in a sea of possibilities is very real, so you have got to surf that wave. The wave is really what learning means to you and how you feel about learning. When you attach your own personal meaning to what life has to offer, then the clarity is beautiful.

How I Surf my own Wave of Meaning

I dive deeply into the psychology and feeling behind learning. The deeper I go, the easier it is to find the right wave. Of course, I’m just a teacher and not a surfer or psychologist, but I find that a story-telling imagination and eye for metaphor clarifies things for me.

wave of meaning

The Unifying Principle:

Drawing from my current MOOC experiences, I can see a clear thread of unity running through everything being shared by diverse ELT specialists and presenters in Jason R. Levine’s current ELT Techniques MOOC.

The bottom line is that all of us sense the affective nuances of learning, to the extent that ‘HOW’ you teach has to be inspired by ‘how your students feel about how you teach’. The methodology or approach is secondary to the internal experiences of the learner. Yet, your approach can also serve to ignite, link with, and lead individual experiences when you achieve a sense of rapport, connection and heart to heart expression.


As part of my action research and surfing quests, I usually confer with like-minded professionals in my field. This question of ‘HOW’ we learn and the immense psychological insights that this may entail, reminded me our previous guest blogger Nick Michelioudakis. As he was so interested in the ‘Why of Teaching’, I felt that he’d have something to say about the ‘how of learning‘. Sure enough, he had already written an interesting article close to the topic at hand. It describes experiments that give insights into motivation and how we can influence the hearts and minds of our learners.

If you feel that you need to learn more about social proof, imagination and creating change in your learning life, you’ve got to read about ‘Big Feet and Dr. Spock’. This article looks at what can be going on when students don’t respond to our approaches and what we can do about it.

Is ‘the discrepancy between expectations and results‘ a sign that we don’t know how to anchor feelings to outcomes?

Is this the REAL ‘HOW’ of learning?

I am also currently reading ‘The Unbearable Lightness of being a Teacher‘ by David Deubelbeiss. David is one of our deep thinkers in ELT and his experiences and thoughts inspire philosophical questions just when you need them most.

David shares his insights into Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments, learning as a self-organising principle, and ‘getting out of the way’. It dawned on me while reading, that my kids are growing up with self-organising activities. I may have unwittingly planted these principles, but they have blossomed into something far beyond what I initially gave them. My twins and youngest are so close in age that they do everything together, and my eldest child orchestrates games where learning is pure discovery and laughter. They ‘play’ history through drama, make soft toys, draw comics, write stories and perform plays.

This is not because they’re ‘my’ children. The same things happened when I worked in a primary school and allowed students to organise themselves within loose frameworks, to the extent that 6/7 year old children took charge of organising their own school play.

Five things stand out for me with regard to these experiences.

1)I believed they could do it.

2) I was completely relaxed.

3) I let them express themselves.

4) I told my children stories every day of their lives from day one. When my twins were babies and started eating their big sister’s books, we had to abandon the books completely and start making up our own stories. That became the most fun and creative time for us. I believe that all children need story-telling as a human right. I recommend another great book by Daniel J. Siegel, called ‘The Wholebrain Child‘, which gives fascinating insights into the power of story.

5) Everything is okay when you relax. For me a lot of things were natural because I shared so much with my many siblings growing up. The lesson is that when we relax, children learn and they teach us. Even as adults, we are still children. If not, we should be.

The nature of ‘how’ in a social context.

Continuing with Sugata Mitra’s discovery, I have always allowed kids to be themselves because I grew up in a large household – family of ten, and my mother encouraged us to be very creative without any frills or special toys.

It would be nice for schools to reach out more to communities and parents to help learning to start at home. Parents don’t need to be teachers, as my mother wasn’t. But community sharing of talents and caring about all kids in the neighbourhood could create better classroom outcomes too.

This does not mean that the biggest ‘how’ in learning is without a teacher. Students and children need our attention, empathy, interest, excitement, validation, love and warmth.

We are more important as warm human beings than as walking encyclopedias. That’s what teaching is all about, that’s what parenting is all about, that’s what life is all about…

If you want to learn more about the psychology of play and learning, as I do, here is a book on my Christmas wishlist that I’d like to recommend:

Vygotsky and Creativity: A Cultural-historical Approach to Play, Meaning Making, and the Arts (Educational Psychology Critical Pedagogy Perspectives)

The HOW of learning – it matters to express yourself and help others to do the same!


Sylvia Guinan

is an online English teacher, writer and blogger who facilitates professional development online. She uses brain-friendly techniques to help students and teachers around the world. She designs educational materials, develops courses, writes resource papers and publishes ebooks. Her work is the result of much research into the psychology of learning, as well as hands-on experience with multi-media technology.

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