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Where and how our learning occurs


As I continue my semester both as EAP teacher and MA student, I’m confronted with issues related to where learning occurs and how it is most facilitated. As a reflective practitioner, I notice the former evidenced differently among my students and have been trying to connect this to my own graduate experiences to come to some theories about the latter. Though my conclusions are not absolute, I keep questioning whether concrete learning outcomes provide the teacher/student with anything beyond disappointment and whether the teacher really teaches anything.

Quantifiable learning outcomes come in nicely bundled packages of clarity. Unfortunately, I’ve rarely encountered these packages to be as tidy or quantifiable as they’re presented in those nice boxes or bullet points. Whether in a coursebook unit or generated in program design, they don’t accurately portray the messy process that is real learning.

In one of my favourite posts, Scott Thurbury (2012) aptly remarks that outcomes in coursebooks are akin to “bulldozing a path through the diversity, spontaneity, unpredictability and general messiness of the classroom jungle” (I’ll come back to this jungle later). Their neat packaging does not factor in the personalities, expectations and mixed up processes in which learning really takes place. In an earlier post (2011), he questions whether the learning will be what the outcomes predict or something entirely unintended.

IMG_1663When doing MA coursework, I am often inspired by one small point or task in ways largely unrelated to the “you should be able to” purpose statements mentioned at the beginning of the unit. When writing an essay, I find myself thinking about texts I used for and feedback I got from a previous paper. Where and what I learn is often not what is intended either by me or the course designers. With my students, I can have a lesson whose aim is writing concisely, but expecting the students to do so well on a homework task after the in-class practice almost always results in my disappointment (and most likely theirs). I am surprised, however, at how it spawns one student’s improved word order and another’s organisation. It’s rarely what I expect or where I predict it will happen. Through the exercise of writing on their own, individual needs are often realised and reflection (on the intended outcomes or something else) results in various instances of learning.

Despite the attractiveness of definite outcomes that some think perfectly accompany a particular lesson or unit, “the learning curve for a single item is not linear…[but] filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings” (Larsen-Freeman, 1997:18 in Thornbury, 2011). Yes, in EAP programs (and most others), there are objectives for students to reach in order to prepare them for the demands of their content courses, but much of their learning varies both in and outside the classroom, including points neither we nor they expected were part of the course. We need to de-compartmentalise and de-structure where, when and what we expect our students to learn. Once our shift in expectation occurs, it begs the question of how and if our students learn because of us.

In a post a few years ago, one that inspires my thoughts here, Willy Cardoso (2010) questions whether someone can really teach another how to teach. His comparative experiences of mentoring a fellow teacher and leading teacher training workshops demonstrated to him that it was in the former where more learning took place. This mentoring manifested itself as collaboration (not teaching  or training per se). Freeman (1989) too suggests that teacher trainers are collaborators assisting in the discovery of how feedback given from trainers connects to classroom realities. This generates “a change in some aspect of the teacher’s decision making” (ibid:38); in other words, learning is connected to a change in thinking, facilitated by the questions, points to consider and collaboration between trainer and trainee/workshop leader and participants/teachers and students. It’s not the telling of what to do, but negotiation through feedback that facilitates learning.

Like Thornbury, Cardoso also notes that the real learning is neither linear nor something passed down in a 90-minute lecture, workshop or ultimately, learning outcome.  As an MA student, though little insights occur as I’m doing coursework tasks, the core learning happens during assignments: I have an issue to figure out (i.e. synthesis information for a paper about my EAP context); I sort out how I feel about it while composing, rearranging, considering; I discuss it with colleagues, my tutor and many of you online; I reflect on how my understanding is or is not backed by my experiences and my readings; I consider the feedback I’m given on something I’ve published, even months later. All parts, with the exception perhaps of the first, change order every time. In short, like Cardoso, I’m engaged in my learning when I “have a question of my own to study, maybe find an answer, apply that somewhere and self-assess the whole thing” (2010). Our students are not dissimilar creatures.

The chaos of learning (Cardoso, 2010)

My students attend my classes, listen intently to what I have to say (sometimes) and do tasks I tell them to do (again, sometimes). It’s not always here though that they show evidence of learning. It’s during their assignments where we work out their problem areas, identify strategies to over come them and propose advice where this evidence begins to appear. There’s a chaotic process to experience (see outstanding graphical portrayal at right) once they recognise why it’s important for them.

Maybe we can provide them with ample opportunity to work class concepts out on their own, outside of the plans we’ve laid out for them. We need to provoke, guide and allow our students to navigate their way through the jungle without clearing that path for them, forcing them down it whether they are ready or not (see, I keep my promises). Sure, we are all bound by assessments, time constraints and plans given to us, but building in these independent learning times within those constraints where possible yields benefits.

I know my deepest learning comes on my own terms.


Freeman, D. (1989). Teacher training, development, and decision making: A model of teaching and related strategies for language teacher education. TESOL Quarterly,  Vol. 23, No. 1.

Cardoso, W. (2010). Do you think someone can really teach another person how to teach? Authentic teaching [blog], May 19, 2010.

Thornbury, S. (2011). A is for Aims. An A-Z of ELT [blog], April 24, 2011.

Thornbury, S. (2012). P is for Postmodern method. An A-Z of ELT [blog], May 13, 2012.



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Hi Tyson,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this post. There is certainly plenty to think about here. During my MA studies, I did some reading about how what is learned may be very different to what was intended e.g. the teacher sets out to teach a verb tense but the student picks up on verb-noun collocaiton or prepositions instead (can’t remember the reference now – obviously, didn’t ‘learn’ it!)

I think there is great value to be placed on self-directed study. I experienced the same as you in that is was often when I sat down to plan and write my assignments that I felt I ‘learned’ something as I worked things out for myself and pursued my own directions. Also, my recent driving school experiences in Turkey have been intresting on that front as I used the classroom lessons more as a starting point and then followed up on the things I didn’t understand with self-study at home.

As for ‘teaching to teach’, Julian Edge, a former MA tutor, penned a great quote about that: “You can train me and you can educate me, but you can’t develop me. I develop.”

Anyway, thanks again for the post. It’s one of those that has got me thinking of one of my own to write… 😉


hi tyson

thoughtful post.

maybe we can only hope to “educate” students and leave the “learning” to them? by education i mean enabling the students to come to own the second language they want to learn, getting them to the point they say: this is our language, after a great post on Hannah Arendt by @tornhavles

not got much else to add so please forgive my idulgence as i can’t resist linking to my animated gif illustrating your and Dave’s point regarding what is taught and what is learned (originally done for Mike Griffin’s post on Big Lebowski)


Margaret Hurley

This made me think of the huge numbers of books I’ve read, the plots, titles and authors of which barely stuck with me — except for that single, perfect line: the one I still remember and use and relate to a state of mind or use as an inspiration. It’s doubtless nothing like what the author intended, but it’s a jewel for me. What you’re talking about here is much the same for us in the classroom. We don’t know which of our carefully crafted bits will become someone’s jewel, but certainly find such satisfaction in knowing that something in our worked is indeed treasured. (But trying to decide which bits those will be, well …. )


Tyson, yet again a great, thought-provoking post. As a teacher and a teacher trainer I can, with my hand on my heart, say that I don’t believe I ever/frequently actually ‘teach’ anything that students learn but that sometimes I steer students in a direction which can help them to learn at their pace and within their field of interest. If I really did ‘teach’ then wouldn’t all my pupils and students get the same grades and reproduce the same/similar knowledge having attended the same classes and done the same work? Do you ever have the impression you were in a different classroom to some of your students? I do! We all seem to get out of the classes what we ourselves found important, relevant, understandable. And then I think back to that one, wonderful line from Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” (because there has been some mention of quotes/one-liners above) which makes me realise that we all construct our own learning:

“Joe and I flew home to America in the same plane, and on the way he told me about Prague, and his Prague had no relation to the city I had seen and heard. It just wasn’t the same place, and yet each of us was honest, neither one a liar, both pretty good observers by any standard, and we brought home two cities, two truths.”

Keep up the good work – love reading your posts!


For me, this is why I use the CLB. It provides guiding outcomes that lead the student to improve their language abilities towards the goal of a benchmark. Exemplars are given to identify benchmark capabilities. And tasks are assigned to to develop the skills. The benchmarks scaffold so that tasks increase in complexity. However, if a previous skill hadn’t been learned that is required to develop the next skill, that student would need to develop the skills in ascending order in order to achieve the benchmark successfully. This is a long way around to say that if learning objectives are complex, general, or do not pre-qualify the student abilities to an accurate degree I think it would be difficult to apply uniform learning objectives with any certainty. Or quite possibly I missed the mark altogether on this one and I’m spouting off about something that has no connection to your topic whatsoever. Cheers!


Ha ha! Quite possibly!

As a materials writer, your post rings some interesting bells. I often find myself a bit frustrated that publishers and editors, led it seems predominantly by marketing depts, insist on highlighting explicit “aims” or “objectives” at the start of every unit/section/activity. It bugs me not because the materials I write are “aimless”, but because, as you point out, we can never really know what a particular teacher+class will do with the material or what any given student within that class will take away from it (if anything!). As both a teacher and a writer, I try to present activities and materials that I think will be as useful, relevant and engaging as possible, and they are generally organized by some set of guiding principles, but I know full well that I can’t hope to dictate exactly what “learning” will actually occur, how and when. So it always strikes me as ill-advised to make statements about what students “will have learnt” by the end of a unit or course. Personally, I blame marketing for all those pointless (and as you say, often discouraging) bullet points 😉

Tyson, I’m working on the Oxford EAP series. You’ve probably seen the lower levels (B2 already out, B1+ just out) – I’m working on the higher, C1, level to come later.

[…] Where and how our learning occurs on 4Cs by Tyson Seburn […]

David Warr

Very interesting, Tyson. Thanks. Also, for the links to the other posts.

[…] Seburn recently reflected on where and how learning occurs in a very interesting post and recognised that his deepest learning comes on his own terms, and […]

Once again you put into words what I feel. Learning DOES come on my own terms. And I see what you describe play out with my own students.
Good to think about this sometimes – thank you!

Steve O'Sullivan

“Our students are not dissimilar creatures.”

I think potentially one of the most difficult, potentially breakthough, things to do as a teacher (perhaps more so as an EAP teacher looking for identity and purpose within ‘academies of knowledge’) is to start from a point where you admit to yourself that you don’t necessarily have to have all the fixed-in-stone answers. When you start thinking of yourself as an inquiring learner as well as a teacher, even Maths, Science, Politics texts etc. can get interesting. Learning and inquiry in the classroom can (should?) be a collaborative process involving you as well as the students, and the most interesting learning and enquiry can be experienced ad hoc and ‘live’. Materials should be catalysts for the teaching-learning narrative – part of the script – not straitjackets, not the end in itself. The best learning narratives can be your own (one argument against using others’ materials). Texts should be brought to life, like the script. Mystery and curiosity – from which questions emerge – can be brought out from the seemingly mundane.

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