A 20th century academic, George Evans (1972) recognised how different we all are when it comes to learning and how this affects student potential.  Every student learns in different ways.  We just can’t accept that everyone learns in the same way, at the same pace and will reach the same goals.  Life’s just not like that; after all, we wouldn’t put all children in the same size clothes and shoes would we?  So why would we expect everyone to be the same in terms of learning?

The world is as rich and diverse as it is today because of the way humans are different.  They have different characters, react differently emotionally, come from a wide range of cultures and groups and, as a teacher and tutor, I believe we must recognise that the learning environment and the tasks we carry out in that environment need to step up and match our students’ particular needs and abilities.  This is a heavy weight on the shoulders of the tutor, the mentor, the teacher, but is vital to increase student potential and reflect on whether they are preparing for an exam, learning a new language in order to travel or struggling with creative writing.  All students need to see relevance in order to stimulate motivation.

The first, and probably the most well known, learning approach is based around a ‘stimuli’; such as an exam which needs passing.  How many of us can identify with that?  The behaviourist theory and learning approach is designed to provide relevant and useful learning for a certain task and here, the student, immediately understands the relevance of the learning taking place.  They know that, in order to pass that exam, they need to build knowledge and skills which give them what they need to do that.  It’s not difficult convincing a year 10 or 11 student that, if they want to get through their GCSE English Language, then a certain amount of knowledge and skill is required to be learnt!

The role of this particular learning approach relies on positive reinforcement through verbal praise, constructive feedback, a well deserved mark and thus a feeling of achievement.  As soon as negative reinforcement is introduced, then the student will withdraw from actively participating and motivation will decrease.  This type of learning is common in 1-2-1 tutoring as it stands up well within such an intense environment where regular feedback reflects the work completed, informing students what they did well and also what they need to put into place to improve.

Another learning approach which excels within group and peer learning, but is difficult to imitate within a 1-2-1 tutor/student relationship, is social learning theory.  Here, students learn through imitation and by learning alongside others.  Peer learning and small group work is ideal to encourage students, particularly less confident ones, to push themselves out of their comfort zone to learn through watching and working within group tasks.  As primarily a 1-2-1 tutor, I work hard to replicate this type of learning environment.  These days, with digital and electronic learning at the forefront of educational tools, we have an opportunity to set up forums, use technology for collaboration tasks, use apps to log participation and data as well as audio and video as a resource for learning.

Many of my students enjoy learning through problem solving where they play an active role in a task making it meaningful and relevant.  Dewey (1938) spearheaded cognitive learning theory where students are encouraged to ‘learn to think’, not spoon fed and certainly not like the old ‘chalk and talk’ teaching approach!  However, this is a more tricky concept that you might first think;  this requires students not only to physically do a particular task, but also take the time to reflect and evaluate.  This is an important part of cognitive learning and although we recognise that every student learns in different ways, this is often a part where students struggle.  Although they might enjoy participating in something hands on, they’re not always keen to take the time to think about it fully afterwards:

What went well? What did I learn?  What could I do better next time?  How can I challenge myself in the future?  How does this task lead onto further learning?

Bloom (1956) went further with this concept to add ‘affective’ learning alongside cognitive learning to outline how feelings and emotions change as a result of learning.  Bloom was well known, of course, for his taxonomy framework where 6 major steps around learning needed to be followed to fully understand this process, but his parallel ethos, where cognitive and affective sat side by side, acknowledged the importance of how our emotions and feelings play an important role in the learning journey.  Believe me, with a fair sized student cohort of teenagers each year, these more abstract concepts are firmly part of their learning experiences – with bells on!

The final approach to learning, which I must admit is my ‘go to’, emphasises active learning, a harmonious blend of pedagogy and andragogy.  Ok, I’ll back up a bit, long words.  Basically, pedagogy is an instructional form of practice where knowledge is passed from one who knows (teacher/tutor) and one who doesn’t (student).  This is the age old, tried and trusted form of teaching which we all recognise either from classrooms today or, for us slightly older ones, classrooms from the past!  This type of learning ignores student experience, ability or even their specific needs, it does not encourage independent learning or learning in a self-directed manner.  This particular beast can be seen up and down the country in a formal school setting, and for younger students and those who need a more supportive learning environment, is constructive and ideal.

However, imagine you’re a burgeoning adolescent or even an adult learner, is this something you deal with well?  Doesn’t it slightly irritate you that you feel you should decide what you would like to learn or need to learn?  Yes, you’re right, this can cause issues or even rebellion!  But, balance this with its partner, andragogy and you have the perfect combination.  Students who learn in an andragogical manner can learn at their pace to suit themselves and their situation.  They’re supported informally by a key group:  mentor, tutor or even their peers, providing freedom, recognising existing experience and skills which are fundamental to build on going forward.  Here, learning is learner-centred, not subject orientated.

In an ideal world, a combination of all these learning approaches should be encouraged to make learning engaging and worthwhile, with meaning and relevance and maximise student learning potential.  And, of course, which approach is predominantly used will depend on the subject, the age and ability of the student, the facilities and resources available and many other factors. B B King once said “The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.” And, however and whatever you learn, you’ll have enriched your life in a way you never knew possible.