Some meandering thoughts on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ learning

There has been an interesting brief discussion on Twitter recently that has hinged around whether and how people are ‘good’ at learning. As Kelly Matthews observes, though, Twitter is not the right place to go into any depth on this, so here is a (still quite brief) summary of my perspective on it, with a view to continuing the conversation.

Humans are nearly all pretty good at learning because that’s pretty much the defining characteristic of our species. We are driven by an insatiable drive to learn at from the moment of our birth (at least). Also, though I’m keeping an open mind about octopuses and crows, we seem to be better at it than at least most other animals. Our big advantage is that we have technologies, from language to the Internet, to share and extend our learning, so we can learn more, individually and collectively, than any other species. It is difficult or impossible to fully separate individual learning from collective learning because our cognition extends into and is intimately a part of the cognition of others, living and dead.

However, though we learn nearly all that we know, directly or indirectly, from and with other people, what we learn may not be helpful, may not be as effectively learned as it should, and may not much resemble what those whose job is to teach us intend. What we learn in schools and universities might include a dislike of a subject, how to conceal our chat from our teacher, how to meet the teacher’s goals without actually learning anything, how to cheat, and so on. Equally, we may learn falsehoods, half-truths, and unproductive ways of doing stuff from the vast collective teacher that surrounds us as well as from those designated as teachers.

For instance, among the many unintended lessons that schools and colleges too often teach is the worst one of all: that (despite our obvious innate love of it) learning is an unpleasant activity, so extrinsic motivation is needed for it to occur. This results from the inherent problem that, in traditional education, everyone is supposed to learn the same stuff in the same place at the same time. Students must therefore:

  1. submit to the authority of the teacher and the institutional rules, and
  2. be made to engage in some activities that are insufficiently challenging, and some that are too challenging.

This undermines two of the three essential requirements for intrinsic motivation, support for autonomy and competence (Ryan & Deci, 2017).  Pedagogical methods are solutions to problems, and the amotivation inherently caused by the system of teaching is (arguably) the biggest problem that they must solve. Thus, what passes as good teaching is largely to do with solving the problems caused by the system of teaching itself. Good teachers enthuse, are responsive, and use approaches such as active learning, problem or inquiry-based learning, ungrading, etc, largely to restore agency and flexibility in a dominative and inflexible system. Unfortunately, such methods rely on the technique and passion of talented, motivated teachers with enough time and attention to spend on supporting their students. Less good and/or time-poor teachers may not achieve great results this way. In fact, as we measure such things, on average, such pedagogies are less effective than harder, dominative approaches like direct instruction (Hattie, 2013) because, by definition, most teachers are average or below average. So, instead of helping students to find their own motivation, many teachers and/or their institutions typically apply extrinsic motivation, such as grades, mandatory attendance, classroom rules, etc to do the job of motivating their students for them. These do work, in the sense of achieving compliance and, on the whole, they do lead to students getting a normal bell-curve of grades that is somewhat better than those using more liberative approaches. However, the cost is huge. The biggest cost is that extrinsic motivation reliably undermines intrinsic motivation and, often, kills it for good (Kohn, 1999). Students are thus taught to dislike or, at best, feel indifferent to learning, and so they learn to be satisficing, ineffective learners, doing what they might otherwise do for the love of it for the credentials and, too often, forgetting what they learned the moment that goal is achieved. But that’s not the only problem.

When we learn from others – not just those labelled as teachers but the vast teaching gestalt of all the people around us and before us who create(d) stuff, communicate(d), share(d), and contribute(d) to what and how we learn – we typically learn, as Paul (2020) puts it, not just the grist (the stuff we remember) but the mill (the ways of thinking, being, and learning that underpin them). When the mill is inherently harmful to motivation, it will not serve us well in our future learning.

Furthermore, in good ways and bad, this is a ratchet at every scale. The more we learn, individually and collectively, the more new stuff we are able to learn. New learning creates new adjacent possible empty niches (Kauffman, 2019) for us to learn more, and to apply that learning to learn still more, to connect stuff (including other stuff we have learned) in new and often unique ways. This is, in principle, very good. However, if what and how we learn is unhelpful, incorrect, inefficient, or counter-productive, the ratchet takes us further away from stuff we have bypassed along the way. The adjacent possibles that might have been available with better guidance remain out of our reach and, sometimes, even harder to get to than if the ratchet hadn’t lifted us high enough in the first place. Not knowing enough is a problem but, if there are gaps, then they can be filled. If we have taken a wrong turn, then we often have to unlearn some or all of what we have learned before we can start filling those gaps. It’s difficult to unlearn a way of learning. Indeed, it is difficult to unlearn anything we have learned. Often, it is more difficult than learning it in the first place.

That said, it’s complex, and entangled. For instance, if you are learning the violin then there are essentially two main ways to angle the wrist of the hand that fingers the notes, and the easiest, most natural way (for beginners) is to bend your hand backwards from the wrist, especially if you don’t hold the violin with your chin, because it supports the neck more easily and, in first position, your fingers quickly learn to hit the right bit of the fingerboard, relative to your hand. Unfortunately, this is a very bad idea if you want a good vibrato, precision, delicacy, or the ability to move further up the fingerboard: the easiest way to do that kind of thing is to to keep your wrist straight or slightly angled in from the wrist, and to support the violin with your chin. It’s more difficult at first, but it takes you further. Once the ‘wrong’ way has been learned, it is usually much more difficult to unlearn than if you were starting from scratch the ‘right’ way. Habits harden. Complexity emerges, though, because many folk violin styles make a positive virtue of holding the violin the ‘wrong’ way, and it contributes materially to the rollicking rhythmic styles that tend to characterize folk fiddle playing around the world. In other words, ‘bad’ learning can lead to good – even sublime – results. There is similarly plenty of space for idiosyncratic technique in many of the most significant things we do, from writing to playing hockey to programming a computer and, of course, to learning itself. The differences in how we do such things are where creativity, originality, and personal style emerge, and you don’t necessarily need objectively great technique (hard technique) to do something amazing. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results. To be fair, it might be a different matter if you were a doctor who had learned the wrong names for the bones of the body or an accountant who didn’t know how to add up numbers. Some hard skills have to be done right: they are foundations for softer skills. This is true of just about every skill, to a greater or lesser extent, from writing letters and spelling to building a nuclear reactor and, indeed, to teaching.

There’s much more to be said on this subject and my forthcoming book includes a lot more about it! I hope this is enough to start a conversation or two, though.


Hattie, J. (2013). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Taylor & Francis.

Kauffman, S. A. (2019). A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life. Oxford University Press.

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (Kindle). Mariner Books.

Paul, A. M. (2021). The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. HarperCollins.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.


Our educational assessment systems are designed to create losers

The always wonderful Alfie Kohn describes an airline survey that sought to find out how it compared with others, which he chose not to answer because the airline was thus signalling no interest in providing the best quality experience possible, just aiming to do enough to beat the competition. The thrust of his article is that much the same is true of standardized tests in schools. As Kohn rightly observes, the central purpose of testing as it tends to be used in schools and beyond is not to evaluate successful learning but to compare students (or teachers, or institutions, or regions) with one another in order to identify winners and losers.

‘When you think about it, all standardized tests — not just those that are norm-referenced — are based on this compulsion to compare. If we were interested in educational excellence, we could use authentic forms of assessment that are based on students’ performance at a variety of classroom projects over time. The only reason to standardize the process, to give all kids the same questions under the same conditions on a contrived, one-shot, high-stakes test, is if what we wanted to know wasn’t “How well are they learning?” but “Who’s beating whom?”

It’s a good point, but I think it is not just an issue with standardized tests. The problem occurs with all the summative assessments (the judgments) we use. Our educational assessment systems are designed to create losers as much as they a made to find winners. Whether they follow the heinous practice of norm-referencing or not, they are sorting machines, built to discover competent people, and to discard the incompetent. In fact, as Kohn notes, when there are too many winners we are accused of grade inflation or a dropping of standards.

Wrong Way sign This makes no sense if you believe, as I do, that the purpose of education is to educate. In a system that demands grading, unless 100% of students that want to succeed get the best possible grades, then we have failed to meet the grade ourselves. The problem, though, is not so much the judgments themselves as it is the intimate, inextricable binding of judgmental with learning processes. Given enough time, effort, and effective teaching, almost anyone can achieve pretty much any skill or competence, as long as they stick at it. We have very deliberately built a system that does not aim for that at all. Instead, it aims to sort wheat from chaff. That’s not why I do the job I do, and I hope it is not why you do it either, but that’s exactly what the system is made to do. And yet we (at least I) think of ourselves as educators, not judges. These two roles are utterly separate and inconsolably inconsistent.

Who needs 100%?

It might be argued that some students don’t actually want to get the best possible grades. True. And sure, we don’t always want or need to learn everything we could learn. If I am learning how to use a new device or musical instrument I sometimes read/watch enough to get me started and do not go any further, or skim through to get the general gist. Going for a less-than-perfect understanding is absolutely fine if that’s all you need right now. But that’s not quite how it works in formal education, in part because we punish those that make such choices (by giving lower grades) and in part because we systematically force students to learn stuff they neither want nor need to learn, at a time that we choose, using the lure of the big prizes at the end to coax them. Even those that actually do want or need to learn a topic must stick with it to the bitter end regardless of whether it is useful to do the whole thing, regardless of whether they need more or less of it, regardless of whether it is the right time to learn it, regardless of whether it is the right way for them to learn it. They must do all that we say they must do, or we won’t give them the gold star. That’s not even a good way to train a dog.

It gets worse. At least dogs normally get a second chance. Having set the bar, we normally give just a single chance at winning or, at best, an option to be re-tested (often at a price and usually only once), rather than doing the human thing of allowing people to take the time they need and learn from their mistakes until they get as good as they want or need to get. We could learn a thing or two from computer games –  the ability to repeat over and over, achieving small wins all along the way without huge penalties for losing, is a powerful way to gain competence and sustain motivation. It is better if students have some control over the pacing but, even at Athabasca, an aggressively open university that does its best to give everyone all the opportunity they need to succeed, where self-paced learners can choose the point at which they are ready to take the assessments, we still have strict cut-offs for contract periods and, like all the rest, we still tend to allow just a single stab at each assessment. In most of my own self-paced courses (and in some others) we try to soften that by allowing students to iterate without penalty until the end but, when that end comes, that’s still it. This is not for the benefit of the students: this is for our convenience. Yes, there is a cost to giving greater freedom – it takes time, effort, and compassion – but that’s a business problem to solve, not an insuperable barrier. WGU’s subscription model, for instance, in which students pay for an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, appears to work pretty well.

Meta lessons

It might be argued that there are other important lessons that we teach when we competitively grade. Some might suggest that competition is a good thing to learn in and of itself, because it is one of the things that drives society and everyone has to do it at least sometimes. Sure, but cooperation and mutual support is usually better, or at least an essential counterpart, so embedding competition as the one and only modality seems a bit limiting. And, if we are serious about teaching people about how to compete, then that is what we should do, and not actively put them in jeopardy to achieve that: as Jerome Bruner succinctly put it, ‘Learning something with the aid of an instructor should, if instruction is effective, be less dangerous or risky or painful than learning on one’s own’ (Bruner 1966, p.44).

Others might claim that sticking with something you don’t like doing is a necessary lesson if people are to play a suitably humble/productive role in society. Such lessons have a place, I kind-of agree. Just not a central place, just not a pervasive place that underpins or, worse, displaces everything else. Yes, grit can be really useful, if you are pursuing your goals or helping others to reach theirs. By all means, let’s teach that, let’s nurture that, and by all means let’s do what we can to help students see how learning something we are teaching can help them to reach their goals, even though it might be difficult or unpleasant right now. But there’s a big difference between doing something for self or others, and subservient compliance with someone else’s demands. ‘Grit’ does not have to be synonymous with ‘taking orders’. Doing something distasteful because we feel we must, because it aligns with our sense of self-worth, because it will help those we care about, because it will lead us where we want to be, is all good. Doing something because someone else is making us do it (with the threat/reward of grades) might turn us into good soldiers, might generate a subservient workforce in a factory or coal face, might keep an unruly subjugated populace in check, but it’s not the kind of attitude that is going to be helpful if we want to nurture creative, caring, useful members of 21st Century society.

Societal roles

It might be argued that accreditation serves a powerful societal function, ranking and categorizing people in ways that (at least for the winners and for consumers of graduates) have some value. It’s a broken and heartless system, but our societies do tend to be organized around it and it would be quite disruptive if we got rid of it without finding some replacement. Without it, employers might actually need to look at evidence of what people have done, for instance, rather than speedily weeding out those with insufficient grades. Moreover, circularly enough, most of our students currently want and expect it because it’s how things are done in our culture. Even I, a critic of the system, proudly wear the label ‘Doctor’, because it confers status and signals particular kinds of achievement, and there is no doubt that it and other qualifications have been really quite useful in my career. If that were all accreditation did then I could quite happily live with it, even though the fact that I spent a few years researching something interesting about 15 years ago probably has relatively little bearing on what I do or can do now.  The problem is not accreditation in itself, but that it is inextricably bound to the learning process. Under such conditions, educational assessment systems are positively harmful to learning. They are anti-educative. Of necessity, due to the fact that they tend to determine precisely what students should do and how they should do it, they sap intrinsic motivation and undermine love of learning. Even the staunchest of defenders of tightly integrated learning and judgment would presumably accept that learning is at least as important as grading so, if grading undermines learning (and it quite unequivocally does), something is badly broken.

A simple solution?

It does not have to be this way. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: at least a large part of the solution is to decouple learning and accreditation altogether. There is a need for some means to indicate prowess, sure. But the crude certificates we currently use may not be the best way to do that in all cases, and it doesn’t have to dominate the learning process to the point of killing love of learning. If we could drop the accreditation role during the teaching process we could focus much more on providing useful feedback, on valorizing failures as useful steps towards success, on making interesting diversions, on tailoring the learning experience to the learner’s interests and capabilities rather than to credential requirements, on providing learning experiences that are long enough and detailed enough for the students’ needs, rather than a uniform set of fixed lengths to suit our bureaucracies.

Equally, we could improve our ability to provide credentials. For those that need it, we could still offer plenty of accreditation opportunities, for example through a portfolio-based approach and/or collecting records of learning or badges along the way. We could even allow for some kind of testing like oral, written, or practical exams for those that must, where it is appropriate to the competence (not, as now, as a matter of course) and we could actually do it right, rather than in ways that positively enable and reward cheating. None of this has to bound to specific courses. This decoupling would also give students the freedom to choose other ways of learning apart from our own courses, which would be quite a strong incentive for us to concentrate on teaching well. It might challenge us to come up with authentic forms of assessment that allow students to demonstrate competence through practice, or to use evidence from multiple sources, or to show their particular and unique skillset. It would almost certainly let us do both accreditation and teaching better. And it’s not as though we have no models to work from: from driving tests to diving tests to uses of portfolios in job interviews, there are plenty of examples of ways this can work already.

Apart from some increased complexities of managing such a system (which is where online tools can come in handy and where opportunities exist for online institutions that conventional face-to-face institutions cannot compete with) this is not a million miles removed from what we do now: it doesn’t require a revolution, just a simple shift in emphasis, and a separation of two unnecessarily and mutually inconsistent intertwined roles. Especially when processes and tools already exist for that, as they do at Athabasca University, it would not even be particularly costly. Inertia would be a bigger problem than anything else, but even big ships can eventually be steered in other directions. We just have to choose to make it so.



Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.