In your hands

My life as a teacher of English and other curiosities

March 11, 2014
by annavarna

Ever wondered how people learn?


Picturebook by L.C. Perry

This blog has been inactive for a long time for various reasons that have to do with work, work and work. But I have been writing a few things lately (for work) and I thought I could share one of them. There are about 30,000 employees in the European Commission (my current workplace), most of them what we call knowledge workers and as you can imagine the issue of how they learn and how best they can share their knowledge is crucial. This is a short piece I wrote for the internal publication, “Commission en Direct”,  summarizing what I have learned the last years about learning itself. I am not in a position to give a comprehensive bibliography and I was restricted to use online resources and books I could find in our internal library. Still I think the indicative titles can give you a starting point.

Here it is. my take about how people learn. I hope you won’t be alienated by the serious writing style 🙂

People have been trying to understand learning for well over 2,000 years. However, today’s developments in neuroscience, cognitive psychology and the use of technology are shedding new light on how our brains work and what this means for our personal and professional learning.

The importance of learning in the professional – or on-the-job – context is undisputable and it may be what makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful businesses. As the researchers Jake Reynolds, Lynne Caley and Robert Mason (2002) have noted, “an organisation’s human capital – the knowledge, skills, competencies, relationships and creativities invested in its people – has emerged as a key competitive factor”.

In this introductory article about how people learn, we look at some of the key ideas about learning nowadays and their implications for our professional lives.

Learning and our brain

We now know that our brain has a quality referred to as ‘plasticity’, which means that it keeps changing even at a very old age. Contrary to what was believed in the past, brain development is lifelong, and not predetermined at birth or within the first three years. There are periods of our life that are critical for some kinds of learning, but in general, as [Paul Jones (2009) states: “throughout life, the brain is plastic and its connectivity, functionality and even structure are influenced by experience, including educational experience”. Learning changes the physical structure of the brain through the process of continuous interactions between the learner and the external environment.

Contextual learning

The influential Lev Vygotsky was one of the first scientists to develop the idea that all learning occurs in a cultural context and involves social interactions. Now, we know that learning is a process of drawing connections between what is already known or understood and new information. Thus, prior knowledge is important to the learning process. People make connections and draw conclusions based on a sense of what they already know and have experienced. This means that in order to learn anything new we have to anchor it to something we already know. Teachers, trainers or our peers can help us to make sense of information by providing conceptual maps.

Mistakes’ added value

Mistakes are essential when it comes to learning. They mean that we act, experiment and evolve. As the American organisational behaviour specialist David Kolb says, essentially all learning is relearning. Of course, it all depends on how this culture of experimentation is supported at work. “Organisations that allow failure also provide the conditions necessary to support natural learning and innovation”. (Reynolds, Caley and Mason 2002).

Social and informal learning

Much learning occurs in groups and among individuals engaged in tasks together. People learn from each other as well as from experts. Learning opportunities in social contexts enable people to learn together and retain more of what they learnt. One noteworthy find of various studies is that “70% of what people know about their jobs, they learn informally from the people they work with” (Cross, 2007). Marcia Conner also mentions that “most learning doesn’t occur in formal training programs. It happens through processes not structured or sponsored by an employer or a school. Informal learning accounts for over 75 percent of the learning taking place in organizations today”

Learning with your heart 

Both thoughts and emotions shape the learning process. Metacognitive skills —being able to think about and monitor one’s own thinking — enable learners to manage their own learning process, to learn difficult new concepts, and to problem-solve effectively. Emotions also play a role – when we are anxious, depressed, or distracted, we cannot focus to process information. Therefore creating emotionally safe learning environments can enhance our learning experiences and improve our retention.

To sum up, contemporary learning theories – influenced by new developments in neuroscience and cognitive psychology as well as the use of new technologies – recognise the role of experience and reflection in the development of ideas and skills. Different objectives require different kinds of learning. As a result, the role of teachers is changing and, to be successful, individual learners need to take greater ownership of their own learning. And this is also in organisations’ interests.


Marcia Conner,

Jay Cross, ‘Informal Learning’ (2007)

Linda Daling Hammond, Kim Austin, Suzanne Orcutt and Jim Rosso, ‘How People Learn: Introduction to Learning Theories’ (2001)

Eleanor Dommett, Ian Devonshire & Richard Churches, ‘Learning and the Brain’ (2011)

Paul Howard Jones, Neuroscience, learning and technology (14-19), Becta, (2009) (

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Jake Reynolds, Lynne Caley and Robin Mason, ‘How do people Learn?’ (2002)

Lev Vygotsky


October 3, 2011
by annavarna

The learning challenge

What have you learned today? What have you learned lately? Do you remember what it is like to learn a new thing? Do you remember how difficult, frustrating, excruciatingly embarrassing it can be? Do you remember the moment you realized what it was about? Wasn’t it like an epiphany? Like everything you had heard so far, suddenly made sense? What was it that kept you going? That didn’t allow you to quit the moment it got so difficult? And who taught you? Did you teach yourself or did you have a good teacher? Did you by any chance have an exceptional teacher?


LEARN from Rick Mereki on Vimeo.

These were all the questions that came to my mind when I watched this beautiful video found on Vimeo. I suggest you watch the other ones too (MOVE and EAT) since I know you being the teacher you are, you are going to find hundreds of educational uses for them. As for here I am going to share one of my favourite learning experiences, one that was many years ago but is still as vivid inside me as then: Learning to fly, or to be more accurate to paraglide!

It was more than ten years ago that I went into paragliding and for a few years I was really immersed into it. I learned how to fly got my first level certificate and flew from Mt Olympus and Mt Voras here in Greece. I will never forget what it was like and I will never forget what  the learning experience either. The instructor was a very patient person who first and foremost taught us how to be safe. The fact that we have remained friends after all these years says something about the importance of the relationship. But what I most remember was my willingness to persist. I think this was what I learned best that period. That if you persist long enough then things become really simple. That if you keep running, you will take off. That if you don’t let the mountain scare you, you will fly over it!

I know I am not saying anything original, it’s in all the books about motivation, educational psychology and theories of learning: the people who are experts in something are just the people who had the persistence to do something long enough. Something like 10,000 hours is considered long enough. Of course I didn’t become an expert in paragliding. At some point I stopped practicing. I imagine that if I started again now I would need months to get to the same level. But the learning is here, it’s inside me. And every time one of my students says, “it’s too difficult miss”, or “I can’t do that teacher”, I remember. And I tell them: don’t stop now!

I would really love to hear your opinions here at the comments or even better in your blog. It seems that everyone is starting a challenge these days so this is mine: What was the most exceptional learning experience you ever had? What will you always remember? Let’s use this hashtag #learnchallenge

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