How do Students Learn?

By Dave Bromhead

Many years of working with students, families and teachers - particularly with young people experiencing distress and unable to engage at school - have taught me that wellbeing and learning outcomes for students are different sides of the same coin. In many respects, communities and governments have focused predominately on measuring academic achievement to determine education outcomes. We have NAPLAN for example, but there is no equivalent measure for student wellbeing. But if schools are truly going to help young people thrive and live productive, fulfilling and responsible lives, looking at both sides of the coin is critical.

Within schools themselves, there is often a high level of awareness a of the importance of wellbeing to student outcomes but, until recently, there has little attempt to provide a framework or guide schools on how to integrate both wellbeing and academic learning. Fortunately the OECD Learning Framework (2018) is helping to address the gap in this area. More recently, the US National Commission of Social, Emotional and Academic Development produced a report titled From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope (2019). This report is very valuable document that provides an excellent framework to guide schools in integrating both wellbeing and academic learning. This post is my brief summary of the education model ‘How Learning Happens’ from Chapter 1 of the report. There is a lot of consistency between the Commission’s model and the OECD Learning Framework, however, I think the Commission’s model is much more accessible.


How Learning Happens

Learning depends on deep connections between a variety of student skills, attitudes and character traits which interact with rigorous academic content and learning experiences.

The student skills which profoundly influence learning are:

1. Cognitive skills and competencies which include the ability to focus and pay attention, set goals, plan and organise, and persevere and problem solve.

2. Social and interpersonal skills and competencies which enable students to read social cues, navigate social situations, communicate, negotiate and resolve conflict, advocate for oneself with adults and peers, and cooperate and work effectively in a team.

3. Emotional skills and competencies which help students recognise and manage their emotions, understand the emotions and perspectives of others, cope with stress and demonstrate respect and empathy towards others.

Attitudes, Belief and Mindsets are about how the student sees themselves, others and their own circumstances. These beliefs powerfully influence how they interpret and respond to events and interactions throughout the day.

Character and Values include the way students think and behave as they work with others. These include understanding and caring for others, acting on core ethical values such as honesty, integrity, compassion etc.

These skills, attitudes and character traits enable students to access rigorous academic content and learning experiences.


Model for How Students Learn

Source: From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope. National Commission of Social, Emotional and Academic Development (2019), p16.

Source: From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope. National Commission of Social, Emotional and Academic Development (2019), p16.

When learning environments are constructed to explicitly teach these skills, attitudes and values as mutually reinforcing and central to learning, children are better equipped to engage in rigorous academic content and learning experiences and make greater academic progress.

How children and youth develop these skills and competencies is fundamentally shaped by their experiences, contexts and relationships. Neuropsychologists now recognise that we have a social brain and it is the driving force in cognition. Positive supportive relationships are the gateway to learning. Positive supportive relationship elicit neurochemicals that encourage neurons to grow new connections, memories and inhibit stress pathways that prevent learning from occurring. A lack of social and emotional support will hamper the development and growth of the brain.

Explicit teaching and development of students’ social, emotional and cognitive skills results in better attendance at school, grades, school completion, success in tertiary studies/careers and better overall wellbeing (Durlak et al 2011).

These three elements (student skills, attitudes and character traits) which students need to be effective learners are dynamic and influence each other. They also interact with the curriculum and learning experiences developed by teachers to engage their students. All of these factors are influenced by the teachers’ own social and emotional competencies, which research (p19, 24-25) indicates influences the quality of learning experiences of students.

The conclusions of the US National Commission’s report about what students need to be successful learners are very similar to the OECD Learning Framework 2030. The OECD Learning Framework describes three competencies that students need for the 21st Century: Skills (cognitive, social emotional, practical), Attitudes and Values, and Knowledge (disciplinary, procedural, interdisciplinary and epistemic).

When all of these come together, our students are on a path to success.

David Bromhead