How do we learn? Part I

December 03, 2013 by Sebastian Kotur

How can I help my child…. learn better? …study? …do better at school?

These are just some questions that I get asked by parents’ on a daily basis throughout my practice – and the type of questions I (Stephie S, Educational Psychologist on Tutorfair) aim to tackle in this article.

The answer isn’t simple - there are a vast number of theories of how we learn; some of which contradict each other and others that complement each other. These range from Pavlov (behaviourist), to Piaget’s (cognitive) and Vygostky’s (social learning); to name a few. You could spend days sifting through evidence based theories of learning, and only touch the surface.

Throughout, I find Harring et al’s (1978) hierarchy of learning provides me with a structure to better understand how to better help the pupils I work with.



Learning a new skill is not easy! Have you noticed the large number of times babies and toddlers like to hear the same story? Sing the same nursery rhyme? Count to 20? Sing the alphabet? To help me understand this phase, I think of when I first started driving, it took me a VERY long time before I became remotely confident to manage all the skills needed so that I could drive beyond 20mph.

Some people acquire certain skills quite easily and struggle with others – have you noticed a difference between your ability to pick up languages? Number facts? Dance sequences?

How do I know when my child is moving to the fluency stage?


  • Can do the skill accurately

  • BUT cannot do anything else as they require a great deal of concentration and attention to execute the skill

For example, when I first started driving I struggled if I had the radio on while driving as it was too much of a distraction (but that may just be me!)


How do I know when my child is in this phase?

This is when your child begins to do the skill

  • With increased speed

  • With confidence

  • While doing other, simple tasks at the same time

This is the stage at which ‘overlearning’ needs to take place, so as to increase the speed and ease at which your child can complete the target skill. Back to my learning to drive analogy, this is when I was able to drive and listen to the radio.
How do I know when my child is moving to the Generalisation stage?

They can:

  • execute the skill accurately

  • with relative ease

  • BUT struggle to generalise it to different settings.



How do I know when my child is in this phase?

  • They start to learn to use the skill in different contexts

For example, when they are able to read the words they learnt off a flash card, in a book OR use the times tables they have learnt in their maths work.

How do I know when my child is moving to the Adaptation stage?

They are:

  • able to do the learnt skill in a variety of learnt contexts



How do I know when my child is in this phase?

The target skill:

  • is strong in all settings and contexts

  • can be executed with relative ease

  • can be performed alongside other tasks

In this stage they are learning to adapt it to new and novel situations.

For example, now I can listen to radio and drive in most weather conditions and at all times of the day.

For more information on this topic, head to How do we learn? - Part II (coming soon) for ways on supporting your child progress through these 4 stages

Although this has been written in the context of how children learn, it is in fact applicable for how all of us learn new skills. Have you experienced this pyramid when acquiring a new skill recently?
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