The Learning Arc: It takes the time it takes.

The Learning Arc
The Learning Arc: Timed in minutes or hours or weeks … it all depends.

The pace of learning is one of the many variables we need to consider in planning lessons and in understanding the context of a lesson observation. As with many other aspects of learning and teaching, there is no formula.  In thinking about pace, I often refer to learning processes as forming an arc: first, teeing up, then processing before eventually landing:

The teeing-up phase throws out the key elements of what needs to be learned.  In a successful learning arc, this is usually laced with intrinsic incentives to sustain learners through the journey ahead.

The processing phase is where learners battle through the struggle as their brains make all the necessary connections.  At this stage, it is quite natural or even necessary for a fair degree of confusion and uncertainty to dominate proceedings.  The learning that is happening might not be evident…but this phase is critical: struggling is a precursor to understanding.

The landing phase is where the ideas and skills take root and learners can apply and present them coherently; this is when progress is finally evident and the extent of the learning can be assessed.

What about feedback?  Ideally we should also view the arc with a series of micro-feedback loops spinning off it, checking for understanding at each part of the process.  As Dylan Wiliam says, “students should not get feedback any more than ……….once a minute!”

However, the purpose of thinking of a learning arc is to provide a framework for considering one key variable: the time-frame.  Obviously this depends on the learners involved and the level of depth and complexity in the learning.  Some concepts and skills are quick to grasp within minutes; it might be possible to run through several short arcs within a lesson. I can certainly think of any number of lessons that deliver one neat learning arc from start to finish: tee-ed up at the start and safely landed before the bell goes with that feel-good glow where everyone nailed it.

But, actually, many deep concepts and challenging skills are not like this.   Some learning arcs take weeks.  There are lots of examples: lesson sequences focusing on writing structured essays that capture multiple perspectives; activities involving assimilating information from a range of sources in a sophisticated synoptic manner; practical evaluations requiring connections to be made between theory and experiment; creative tasks that evolve continually and only crystallise fully over time.   None of these are neat and tidy.

Within one of these sequences whole lessons may need to be devoted to the teeing up phase or the processing phase.  Teachers (and observers) need to hold their nerve, knowing that persistence and resilience will pay off,  conveying that confidence to the students.  At KEGS we talk about “acceleration through depth, not speed”.  ‘Pace’ isn’t about getting to the end quickly or learning in a frenetic busy manner.  ‘Pace’ can be fast or slow… and it is still water that runs deep!  At KEGS we encourage students to embrace struggle…to grapple with complexity…before expecting things to land into clarity, order and understanding.  This means that we tolerate a fair degree of confusion; we don’t spoon-feed solutions too early and we expect students to work things out for themselves.  We are often dealing in with long arcs.

The difficulty (and possible risk) with long learning arcs is that feedback is more complex. It takes longer to find out whether a student has understood fully – or has made the progress you were expecting. For example it is hard to give full feedback on an essay until it has been fully drafted..(an issue Chris Waugh is seeking to address via Edutronic_Net ) – as it is only in the final work that a student’s full thought process is revealed.  The History department at my school discusses this at length.  There is a dilemma: shorter exercises allow for tighter loops of feedback – but then they don’t equate to the full process of a writing a whole essay – which is not just a series of chunks.

However, it is important to have faith.  My feeling is that in various contexts, at times, there is a tendency for teachers and students to panic during the messy processing phase.  This results in teachers chunking things up into shorter arcs prematurely, to create more landing points.   That might be absolutely necessary with lower attaining students but, it is the antithesis of what is needed to develop deeper learning and to challenge more able students.  It is a key teacher role to differentiate learning so that any student capable of following a long, deep arc is allowed to…even if others need it broken down. In my selective context, I’m often quite happy for my students to leave the room rather confused…. because I see that as necessary. I often say ‘you probably won’t get this straight away, but in a couple of weeks, it will start to make sense’.  By the next lesson, fewer are confused and, eventually, they all make a safe landing as ideas knit together and students make the connections, learn the drills and construct the mental models they need.

What does this suggest for lesson observations? It means that, in some lessons, which are more likely to be high-challenge lessons- you may not see a landing point.  You might not be there for that snappy ‘ker-ching’ plenary.  Instead, the observer needs to focus on the learning strategies rather than the outcomes and ask the question: what is the time-frame for this piece of learning?  It is helpful, therefore, if students are encouraged to develop a language of learning – a vocabulary for the meta-learning that they are engaged in along the arc.

I’ve noticed that my son sometimes makes miraculous progress with a piano piece when he hasn’t practised for days or weeks!  (He’s doing Grade 3) Why is that? The daily grind sometimes gets him in a rut, but a bit of cogitation time seems to allow him to make sense of the whole ‘stave to finger-tip’ processing in a way that can’t be hurried.  The teeing up is all in place, but that landing….. well sometimes it just takes the time it takes.

Learning Arcs: They take the time they take.
Learning Arcs: They take the time they take.

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  1. I love this idea. It explains the process so well. One of the biggest challenges in teaching is coping with panicking Students, and their Parents, because they haven’t made it to the landing stage on some topics as fast as they are used to doing. This is simply because they have moved on to a more challenging part of the course and have assumed they should still be able to cope with the learning as they have before. Many, many times I have had students say to me the following year, that they now understand ‘it’ and can’t see why they had problems before, ‘like you told me I would’. I think I will start to tell them about the Learning Arc as a way to help them see what they are undergoing and why. Thanks for making my job easier.

    One other thought. If you have a particularly challenging Learning Arc in a lesson, and leave the students ‘up in the air’ or even ‘confused’ and it is an observed lesson, presumably you can’t show that all students have made progress? Which I don’t believe they have to every lesson, anyway. So long as they land in the end, let them have a time of confusion and questioning.


    • I have ‘stolen’ the learning arc and added SOLO levels to it. I think they fit very well and will show my students where they are in the process. Thanks


  2. I don’t think it is the same as the learning loop idea. Learning arcs are about the uncertainty when on the way to landing, but learning loops are about going round the learning cycle again with a new unknown, to reinforce the learning. Learning arcs are less about ‘where the teacher wants to be’ and more about ‘ where new learning is taking the learner’. I like learning arcs – they explain why it is sometimes OK to be in a state of confusion and provide a good defence against observers who might be critical because they didn’t witness a ‘complete’ arc.

    I left secondary phase teaching because I found I could not accept the diktat of the time, that somehow all learning was planned and could be scripted (despite regular evidence to the contrary and learners left to suffer in silence). I moved into primary phase where there is much more a sense of ‘seeds that might germinate’. Now there seems to be some new hope that secondary education might be educationally sound again – thank goodness.


  3. […] And so on.  We also discussed general issues around differentiation and high expectations, but the idea was very explicitly that a healthy balance of learning experiences should be planned for across a series of lessons. That now seems at odds with the narrow lesson snapshot culture that is drowning many schools where teachers obsess about what one single lesson should be like.  However, it chimes in with the ideas I’ve expressed before about The Learning Arc: […]


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