Pumpkins and Processes that Support Learning

This is the third in a series of posts examining the new text How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures a companion to How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. In this post I share my reaction to chapter 4: Processes that Support Learning. PS: You’re going to have to read a bit to understand the relevance of pumpkins – but trust me – it’s in here. 🙂

In this chapter the authors explore the ways that learners use different processes to put the pieces of learning together. The authors refer to this as “orchestrating learning” and explain that it is comprised of three core parts: 1. metacognition, 2. executive function and 3. self regulation (p. 70). Some of the findings in this section that were most intriguing to me included:

Development and Decline of Executive Function

“Components of executive function develop and decline in neither linear nor binary (all or nothing) fashion” (p. 72).

Since so much of learning is built on a structure of building skills over time, it was interesting to consider that this is not the timeline on which all components of executive function get stronger or weaker.

Becoming Self-Regulated Learners

“Successful self-regulated learners have developed the skills and habits to be effective learners, exhibiting effective learning strategies, effort, and persistence” (p. 73).

The concept that learners can be taught methods to improve self-regulation is particularly exciting when I think about the world of online education where self-regulation is a critical component. This indicates that scaffolding in skills and habits to help students be successful, can be an effective way to address and correct deficits in this area.


Picture of a pumpkin

My pumpkin…grown just a few years after I drew my first one.

I learned the most about memory in this chapter. As I read about the way that the brain processes, uses, and recalls memories I couldn’t help but think of some of my earliest memories and consider the reason why those memories are clearer than others. One of these memories is of drawing a pumpkin that was sitting on a big pink circle. I still have that picture. It’s tacked into my baby book and highlighted as my first piece of “art”. After reading through this chapter I wondered whether my memory of drawing the picture is strengthened or completely derived by the baby book entry.

To explain consider that the authors point out that the common conceptual model of memory as a “filing cabinet” is faulty. The authors explain:

“What the storage metaphor does not capture is the fact that learning actually involves skills for reconstructing memories based on past experiences and cues in the present environment” (p. 74).


“The representation is not a perfect copy of the world but rather a partial record of the individual’s subjective interpretation and perception” (p.75).

So it is entirely possible that my memory of drawing the picture is recalled from a partial record of the visual imagery in the book and the memories my parents have shared of that time.

Connecting Memory to Learners

I found the following three connections to educational contexts and working with learners’ memory to be most impactful in my work to support learning design:

  • “First undue weight should not be placed on any single assessment of learner’s knowledge and skills.”

  • “Second memories are reconstructed more easily in situations that feel conducive and relevant to the content of the memory” (p. 77)

  • “…help learners recognize and leverage their strengths in other contexts” (p. 77).

For example, many athletes can use their experiences playing sports to consider elements of physics (the movement of a ball) or interpersonal skills (teamwork and leadership).

Putting it into practice

Using the information from this chapter here are four action-oriented steps that you can take to integrate these findings into your curriculum to improve student learning:

  1. Explicitly teach skills and habits to help students become successful self-regulated learners. For example, topics such as time management, discipline specific note-taking methods, and self-checks on understanding would all work towards this goal.
  2. Use multiple assessments to measure student learning and use the information collected by these assessments to develop a more holistic understanding of the students’ strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Make instruction relevant/connected to student experience in order to make it easier for students to process and remember course content. Presenting examples that feel familiar to students can help to achieve this goal.
  4. Early in the semester have students self-assess their learning strengths and weaknesses and identify one step to work on to strengthen a weaker skill. Return to this work throughout the course and ask the students to reflect on their growth in this skill at the conclusion of the semester.

Looking Ahead…

Next up is chapter 5 which focuses on knowledge and reasoning. As a parent – I’m particularly interested in the reasoning portion of this chapter!