The Most Important Things Students Learn At School

The Things That Linger After They’ve Forgotten Everything You Taught

by Terry Heick

Learning has little to do with content.

If we’re talking about learning as a personal manifestation of some kind–the two-way flow of referential schema in a fluid act of recognition and sense-making–then learning is something that happens completely inside the mind, and is, by definition then, a kind of illusion.

In education, we try to make this learning visible through assessment, observation, dialogue, and other cognitively violent acts meant to shatter that privacy. For teaching purposes, of course.

But ultimately learning is about the learner themselves. Content never changes as a result of the student-content interaction. It is mindless and neutral; students are mindful and biased.

Put simply, learning is the deeply personal act of framing your own experience on some foreign thing–like trying your own hat on a mannequin. Your hat is your sense-maker, and the mannequin is what is being made sense of. You understand both better as a result of the interaction.

The Things That Endure

As an educator, you have likely been trained to think of teaching and learning as a standards-backward process.

And this training was necessary because it doesn’t come naturally for everyone; it required you to unlearn old habits—starting with a book, project idea, or video for example—and start instead with a clear learning goal, and then establish what you’d accept as evidence of having met that goal.

At this point you’d have yourself the outline of an assessment, and, well, you’re halfway to having a unit. This, more or less, is how the planning of teaching and learning goes.

This is not an attempt to have you rethink that approach—not today anyway. Rather, the idea here is to look instead at what other factors that tend to linger long after the content has been forgotten.

Critical Abstractions Of Learning: The Most Important Things Students Learn At School

  1. How they relate to others

How do students feel after a conversation with you? Curious? Enthusiastic? Uncertain? Brow-beaten? Intimidated?

When they read learning feedback from you, what does their internal voice say? Yes, this has as much to do with their personality as it does anything you say or do, but it’d be nice to know just the same, yes?

Doesn’t how you make students feel matter? Can you promote high levels of understanding and inquiry if they’re constantly looking to align and comply rather than inquire and self-direct?

And further, how you can leverage your personality as a teacher–your natural gifts as a communicator, motivator, or content expert–to optimize how you make them feel.

2. Self-Image


Dove-tailing nicely behind how you make them feel are the discoveries they make about themselves under your guidance. Key strategies here are prediction, reflection, and metacognition.

How might it go? How might I learn? What might I find?


What happened? What did I see? Where did I see it? How did I respond?


How did this event change my thinking? What were my sources for creativity or curiosity? When was I at my best?

How students feel about themselves–and what they sensed that you did accordingly–will easily outlast any bit of content they take from your class.

3. Compelling tools & community

Networks, communities, habits, and tools matter greatly because within each is a kind of self-sustaining system that whirs on without you. These are things that, with your guidance, can be set into motion and then left alone to build on themselves endlessly or topple over on themselves and crash.

In your class, a student discovers a MOOC that explores viral evolution, and meets scientists, grad students, doctors, and field workers from global organizations doing this work every day.

It could be an app or related tool–expert, informed use of Google, deft organization of games, or music or apps or art, or some other bit of technology that they will pluck from your curriculum and use everywhere.

Or maybe they stumble on a subreddit that hosts daily discussions on how technology is changing culture. And in this subreddit, they encounter questions, people, theories, texts, videos, and ideas that are a kind of ecology to spur learning so nuanced and diverse you couldn’t possibly reproduce it yourself.

Communities and compelling tools last.

4. Learning strategies

Not the simple cognitive actions like ‘analyze’ and ‘evaluate’ that function more like assessment tools, but rather literally figuring out how to learn.

What’s worth understanding? What useful things do others around me create? What sense of purpose do others around me live by? What citizenships am I a member of, and what does that suggest that I understand?

How can I use existing, inspiring models that are already everywhere around me to drive my learning?

How can questions lead to understanding? And how can I form better questions on my own without having them flung at me constantly?

You can call it a self-directed learning model, or simply strategies that students use to learn, the result is the same: Lasting processes that students can transfer on their own, endlessly, independent of content forms or application.

An abundance or lack of accessible learning strategies will impact your students forever.

5. Reading habits

Reading habits have inertia about them–hard to start, and hard to stop.

Do they learn to love reading? Dislike it? To believe they’re good or bad at it? That is is or isn’t worth doing without prompting? They learn this at home and it can be reinforced–for better or for worse–at school.

6. How to make–and avoid–effort

Based on their own motivations and goals–what they want, whether good grades, approval from parents and teachers, praise from peers, fulfilled curiosity, etc.–students will give the amount of effort and motivation they feel is necessary to reach their own goals (assuming they have them and see that relationship).

Learning how to give enough effort to achieve specific goals or avoid specific punishes is one of the earliest lessons students learn in school.

The Things That Linger After They’ve Forgotten Everything You Taught; image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks