Optimal Learning


Strategies and emphases intended to support the best learning possible

Principal Metaphors

As noted below, Optimal Learning is claimed by (or associated with) a range of incompatible perspectives. It is thus impossible to point to a core set of metaphors. However, with regard to its common alignment with Positive Psychology in the education literature, the following cluster of associations is typical:
  • Knowledge is … functioning
  • Knowing is … flourishing
  • Learner is … feeling-driven agent
  • Learning is … meaning-making
  • Teaching is … orienting




Optimal Learning is a contested term, used to refer to methods and emphases that are drawn from or informed by a variety of sensibilities. Perhaps most prominently, it is associated with Positive Psychology and it is used to signal attendance to diverse learners’ emotional intellectual, and physical needs within responsive, safe, and academically rigorous environments. Closely related, Optimal Learning is sometimes used to refer to the learning that can happen when in a Flow state. In quite a different vein, the phrase is commonly used to describe teaching emphases associated with Cognitivism, such as Brain-Based Learning and Differentiated Instruction. Outside education, Optimal Learning refers to strategies for collecting information to make well-informed choices in complex settings. In most cases, models of Optimal Learning are associated with some version of Negative Learning, which is subject to a similar range of interpretation. Some examples include:
  • Negative Learning (popular) – reaching or applying a flawed conclusion, typically because of inaccurate information or hasty inferences
  • Negative Learning (Alfie Kohn, 2000s) – using a negative situation as an occasion to learn what to avoid or what not to do
  • Positive Learning and Negative Learning (PNL Model) (Chris Bakker, 2010s) – defines Negative Learning as a contrast to highly motivating, engaged activity (i.e., Positive Learning), emphasizing the adverse consequences of stress, underdeveloped resources, distractions, etc.
  • Negative Learning Environment (popular) – a context that adversely influences learning
  • Negative Learning Experience (popular) – a fraught situation in which relevant or useful learning nonetheless happens
  • Negative Learning Transfer (Negative Transfer) – when a previously learning interferes with, complicates, or frustrates a new learning
As might be expected, the notion of "optimality" all summons constructs of efficiency:
  • Cognitive Efficiency (B. Hoffman, G. Shraw, 2010s) – the relationship between one's performance and one's effort, often expressed in terms of optimal/maximum achievement or optimal/minimum effort


The notion of “optimal” is comparative and situational. That is, for something to be optimal, it must be the best choice (compared to others) in the situation. For such a construct to make sense, then, there must other options, some means to measure the learning, and some criteria to demonstrate that the learning that happens is the best possibility for the circumstances – all of which are contestable, and most of which are better fitted with the sensibilities of traditional, standardized education than more contemporary conceptions of curriculum and teaching.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Optimal Learning is not a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Optimal Learning is most commonly used to refer to clusters of learner-centered teaching emphases.

Status as a Scientific Theory

The notion of Optimal Learning is simply too contested to be categorized as scientific. Even when used in association with well-developed, empirically grounded perspectives (e.g., Flow), the meaning of the phrase is fraught – as any claim to optimality (i.e., best-ness) in relation to the complex phenomenon of learning is almost certainly hyperbolic.


  • Cognitive Efficiency
  • Negative Learning
  • Negative Learning Environment
  • Negative Learning Experience
  • Negative Learning Transfer
  • Positive Learning and Negative Learning (PNL Model)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Optimal Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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