Proxies for Learning


Easy-to-see substitutes for actual learning

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … objects or goals (specified content)
  • Knowing is … (invisible) competence
  • Learner is … a school attendee
  • Learning is … complying
  • Teaching is … managing school attendees


Proxies for Learning have likely been around for as long as efforts at formal instruction. The concept itself, however, was proposed in the 2000s.


Prompted by the fact that actual learning can be subtle and very difficult to notice and interpret, Proxies for Learning are readily implemented and easy-to-observe substitutes for that learning. They include:
  • Students are kept busy (e.g., attending to explanations, taking notes, doing seatwork, getting hands-on experience)
  • Students are engaged collaboratively in small- or large-group discussions.
  • Students are getting feedback and attention.
  • Students have input into the topics and structures of lessons.
  • The classroom is under control.
  • The lesson is orderly.
  • The curriculum is covered.
  • Some students can provide correct answers to curriculum-based questions.
  • Students have personalized learning plans.
The list goes on.


Proxies for Learning are tied to the assumption that learning occurs invisibly inside the head – that is, to an orienting and defining assumption of most Correspondence Discourses on learning. Arguably, in fact, the ubiquity of Proxies for Learning in modern classrooms may be residue of having yielded to the working principle of Behaviorisms that learning cannot be seen – that is, effectively, the conviction that everything educators do are Proxies for Learning. That said, EVERY discourse in the upper region of the map (“Influencing Learning”) is susceptible to substituting and/or mistaking Proxies for Learning for actual learning – which, in fact, is one of the original motivations for this website. An orienting principle in this project has been that the discourses on learning that dominate education are too often more focused on the actions of teaching (i.e., “Influencing Learning,” the top region of the map) than the dynamics of learning (i.e.., “Interpreting Learning,” the lower region of the map).

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Robert Coe

Status as a Theory of Learning

The notion of Proxies for Learning is precisely (and deliberately) the opposite of a theory of learning. That is, Proxies for Learning are, in effect, strategies for ignoring learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

While not theories of teaching, per se, Proxies for Learning are strategies and practices used by teachers.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Proxies for Learning are not scientific theories. They aren't intended to be. The concept operates as a focused criticism of formal education’s frequent failure to attend to the subtleties and complexities of the phenomenon of learning – that is, it is a commentary on the unscientific nature of many defining aspects of modern schooling.  

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Proxies for Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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