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In this page …

What is learning?

We might think that learning is something children or young people do at school or college but actually we continue to learn throughout life. Learning isn’t just about what we know.

It can also be about:

  • What we believe (eg faith)
  • What we value (eg being kind to others)
  • What we like or enjoy (eg tomato soup or going to the cinema)
  • The skills we have (eg swimming or woodwork)
  • How to act in different places (eg going to the shops, sitting in class)
  • Doing things in everyday life (eg getting ready for school, making lunch)
  • Coping with events that happen less often (eg hospital visits, a bereavement)

Babies start to learn before they are born. They learn about the sounds of the people and the world around them. The human brain is designed to help us learn by ‘recording’ and ‘organising’ the information it takes in. This might be thought of as the brain’s filing system. Once a new file is opened (a new concept is learned) it can be changed and added to as we grow. As information in the file (concept) changes and grows it is written into our memory.

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How does learning happen?

Lots of different things need to happen when we learn. The brain has lots of special jobs or processes that get involved. The brain needs to make these processes work well together so that learning can happen. This is the brain’s way of recording, filing and organising new things. How it does this will depend on what we have learned in the past and how the brain’s ‘files’ are already organised and linked up.

You can click on the links below to find out more about the different processes that are involved.

When we learn:

  • We need to be able to sense and focus on new information.
  • We need to focus or concentrate long enough to make sure that all the information is taken in.
  • The brain needs to do these things while the information is available (eg on a TV programme, or spoken by a teacher). The brain often needs to process things at speed.
  • We need to keep the information in mind (working memory) long enough to find links to what we already know. This is like finding the right ‘files’ and opening them. This helps us to understand the new information: it provides context.

When we learn new things we add new pieces of information to what we already know. The process of learning creates lots of new links or ‘connections’ so that the brain can use existing information in new ways (like creating a link so that a child can describe cars using colours as in the example below).

Example of learning

Very small children learn what a car is (the concept of a car). At some point they will learn about colours (the concept of colour). They will learn more as they look at toy cars, cars on the road or in books. At the same time people around them talk about what they see. This helps the child’s brain to make links between information ‘files’ (their car concept and their colour concept). The child learns how to name what they see: to categorise cars by colour eg red cars and blue cars.

Some young people may go on to update their ‘car file’ (car concept) with lots of different makes and models of car. By the time a person is old enough to buy a car they might have added even more information (eg fuel consumption, prices).

As the brain creates more and more connections during learning, it allows a person to think about things in many different ways. In this example, buying a car might also involve thinking about the cost of having a car and how it fits with values and needs (eg want it to be environmentally friendly and need it to be cheap to run).

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Building knowledge

building knowledge

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Key steps in learning

Key messages about learning

  • Learning makes changes to the way our brain is organised.
  • It changes how bits of our brain are linked (the connections and pathways).
  • The process of learning links new information to old.
  • Learning often uses new information to bring together things we already know in a different way.
  • Learning doesn’t happen all at once.

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Getting the hang of ‘concepts’

As shown in the example above (Building knowledge) the things we learn are often described as ‘concepts’. ‘Concepts’ are the ideas (the ‘files’) that the brain builds. They are built gradually as new information is added. A concept will be made up from lots of bits of information. This will include links to other concepts that help us understand what is happening. Like:

  • The things (features) that we can sense: what we would expect to see, hear or smell, for example.
  • Information about where or when we would expect to experience it (eg linking ‘eating’ or ‘food’ with ‘being in a café’).
  • Information about what we usually do (eg ‘eating’ means we need to use a fork or a spoon).
  • Information about how we usually feel (eg we enjoy ‘being in a café’ so this might be linked to feeling excited).

Concepts are very complicated. They involve many pieces of information and many links between ideas. Learning is about successfully building concepts, and changing and updating them as we experience new things.

Some things are more difficult to learn. This may be because they don’t relate to something that we can sense in the world around us. Mathematical concepts are a good example of this. Maths is often reported as being very difficult for children and young people with hydrocephalus.

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Learning maths can be hard but most people learn enough maths to help them in their daily lives.

Every day we use maths to do things such as:

  • Count how many forks and knives are needed for lunch.
  • Work out how much money we need to go to the cinema and have popcorn.
  • Work out how to split a cake to share it between 10 people.
  • Pay bills or budget for a month.
  • Plan a holiday or a meal with friends.

Some of these examples are more complicated than others. Some people find budgeting easy and others don’t. A child or young person with hydrocephalus may struggle with maths for the same reasons as anyone does: it can be hard to understand and it doesn’t always make sense (common sense).

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Maths examples

Let’s think about some examples. Which are easier?

Example 1

36 ÷ 6


I have a chocolate bar with 36 squares. I want to share it between 6 friends. How many squares of chocolate will they each get?

Example 2

1 - ⅕ (one fifth)


Pizza slices

How many slices of pizza do you have left if you eat one fifth of the pizza?

Thinking about maths in everyday terms often makes it easier. But, this might not be the case for someone with hydrocephalus. This might be because of changes in the young person’s brain. These changes can mean that the ways the brain processes information may not work as well. See the section on ‘How does learning happen?’ above.

Children with hydrocephalus may not learn as much as others. They may not learn at the same speed. They may find learning some things much easier than others. It will be different for every individual.

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Learning styles

There are different ways to learn new things:

  • We can listen to or read information (eg a teacher speaking or using a text book)
  • We can look at pictures or diagrams or watch someone else do something first.
  • We can use our hands to make and combine things (eg counting blocks/rods or building blocks)
  • We can try, try and try again until we get it (this can help any of the above!).

It may be that some people find it easier to learn in one (or more) of the ways listed above. For example people often think of themselves as ‘visual’ learners when they prefer pictures and diagrams. Others think of themselves as ‘verbal’ learners when they prefer words or written explanations. Most people will find learning easier when new material is given in lots of different ways.

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Using styles to help people learn

Providing information in different ways gives the brain a better chance of finding existing information that will help the person understand then learn. It also has a better chance of creating new links that will make the new learning ‘stick’.

Someone with hydrocephalus might find it difficult to cope with lots of information. They may find it easier to learn when things are given in small ‘chunks’. They may also find it easier when things are presented in a certain way. See the section below for ‘ways to help learning.

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Ways to help learning

There are lots of different things that could go wrong and might make learning more difficult (see the section on ‘How does learning happen?’ above). It might not be easy to tell which bit has gone wrong so here are some things to think about and try:

  • Do pictures or words work best? On their own or together?
  • Can the person see the words and pictures? Do they need to be: bigger; nearer; propped up; on the left / right of the desk?
  • How long do they need to see the information? This might be longer than you expect.
  • How much information can the person cope with? It may need to be fairly small amounts. You may need to ‘extract’ or highlight the bits of information that are most important.
  • Do they remember the information straight away? If not, perhaps there was too much. Or perhaps it wasn’t shown for long enough. Perhaps they need to see it again.
  • Do they remember the information some time later? If not, perhaps they need to see it more often or for longer.
  • Do they need to see the information lots of times? Repeating something over and over again increases the chances of making the learning ‘stick’. Practice is a good thing for everyone. Someone with hydrocephalus may need lots of practice: they may need to ‘overlearn’.
  • Do they only remember the information when they are given a clue (a ‘cue’ or a ‘prompt’)?
  • Is there lots of noise or other distractions while they are trying to learn? This can stop a child or young person from focusing and concentrating.

Sometimes a child with hydrocephalus may seem to have learnt something. They know how to do something or and can talk about it. It can be confusing and frustrating then when they suddenly seem to forget or can’t do things you feel they should know.

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Forgetting or not learning?

Children and young people with hydrocephalus are often described as having poor memories or being forgetful. This could be a sign of problems with learning. In other words the information doesn’t get ‘in’ in the first place: it doesn’t get encoded. If it doesn’t get encoded, it can’t be remembered. Information may not get encoded for a lot of different reasons (see the ‘Memory’ page for more detail).

If the information ‘gets in’ (encoded) but can’t be ‘brought out’ (recalled or retrieved) people often think that there is a problem with memory. Learning and memory are closely related but true memory problems are fairly rare. We tend to talk about ‘memory problems’ if someone doesn’t seem to know what to do in situations we think they should (eg taking a jumper off when they get hot, or doing the sum they were shown in class yesterday).

When someone doesn’t do as we expect, it’s most likely that there has been a problem in:

  • Learning or encoding information, or
  • Retrieving / recalling information from memory, or
  • Starting (initiating) the action.

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Testing for learning (what is remembered?)

The way a question is asked may or may not help a person to find the answer. This is because the question provides clues (or ‘cues’) that help the brain find the right ‘files’ and the right links between ‘files’ (concepts).

Finding the right answer or the right way to act could be difficult for different reasons:

  • Perhaps the links between ‘cues’ and the right information are not strong enough.
  • Perhaps the ‘cue’ links to lots of bits of information. The brain would have a problem to solve: which link is the right one for the situation?
  • Perhaps there is a problem starting or initiating an action.
  • Perhaps the wrong ‘link’ is selected and the brain doesn’t stop or inhibit the wrong answer or action.
  • Perhaps a person gets ‘stuck’ doing the wrong thing.

Any of the above could be a problem for a child or young person with hydrocephalus.

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Possible problems

Someone with hydrocephalus may have several different processing problems, but problems with learning may contribute to difficulties with many parts of life. For example:

  • Classroom learning: both academic subjects and daily school routines.
  • Routines at home and in places visited regularly.
  • Doing something that is different from routine: learning a ‘variation’ e.g. an alternative route to school.
  • The speed at which they become comfortable with and proficient at new things.
  • The level of proficiency that might be achieved in any subject or activity.
  • Getting to grips with changing social demands, particularly going through adolescence.
  • Independent thinking and action.

Every individual will be slightly different in the way their thoughts and actions are affected by hydrocephalus (and associated conditions). While this site aims to give something to suit everyone, it is important to think about each individual’s pattern of strengths and difficulties.

Patience, determination and trial and error are likely to be needed to find solutions that suit your child’s unique needs. Dip into the Living with Hydrocephalus section to find hints and tips on how to deal with different issues and difficulties.

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