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What do you mean by learning?

Learning is one of those fuzzy terms that we bandy about, often without being clear about what it means. We kind of assume that we all know what learning is.

When we asked parents and children to talk about their child’s/their own learning they all assumed we meant their learning in school. When pushed they generally recognised that learning also happened at home. However, it became clear that learning in school (formal learning) is very different to learning outside school. This is reflected in Frank Smith’s contrasting of ‘the official view’ and ‘the classic view’, and in Mal Lee’s contrasting of in school learning with ‘the laissez faire approach’ that happens outside school. Both Frank Smith and Mal Lee argue that the out of school approach to learning is the ‘natural’ one. This is reflected in comments by Sanjay Sarma of MIT who argues that parents’ instincts about how to support their children’s learning are closer to what neuroscience tells us about how children learn than what ‘we subject students to’ in formal education. Both Smith and Sarma point to this being how humans have evolved to learn.

These two approaches, which I refer to as ‘formal learning’ and ‘human learning’ differ along a number of key dimensions, which are expressed here as key questions:

What is learnt? (Curriculum):

In schools there is generally a specified curriculum which sets out what should be learnt. Often this is decided upon at a national or regional level (i.e. by people other than the learner). The curriculum is usually specified in terms of discrete ‘subjects’ (e.g. Maths, Biology) and then into specific sub-sections of those subjects (e.g. Addition, Subtraction, Algebra, Probablity; Plant biology, Animal biology, Evolution, Ecosystems). There is often a specified sequence in which the material is expected to be learnt – you must know x before you can learn y. Often theoretical understanding of a topic is expected to precede its practical application – learning is about explicit understanding.

In human learning the learner decides what to learn, in effect she defines her own curriculum (though this is bounded by her context). However, the curriculum in this case is not atomised into discrete subjects but is interdisciplinary. Smith argues that human learning is about becoming part of a club (a group that we aspire to belong to). This resonates with Dave Cromier’s view that the community is the curriculum. Practical application – being able to do something – often precedes theoretical understanding. Indeed, learning may be tacit rather than explicit – you may be able to do something without being able to articulate how you do it.

Why is it learnt? (Purpose, Motivation):

In school, because the curriculum is externally defined, the purpose for learning is to achieve qualifications (and by so doing to please other people and open up opportunities for progression). Thus, formal learning is focussed on extrinsic motivational factors (getting the grades, pleasing your parents/teachers). Actual or anticipated lack of interest in what students are being taught leads to concerns about behaviour management, undermines trust in the learners (‘they don’t want to learn’) and reinforces a coercive approach to schooling.

In human learning the purpose is to pursue an interest and/or for pleasure or to achieve a personally important goal. Hence, human learning is intrinsically motivating and no external pressure or control is required to ensure it happens.

When it is learnt? (Duration):

In school, the day is generally broken up into periods (when learning will happen) and break or play times (when students have a rest between learning sessions). The amount of time spent learning a particular topic is generally very restricted – you might spend several lessons over the course of a week or two studying it, but will then move on to the next sub-set of the subject.

In human learning there is no set timetable. Learning happens throughout the day (and night). Given the integrated and interdisciplinary nature of the learning, and its intrinsic importance to the learner it takes place over a prolonged period of time.

Where is it learnt? (Context): This is less about where the learning happens than about the extent to which the learning takes place in a meaningful context. In school learning is decontextualized – you learn ‘the subject’ decontextualized from its application in the world outside school. Thus, you learn to solve maths problems rather than using maths to solve real problems.

Human learning happens in context, when you want to do something that you haven’t been able to do previously.

Who is involved in the learning? (View of learner, View of ‘teacher’):

In formal learning there is often an assumption that ‘an expert’ (or more knowledgeable other, i.e. the teacher) will impart their expertise to the learner, or more progressively, will facilitate or guide them. The learner is seen as being either passive (an empty vessel to be filled) or active but ‘ignorant’ (at least in relation to the topic being learnt). Where the intended learning doesn’t happen there is usually an assumption that this is due to a problem with the learner (‘She is in my bottom group’; ‘He has ADHD’).

In human learning the learner is seen as having expertise, but perhaps lacking experience of the particular topic being studied. They can be supported by others, who may be more expert in the topic and induct them into it, or may have complementary expertise which enables them to collaboratively extend each other’s knowledge.

How it is learnt? (Approach): In answering this question I am not trying to explain the internal mechanics (or other processes) that underpin learning. Rather I am trying to encapsulate the four main approaches to learning that we typically recognise (See Figure 1).

Figure 1 Four main approaches to learning

Learning approaches

Formal learning generally focuses on learning by being told (‘Learning about’) – the teacher stands at the front of the class and talks the students through the topic that is being learnt (often with the aid of a blackboard or interactive whiteboard). ‘Learn by doing’ is also common in schools – for example students may use materials to help them solve maths problems or may carry out ‘a science experiment’. I have put quotes around ‘a science experiment’ because it is not a real science experiment, as is evidenced by the fact that when children don’t get the results the teacher expects the reaction is most likely to be that they must have done something wrong rather than that this might be an interesting finding worthy of further exploration.

‘Learn through role play’ is less common in formal education, though is evident in Early Years provision – often referred to as imaginative or creative play - and is sometimes used in professional training.

Human learning usually happens through ‘Learn by becoming’ – the learner engages in doing the thing that they are interested in. They may of course read about their interest or be shown how to do something, but the purpose is to become able to do the thing that they are interested in. It is to become part of the community that shares their interest.

Human learning is always occurring. Thus, for example, in school you may be formally learning about a subset of a subject, but you will also be human learning. You may be learning that you are not very good at that subject, or that (formal) learning is boring. Or, if you are meaningfully engaged then you may learn what the teacher intended.

How we know something has been learnt? (View of knowledge):

In formal learning the way we know that something has been learnt is generally to assess the learner. Often, this involves them working in isolation, providing written/typed answers to test or examination questions at one point in time. The measure of what has been learnt is the score achieved on the assessment. Often the outcome of such assessments is based on relative performance (norm referenced) and has serious implications for the learners’ future. This creates a competitive and stressful context for learning.

In contrast, human learning is evidenced by growing competence in the learner’s actions – the degree to which they can do the things that they wish to be able to do – the extent to which they are able to act or participate in valued ways within their chosen community. This will often be reflected in their reputation within the community that shares their interest(s). Competence and reputations develop over time and most shared interest communities provide ongoing support and encouragement as new members are inducted into them.


What seems clear is that formal learning and human learning are fundamentally different activities, underpinned by very different sets of assumptions and beliefs about how people learn. If, as seems to be the case, human learning is a more effective approach than formal learning then the challenge for educators is how to develop education systems that engender human learning – creating greater alignment between the intended and actual learning that takes place.

Acknowledgement: I'd like to thank Jonty Rix, Freda Wolfenden, Roger Broadie and Mal Lee for constructive criticism of the original draft of this post - much of which I have incorporated into this version. 

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