Define Learning

Education is one of the cornerstones of modern society. Each of us stand on the shoulders of the discoverers and teachers who came before us. From them, we learn. Learning is not only how we remember the past but also how we will discover and shape the future. Our primary learning environment, where we expect our kids are being taught what they will need for their future, is school. If we are to trust schools to teach, we must believe they are following the best practice to support learning.

I know it is the bane of many bloggers and debaters to have to define their terms to progress. However, it is important. In the example of learning, if we can’t robustly articulate what learning is we can never test to see what best supports learning. Defining learning has something of an observation paradox; that is to say that how you look at and plan to measure learning directly effects the definition of learning. If you want to research the best teaching practices to support learning you must know what you mean by “learning”. As a teacher it is very easy (and appropriate) to test your students’ knowledge immediately after the lesson or at the start of the next lesson. That defines learning as retaining knowledge for 1 hour or a week. But, at their most frequent exams, are 6-monthly (not every hour) and ‘retaining knowledge’ shouldn’t be the goal of learning (should it?)

Retaining knowledge is, I’d say, less-than-half of learning. A parrot or CleverBot can recount words. Computers retain knowledge all the time, but I doubt you’d say the Chromebook I’m using is learning as I type. But if you measure learning at the end of a lesson, then you are defining learning as ‘knowledge retention after an hour’. The exams students then sit test learning as if it’s the ability the retain knowledge for at least 6 months. The fact that the teacher and the exam define learning differently is a problem, and I don’t think either is a useful definition of learning.

My mother disagrees with me. She teaches in a Young Offenders institute and thinks exam pass rates or ‘value added’ are very good ways of defining learning (for the learners she deals with). By the very nature of teaching in a Young Offenders institute, my mum teaches people who have a certain number of opportunities in the future closed off to them. My mum strongly believes that getting a predicted U-grade at GCSE level up to a real D-grade at the time of the exam is valuable learning; it is opening up doors to them the Young Offenders that were closed. The goal of learning is to retain and be able to produce facts. In those circumstances, that may be appropriate. If that is your goal, there are experiments you can carry out to see how best to make people learn. Here are some examples of how to measure those things:

Create a series lesson plans that both aim to teach a certain number of relatively simple facts. Each lesson must aim to teach the same number of facts. Take each lesson and design it is such a way that it simulates different teaching practices. For example, lesson 1 may be a tactile/practical lesson on weather where the aim is to learn 20 things about weather and how to measure it. The lesson is ‘tactile’ because students are asked to design, create and use weather-measuring equipment. Lesson 2 is an auditory/didactic lesson where a lecture is played and comprehension questions are given through out the lesson. The goal is to learn 20 things about population dynamics. Lesson 3 is student-led research etc. 1 week after each lesson you ask the students to write down as many of the facts they were meant to learn as they can remember. Whichever lesson showed the greatest retention used the best teaching method, correct?

If your goal is exams-based, your experiment will be different. Take two classes taught by different teachers who favour different teaching methods, find each class’ baseline predicted grades at the start of the year and find their value added on exams day. Whichever class has the greatest value added… simple, no?

But this separates learning from developing abilities to reason things through, critical thinking and evaluation. If I made a claim like “listening to Katy Perry improves learning in undergraduates” you would think the investigation looked at a lot more than just retention of knowledge. After all, any one who has been to university will tell you they retained very little. My stepdad says at university he learned “how to think”. So, how might we investigate that?

What do we expect a university student to be able to do better if they are learning better? Write a 1,000 word essay on something their not necessarily familiar with; decide what information is helpful in answering a question; reason and evaluate thoughts better? It would be something along those lines, I’m sure you agree. So, with two groups of students I would sit one group in silence and make another group listen to a Katy Perry track (or selection of her Greatest Hits — if she has enough songs for that). I’d then give each student from both groups a booklet of research information all pertaining to (picking at random…) aluminium production and manufacture. Each student then has 2 hours (under exam conditions) to read and assimilate information from the booklet with a view to write an extended answer to the question “Examine the advantages and disadvantages of modern aluminium production techniques”. Then find an objective-as-possible way of marking, with the marker(s) blind to what group different students were in… average marks from both groups; are they significantly different?

All three of the experiments measure “learning”, but in each example it means something different. And in each case, the definition suits a different circumstance. If you want to investigate learning, you have to go through that tedious task of defining your terms and defining them in line with exactly what you want to study.


15 thoughts on “Define Learning”

  1. Once again, a thought provoking post! My comment is that there is a current trend to now think that knowledge retention is not an admirable goal of an education. I argue that it is. The “you can look it up on the Internet” trope is ridiculous. One of the key factors in finding information in any source is how much you already know about the topic. Consider the patently ridiculous recommendation of using a dictionary to determine word spellings. What is needed to find a word in the dictionary? The spelling of the word, duh. So, how is that a reasonable approach. It is a reasonable approach because if you know the first letter or have heard the word pronounced vocally, you can use knowledge of phonics to grope around until you find it.

    Information is often found obliquely by a connection to a connection to the thing itself. Complete ignorance leaves one foundering in an ocean of information.

    The flip side of this is a condemnation of collegiate education. Study after study shows that having a well-trained memory can result in one getting very good grades indeed. The failure is that we teachers will settle for recall when we should be pushing for analysis and interpretation.

    All good philosophers and scientists define their terms. Focusing intently upon exact means leads one to being lost in verbiage. I tend to think that approximate definitions work best until something crucial is addressed and then more careful language is needed. In this way, rapid progress can be made without getting bogged down.

    I do not know what “leaning” is exactly but I know it when I see it … sort of …

    1. I remember at A-level when I realised I could minimise the amount I had to retain if I understood things at core and built them back up. It’s fantastically useful to understand something instead of remembering it. This is especially true when something is complex; if you forget a detail, the complex idea is gone; if you understand it everything falls into place.

      There are, however, what I call Desert Island thoughts. How much stuff would I like to just know, sat on a Desert Island with a friend with no phone and no 4G. What shit would we chose to shoot?

      There is a theory that the internet is changing the way our brains work. Are you a fan of Sherlock Holmes? Holmes used to remember vast arrays of things, but that which he read and wouldn’t need to remember he carefully filed away. He would then recall exactly where it was stored (so he never had to recall what it actually was). There was a TEDTalk about this, where the speaker said that we are preferring now to organise data, remembering where we keep it, instead of remember the data itself. That takes up different neurological pathways, so we are changing the very structure of our brains.
      (Written from memory, but I will look for the video/research to corroborate what I say.)

  2. Glad to see Steve has already commented. I was going to say, any student who has the good fortune of having either you or him as their teacher has been blessed*.

    Here’s to teachers earning more than CEO’s.

    *Secular/Humanist “blessed,” that is 😉

  3. Since time immemorial, learning has been all about discovering relationships.

    Learning is retained by the learner if the subject matter is relevant to the learner and the learner is subject to sufficient repetition.

    Since leftists have long ago taken over America’s educational system, learning has been replaced by indoctrination and brainwashing.

      1. All,

        If you ever studied math, science or engineering or any foreign language you would understand the importance of repetition.

        Have you ever studied biotechnology, organic chemistry or even basic chemistry?

        Memorization of copious amounts of material is key to understanding the subject, which goes way beyond rot learning.

        Math and science is all about relationships and interactions based on the laws of nature.

        The laws of nature also govern politics, economics and religion.

        Leftism of which atheism is a fundamental part, rejects natural law, therefore rejects modern science.

        1. Organic and inorganic chemistry is about understanding concepts. You may memorise key facts, like the oxidation states of aluminium, on your way. But with understanding the concepts (which is not the same as memorising) is useless to you.

        2. All,

          In science and many other areas, learning is impossible without memorization.

          You, the leftist, have simply replaced memorization with indoctrination.

          In previous conversations with you, it became clear that you have no idea what is going on outside the confines of your leftist dogma.

          Authentic learning is not possible when the human mind is confined to a small set of ingrained, dogmatically constrained ideas.

      1. All,

        Atheist science is a collection of hoaxes:

        1. Global warming until it became an obvious fraud and then the name was changed to climate change

        2. The carbon footprint

        3. Overpopulation

        4. Physics teaches that everything happened all by itself (I kid you not. A collection of atheist physicists actually said that multiple times on a nationally broadcast television show.)

        5. Alternative Energy

        6. Electric Cars

        7. DDT killing birds

        8. Life doesn’t begin at conception

        9. Everything happened and continues to happen, all by itself (Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx got that one started)

        Gosh! And that’s just off the top of my head.

  4. What is the goal? How can I achieve it? This has been is my teaching mantra in all areas of life and has served me well in every kind of teaching I have ever undertaken no matter who the student, no matter what the subject, no matter what the occasion. What a bonus for parenting! (Go ahead… ask a new parent what their goal as a parent is… and watch the confusion reign supreme! Answering it, however, differentiates great parenting from poor… and with very tangible results well worth emulating.) These questions are vital to making meaning.

    Your thesis is about how we define learning in order to set about obtaining it. But note: an important clue is that you use the term first as a verb and then as a noun and then as an adjective only to then talk about ‘it’ as an object!

    I know this is going to sound somewhat condescending and perhaps even simplistic but really, what is learning? Well, from my pedagogy, I think it is first a process that allows us to make meaning (multiple avenues). That process begins with remembering how to ask good questions that interest us (know any three year old child that doesn’t ask… and ask, and ask…?).

    Learning is about making meaning from the answers we get and that’s what we do all the time. Education is a formal way of (supposedly) finding ways to accomplish this task with greater depth and scope. Once we have a collection of meanings leading towards subject expertise, we can then start to make the kinds of connections between subjects that kindle our unbounded curiosity and provide a means to apply them… in ways that matter to us.

    Asking good questions is what critical thinking is.

    This ability to make connections across subject boundaries, it turns out, is the key to obtaining insight, which is a necessary preamble to creativity. Creativity leads to a need to express it (and the various ways this can be done) which, in turn, facilitates the need to communicate effectively, which in turn facilitates and determines the quality of our relationships not just with people and critters but to our complete environment of which we are a central part… including our sense of place and role.

    In the above comments, I recognize certain pedagogical themes such as your Mom’s use of what are called learning sensory styles – broken down into their physical components… the tactile, aural, visual, etc.. Too often people assume that students are defined mostly by one of these (which I think is incredibly stupid: we are complete packages). We also supposedly have pedagogical ‘intelligences’ related to these so that everyone can be ‘intelligent’ because we are better at some of these methods than others (ie. bodysmart, booksmart, filmsmart, musicsmart, techsmart, and so on). But is this really true? I find people like to do what they like to do; when asked, people usually explain it by way of personalizing it for benefit.

    I also recognize different flavours of pedagogy approaches, such as retrieval versus research, application versus rote learning, and so on. In the industrial model of mass produced education, there is a pendulum of favour that swings from teacher-centered to student-centered approaches, from compilation portfolios to standardized testing, from academic excellence to job training, and so on. The pendulum never stops and the system we call ‘education’ is always in flux responding to yesterday’s social needs (because those who control purse strings are the same ones saying ‘When I was a student, we….).

    But to get back to what I think is the core question here, namely, what is the goal of learning, I think the answer is deceptively simple: to be able to think well and produce meaning worth having. Learning is an acquired ability – to make meaning – that can be demonstrated by function. Dysfunction is then a key component in recognizing a lack of learning – the meaning having been made isn’t working well – and a clear indication that can be overcome by learning anew.

    I know my comment is too long already, but just as an aside, I remember arguing passionately about the failure of parenting that used spanking as a teaching tool and meeting nothing but refusal to consider anything else. It suddenly dawned on me to change my approach, to ask parents frustrated beyond belief – so frustrated that they were willing to rely on their reptilian brain stem impulses to violence rather than all the other grey matter meant to supervise it. I asked if they would be interested in trying a different tool to ‘teach discipline’ if I could guarantee greater effect and longer lasting results. Every parent agreed. In fact, I have yet to find someone who really wants to be a terrible parent, a terrible student, a terrible teacher.

    So convinced am I in the efficacy of my teaching methods about meaning-making that when I was a student teacher, I asked the principle (relegated to the third worst academic school in the province) to allow me to gather the 24 worst students from two different grades six weeks before provincial testing was to be done on them for 2 hours of math tutoring a day. The classroom teachers were thrilled to be rid of them and their disturbances and the principle really had nothing to lose (other than 2 more placements to the very bottom if my efforts failed). All the students had received placement testing already (for additional funding, donchaknow) and were graded in the lowest percentile and were going to drag the school average down yet again. How low remained to be seen.

    I taught students to count up and down on their fingers by 2s, 3s and 5s. We then figured out fractions (very handy dividing up food and money fairly), which led to a base understanding of long division, ratios, and percentages.(the only difference was how we showed the fraction). Next came decimals, the Metric system, and algebra. Problem solving was suddenly pretty easy… if they could grasp what the question was asking. The kids from grade 4 understood all the concepts just as well as the kids from grade 7 and I was thrilled to watch them teach each other as one struggling kid ‘got it’ and helped another kid to ‘get it’ before moving on to the next learning opportunity. So much for classroom management’ problems; we were all on the same team… and having a very good time that was meaningful.

    The principle was concerned that these kids were showing up early to class and late leaving it. He probably thought I was handing out free drugs or something. After testing, all 24 scored in the 90th percentile or above in their respective grades and the school rose some 45 places (English was still an endemic problem). The principle was awarded a provincial superintendency for these dramatic results because, hey, it couldn’t possibly be the kids who were finally able to make meaning from math and have a lot of fun a positive feedback and respect from peers and teachers for their accomplishments. All they needed was to experience that very first event where they owned their understanding and could then apply it for positive effect. (After all, if you’re good in math, you must be smart, right? Yeah, dangle that carrot in front of kids called stupid all their lives and see what attention you’ll get from them then). That’s why it was meaningful and that’s why they overcame their medically documented autism, their mathematical illiteracy, their impulse control disorders, their attention deficits, their hyperactivity, and learned something most of us are still afraid of to various degrees: math.

    Go figure, eh (pun intended).

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