What it Means to Learn

Since I was a teenager, I’ve been interested in teaching and learning. My adult life has been spent as an educator in many roles and in several types of institutions. I’ve taught, led, researched, read and studied, written… and learned.  

One unquestionable conclusion about learning (in my opinion) is that we use one single term “learning,” to describe a very disparate collection of skills, behaviors, and habits. Some of these are easy to demonstrate: learners can give the accepted answers to questions and they can successfully solve problems with known solutions. Other types of knowledge are more difficult to demonstrate. Creating something new, analyzing the quality of their knowledge, using our knowledge to solve problems we face are all things we must do if we are to be “smart.” 

As a long-time devotee of learning, I am much more interested in how individuals and groups use their knowledge in pragmatic, critical, and creative ways than I am in their ability to provide answers to questions or solve known problems. Critics of my view, of course, will counter that to be used for pragmatic, critical, t creative purposes, the knowledge must first be “remembered” and that cannot be denied. It seems misguided, however, to be satisfied with remembering. If students only remember, then we can reasonably conclude the knowledge is inert as Alfred North Whitehead defined it.  

I have been challenged in the past to identify what differentiates the learning that I value and the learning I do not. For me the single criterium that matters is the answer to the question “do learners see the world differently because of what they have learned?” 

If your students can look at a situation—a real situation in the real world and not in a classroom setting—and see nuances they did not previously, if they can perceive detail they missed previously, if they approach solving problems differently than they did previously, then—I argue—they have really learned what you were teaching.