So what is ‘Learning’?

This is tricky. When I started what developed into these sites, I adopted rather arbitrarily the definition from what was then probably the most popular psychology textbook. I wrote;

"a relatively permanent change in behavior (sic.; it's American of course) that results from practise." (Atkinson et al 1993). This is of course arguable, particularly the "practice" criterion. Others would accept changes in "capability" or even simple "knowledge" or "understanding", even if it is not manifest in behaviour. It is however an important criterion that "learned" behaviour is not pre-programmed or wholly instinctive (not a word used much nowadays), even if an instinctual drive underpins it. Behaviour can also change as a result of maturation—simple growing-up—without being totally learned. Think of the changing attitude of children and adolescents to opposite-sex peers. Whatever the case, there has to be interaction with the environment.

But we are becoming more confused: evidence from genetics, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience is arguing ever more strongly for predispositions for our behaviour. Locke’s tabula rasa is getting dirtier by the minute: this is one of those areas for which Mark Twain’s (attributed) comment might have been coined:

“Many researchers have already cast much darkness upon this subject, and it is probable that if they continue, that we shall soon know nothing at all about it”

Even if psychologists ever agree about what learning is, in practice educationalists won't, because education introduces prescriptive notions about specifying what ought to be learnt, and there is considerable dispute about whether this ought only to be what the teacher wants the learner to learn (implicit in behavioural models), or what the learner wants to learn (as in humanistic models).

For a useful comment see this parallel page from infed.orgThere is a radical view that any self-organising system adapting to its environment is "learning": the autopoietic theory of Maturana and Varela. Click here for an external introductory tutorialOn the "tabula rasa" or "blank slate".

I seriously distrust the use of dictionary definitions, particularly when they are used to short-cut legitimate debate in an academic context (Scheffler, 1960—no, it's not in the bibliography. Look it up for yourself...). Like Humpty-Dumpty's view "learning" means whatever the user meant by it, and few people are prepared to be constrained by dictionary definitions.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'

So let's just think about a few general characteristics; (you can expand the points yourself, of course)

What is Taught and what is Learned

It is a simple point that what is taught is not the same as what the students learn, but it does have a number of implications.


In the figure above, it is clear that some of what we teach is wasted effort: but the diagram is a representation of only one learner’s learning. It may be that within a class as a whole, everything we teach is learned, by someone. The shape representing the teaching is smaller than that for learning, because students are also learning from other sources, including colleagues and the sheer experience of being in the educational system, as well as more conventional other resources such as books.  

It is an open question in any given case as to whether what they learn apart from what they are taught is a "good" thing or not. It includes the “hidden curriculum”, which is a phrase used by Snyder (1971) to describe what students learn by default in educational settings. His original observations at MIT in the late 'fifties were about how students with an over-loaded curriculum acquired survival tactics to get through their courses, such as mugging up only the parts which were likely to come up in the exams, and thus losing the point of much of the teaching. This selective learning is one of the characteristics of what is now called "surface learning", although that tends to be seen as an attribute of the learner — Snyder saw it as a problem of the institution. 

From a sociological (Marxist) rather than primarily educational perspective, Bowles and Gintis (1976) suggested that all US schooling has a hidden curriculum dictated by the demands of a capitalist economy. More recently, critical theorists have sought to expose the hidden assumptions behind curricula (see, for example, Collins (1991) — see also Cultural Considerations). Some of the work seems marginal and academically political, but there is no denying that teachers' strategies, such as labelling, can have a profound effect on a student's experience. Claxton (1996) has convincingly argued that adult learning is profoundly influenced by “implicit theories of learning” acquired at school, and that teachers tend to reproduce their implicit models in the ways in which they themselves go on to teach.

There is an overview and comparison of different theories of the hidden curriculum in this article (Kentli, 2009); note, however, that they relate to schooling rather than the college experience, which is why I have taken Snyder as my starting-point, although the term was coined by Jackson (1968) (Full citations in the article [pdf])

Another good overview (albeit from a wiki, so it may not always be reliable).  And here is a more detailed poster/paper by me (2005).

Reasons why people learn the "wrong" things, and why they stick:

Authority and learning

Anticipatory-avoidance learning

Learned helplessness

Resistance to learning

(Up-dated 21.04.11)


To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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