These Things I’ve Come to Know… About Learning

I decided to become an educator in 1980 or 1981. That means I’ve been paying attention (close attention) to learning for over 40 years, but I’m not sure I really understand it any better now than when I started. I have a much more sophisticate concept of learning, but damned if I can define it. Here is a short post of things that I am confident that I know about learning.

Humans are a social species, and learning has been essential to our survival as a species. Humans are naturally curious and are active learners even as infants. As we look more closely at learning, we find its nature is more difficult to define than one might realize when speaking informally about it, and learning is far more complex than what is necessary for inert knowledge to be developed. As instructors, we all have a responsibility to understand the nature of learning and be aware of its many dimensions. In general, we know:

  • Learning occurs within brains, but outside of brains too. Interestingly, scholars are beginning to recognize the role of people and technologies in human cognition. Once we learn to write, we can effectively “download” memory to bits of paper (or now bytes of information).
  • Learning is a multi-dimensional process involving perception, recollection, analyzing, creating, and otherwise engaging with information and ideas. As we will see, there are several different types of learning and those who have learned are capable of far more than repeating information.
  • We become “smarter” through effort. Our brains and our cognitive abilities are similar to muscles, they improve with practice. This practice is not solely an individual effort, however. When we interact with others, both mentors and peers, we tend to build stronger memories and we find more connections to what we have learned. What and how we know is affected by the people around us as well as what we have already learned.
  • Some learning is permanent; but our cognitive abilities change over time, and especially our memories are very faulty. Much that we learned early in our lives has been forgotten and much that we think we remember we are actually misremembering.