What is Learning?

Posted: February 1, 2007 in Adult Education, Education, Educational Technology, Ethics, Instructional Technology

Learning is a complex, brain based process that is influenced by many factors. For the past 100 years researchers have worked to identify how people learn and have developed several theories that work to explain the learning process. In the following paper I will share my definition of learning based on various theories of learning, explain how I think learning occurs, describe ways in which learning is encouraged or prevented, determine the purpose of adult learning in society, and define my role as an adult educator.

My Definition of Learning

Learning can be defined as: the act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or a skill. This act or process is not simple, and the experience can range from simply touching a hot stove to gaining a doctorate degree via several years of formal study. Learning is complex: it involves functions of the brain, is nurtured by the environment, it can be measured in some cases, and includes particulars that we do not quite understand as human beings. Nevertheless, researchers have narrowed the possibilities over the past one hundred years allowing us to gain a better understanding of what learning is or how it seems to work.

Behaviorists such as Pavlov and Skinner outlined the ability to change behavior in individuals via operant conditioning or reinforcing what one wants someone else to do (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 264). Cognitivists such as Piaget and Gagne suggested that learning was based on internal cognitive structuring and that people needed to “develop capacity and skills to learn better” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 264). Humanists like Maslow identified the need to develop the whole person, and identified a hierarchy of needs that must be met or fulfilled in order for a person to learn and grow. Other learning theories such as self-directed learning, or models like Knowles andragogy and Mezirow’s transformation learning are extensions of learning research from the past. Each builds upon the other to try and explain how human beings learn, and Knowles for example tries to explain and differentiate adult learning processes from learning in youth via andragogy (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 272). I feel that all of these theories and models lead to a body of work and evidence that learning is complex, and each sheds light on learning as a process. I believe that each theory is connected, and each must be considered, studied, and transformed as a productive foundation for becoming a better student and educator. In analyzing learning theories I most closely align myself with the humanist theories of learning.

I am predominantly a humanist because I do believe in the unique qualities of people and their ability to make choices for themselves; however, people are shaped by their environments to a certain extent, and they cognitively construct meaning from experiences that they go through in life. I especially see the Gestaltist beliefs of cognitivism in the creation and use of technology today (i.e. the internet, software, etc.). Good designers work to create information systems based on patterns and shapes that maximize human perception and help people organize and utilize information effectively which is in direct relation to the theory of cognitivism. Furthermore, I relate to the idea of transformational learning, and I think that life is in essence a vehicle for learning and is the act of transformation or change throughout its cycle.

I believe that learning is life itself. As we travel on our particular roads in life we experience many opportunities that change or influence how we think and what we do. We are not necessarily “blank slates,” but we are influenced by those whom, and with what we come in contact. Learning is the process that we go through both in body and mind that shapes who we are and how we think and react to current and future experiences. Learning is a process based on history, but functions as a compass to guide us in what we do and to give us access to truths that enable us to be free as human beings. True learning comes via choice, and these choices allow each of us to determine consequences. The consequences are not always necessarily good or bad, but through choice we experience the effects of our thinking or learning. If the experience meets the needs and expectations we have set for ourselves, or that are sometimes set by others, we change or learn. The learning process is not necessarily a feat of chance, and can be manipulated by others positively and/or negatively; however, the best learning comes when we control, or manipulate, our own learning.

How Learning Occurs

Learning has its roots in the functions of the brain. As a human grows from child to adult, several developmental stages occur that are consistent in most people. Cognitive processes of problem solving, language, motor skills, and reasoning develop over time, and human beings mature to become critical thinkers. People are also shaped by their environments as cultural behaviors or social skills are taught by the dominant society. These behaviors are not enduring, and can be abandoned as individuals mature and develop their own identities based on exposure to cultural alternatives.

Adult learning has a basis in cognitivism or behaviorism, but I believe ultimately reaches a humanistic level through self-directedness and via a holistic approach. For example, learning occurs as an event via job training, pursuit of a degree or trade, and for simple pleasure. Learning is obtained through an overall approach of becoming a better citizen, employee, or human being. Often adults pursue learning that enriches their lives and provides a feeling of personal success.

Learning: Encouraging & Challenges

Learning is encouraged in a safe learning environment that proactively enables sound relationships that lead to true dialogue. Adults are self-directed, but have a wealth of life experience that can enhance and drive the learning process especially in group situations. As adult learners are given the opportunity to see their value and to share their points of view, exciting and valuable learning takes place.

Challenges in adult learning are creating a safe learning environment, and developing sound relationships in a world that becomes busier for adults each day. Adult learners will often put their family or personal lives before learning, and it is important for adult educators to recognize these priorities and respect the responsibilities adult learners have. As adult educators value the responsibilities of their adult learners, they develop a feeling of safety and begin the process of gaining respect from their students. The students, in turn, realize that they are valued as co-learners with the teacher.

Purposes of Adult Learning

The main purpose of adult learning is to create a learning environment whereby students can develop their self directed learning wants and needs. Adult learning should create opportunities for students to explore, learn, grow, and to share the wealth of experience that adult learners bring to any learning situation. The key to adult learning is dialogue, and adult learning should provide opportunities for people to communicate, share, and reflect in learning situations.

My Role as an Adult Educator

My role as an adult educator is to create a positive learning environment that enables dialogue. Vella’s twelve principles, I feel, best outline the keys to achieving success as an adult educator: needs assessment; safety; sound relationships; sequence and reinforcement; respect for learners as decision makers; ideas, feelings, and actions; immediacy; clear roles and role development; teamwork; engagement; and accountability (Vella, 2002, p. 4).

An adult educator must take the time to assess what their student’s needs are and what experience each student brings to the learning situation. The educator must provide a safe learning environment where diversity is respected and students are valued for what they bring to the learning situation. I feel that via this process sound relationships can be developed and nurtured along the way. Providing sequence and reinforcement shows respect for adult learner’s time and needs. Allowing learners to make decisions in the learning process enables them to gain ownership of their learning. This also encourages the sharing of ideas, feelings, and in turn creates a situation of action where the learner carries out the learning process concurrently with the educator. Through this sharing students and teacher choose and maintain the context of immediacy and the value of the learning that is taking place at the time. Clear roles and role development are vital in the learning process, and as an adult educator it is important to provide definitions of those roles and to maintain a relationship of mutual respect. Adult educators must provide opportunities for teamwork, engage students in meaningful learning, and maintain accountability in the learning process.

Doing all of this is the role not only of the adult educator but also of the student; however, the educator is first and foremost responsible to develop the principles and practices. The role of an adult educator enables adult learners to reach their potential; however, the transformation of learning is left for the student to choose what they do or what they get out of the situation in the end.

References

Merriam, Sharan B., & Caffarella, Rosemary S. (1999). Learning in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Vella, Jane (2002). Learning to Listen Learning to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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