What is learning

Earlier this week, our district hosted it’s monthly admin meeting. During our meeting, our superintendent led us in an activity to think about defining what learning is. He encouraged us to think beyond the contexts that lead to learning, but the actual understanding of what learning is. After our activity, we were given a homework assignment – to write our beliefs about learning. I decided to be a little vulnerable and share my thoughts publicly. What you see below is what I wrote as a result of that activity.


SapiensRecently I’ve been reading the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I’m about a third of the way through the book, but its premise is centered on the evolution of Homo sapiens as a species. In a recent chapter, I was struck by the comparison between the biological development of humans versus the cultural development of humans. In biological terms, humans have the ability to learn. Our early hunter gatherer ancestors had to learn how to identify what foods were safe to eat, what predators they needed to stay away from, or what places were safe to drink the water. On the other hand, schools are a cultural development created by humans to pass on learning to students. Traditionally, much of that culture has treated learning as the filling of a vessel, not the awakening of the biological processes that encourage learning. The types of things that we teach in schools are not directly related to the future survival of our students (we don’t directly teach them how to meet their basic needs). As with any system, the culture that surrounds it effects how the system works. My understanding of this was further impacted by my recent trip to China. The system of schooling, while there are some similarities to what we do in the US, also had some rather significant differences that are created by the cultural beliefs that Chinese society has about learning. So this leads me to the bigger question, from a biological level, what is learning? Here are my beliefs:

  • Learning builds on prior knowledge – It involves adding to a learner’s current knowledge and beliefs. As a learner encounters a new experience, it changes those beliefs.
  • Learning is ongoing – All people have the ability to learn, and are doing it constantly no matter their beliefs, background, or location.
  • Learning is authentic – It relates to the things that a learner feels they need or want to know.
  • Learning is social – It involves a learner’s interactions with others, and the shared experience that occurs during those interactions.
  • Learning is active – It involves interaction between a learner and the world. These interactions could be through an experiment, a hands-on experience, or through talking with others.

Going back to that comparison between the biological processes that lead to learning, as compared to the cultural systems that exist in schools, these core beliefs should help guide our future decisions on the systems that exist in school. If we want to encourage learning, then our schools need to meet the biological demands, not simply the cultural expectations that some might have for schools. We have a lot to reflect on. Let’s get to work!


So… I’m curious to know your thoughts. If you were to write a response to the question “What is learning?” what would you say? We aren’t talking about the context of learning. We aren’t talking about the environment that leads to learning. I encourage you to really drill down to what happens when we learn. Are there things you think I got right? Things I missed the boat on? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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