Researching definitions of learning (H800, A4.1)

Our first step in this activity was to come up with our own definition of learning. For what it’s worth, here is my initial attempt:

“Learning is the process of gaining knowledge and experience and putting it to use.”

The next step was to research others’ definitions. My first port of call was, naturally, Wikipedia:

“Learning is acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information.”

As I suppose should be expected given the source, this feels a bit like it is trying to be as inclusive as possible – something for everyone. But maybe it is too inclusive. Is a change in preferences, for example, necessarily “learning”?

In fact, reviewing dictionary or academic-style definitions shows that it is quite hard to contain everything in one definition. I stumbled over a review of approaches to learning which cited Säljö’s (1979) research talking to adult learners, who came up with five types of idea about what learning was:

  • A quantitative increase in knowledge;
  • Memorising information that can be reproduced;
  • Acquiring facts, skills, and methods that can be retained and used as necessary;
  • Making sense or abstracting meaning;
  • Interpreting and understanding reality in a different way.

There is quite a spectrum here. It may be stating the obvious, but it does show what different understandings people have of the term, and in turn reflects the range of activities covered by learning.

To get a shorter definition, you are really looking at someone’s personal take.  Take this one, from blogger and speaker Jeff Cobb:

“Learning is the lifelong process of transforming information and experience into knowledge, skills, behaviors, and attitudes.”

I like his emphasis that learning involves a real process of transformation. It is the bridge between inputs (information and experience) and outputs (knowledge, skills, behaviors and attitudes). Maybe it’s because I often think in process terms, but this makes sense to me.

When I turned to more academic approaches, things got murkier and much more complicated. We are now pitched into different schools of thought and lots of specialised vocabulary. I did my best to follow Mayes & de Freitas (2007) distinguishing between the associationist ,cognitive and situative perspectives on learning and think I may have got the general gist, but the detail was very much over my head. I will just have to park it and hope this sort of thing is clearer later on in my studies.

I did the chance to look at what I gather is the most innovative academic approach to learning – connectivism, developed by George Siemens. Here is his definition:

“Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.”

His key point seems to be that knowledge is everywhere nowadays. The key point of learning is understanding how to access it, relate it to other pieces of information and use it when we need it. This view has interesting implications for education and raises the interesting question – has learning actually changed its nature in the internet age? A key question to explore, no doubt.



Mayes, T. & de Freitas, S. (2007) “Learning and e-learning: The role of theory” in Beetham, H. & Sharpe, S. Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age, Abingdon: Routledge

Säljö, R. (1979) ‘Learning in the learner’s perspective. I. Some common-sense conceptions’, Reports from the Institute of Education, University of Gothenburg, 76.


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Filed under H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates

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