Learning Undefined

Written By

Faith Brill

July 04, 2016

If you were to ask a student, a teacher, a university professor, a corporate trainer, and an instructional designer each to define “learning,” would they offer the same response? Do you think the tools and strategies they use in their prospective learning environments are all actually geared toward optimal learning?

If your answer to either question is “no,” then we have a problem.

Technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that even a programmer living in the heart of Silicon Valley could struggle to keep track of the changes. Educators and trainers across the globe rush to stay up-to-date, and they worry when they are unable to employ the latest learning applications. But as educators and as learners, we don’t really have a clear, shared objective of what learning is and how it should occur. And while perhaps not commonly applied to the world of tech and educational startups, the old adage rings more true than ever: Just because we can, does it mean we should?

A shifting definition

As an elementary and high school student, my own perception of learning was largely dependent on the standards my teachers set. And their standards were largely dependent on my ability to recall facts at a predetermined date and time. My familiarity with my textbook and ability to regurgitate concepts in a slightly different way than what was written in textbooks often gave me a false impression of mastery with the subjects.

From what I could tell, higher-ed institutions and university professors also seemed pretty content with this definition of learning. They do, after all, make their selections and provide validation based on an individual’s proficiency in those types of assessments. The “Carnegie unit” and credit hours based on class attendance weigh heavily in this interpretation, with instruction often lecture-based and, therefore, teacher-based.

By the time of my own undergraduate experience, I was a seasoned “learning” veteran. I knew all the tricks of the trade, how to read between the lines of a multiple-choice question and guess correctly, how to show up at each and every office hour to indicate my interest and diligent work ethic. I was an advanced “learner.”

So, as you can see, my subsequent decision to become a teacher initially was not about a holistic understanding of learning. I found the subject of history fascinating and wanted to revel in that forever with groups of students. It’s not that I hadn’t questioned the methodology behind my classroom learning experiences; I just accepted it. It’s what I had to work with. It’s what our educational model is built on. And, given this model, I personally was finding success.

Then I was accepted to the Teacher Education Program at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education. I attended my first graduate class, titled “Foundations of Education,” and there my instructors posed a single question to an aspiring group of young student teachers: What is learning?

The instructors didn’t attempt to provide us with definitive answers. They simply asked us to reconsider. Because really, how can we even begin to approach educating and training others unless we answer this fundamental question from the very start?

To say that this inquiry was a turning point for me would be an understatement, as it impacted all the major career moves I would make moving forward. After graduating with a master’s in education, I began work as a schoolteacher at a progressive, project-based secondary school. Here, I had the freedom to really explore the apparent learning quandary I encountered as a graduate student. As someone accustomed to taking standardized tests her whole life, and well aware of how objectives like those actually shape classroom experiences, I instead aimed to create assessments in a way that felt meaningful. The goals I worked to define as an instructor were largely “competency-based,” and I asked students to practice and evidence a wide breadth of skills throughout their learning. My approaches were certainly imperfect and problematic in many regards, but I felt confident in the definition of learning that guided my instruction, and I consistently iterated toward that effect.

The constraint, however, was that I could implement that only within my own classroom. And it was a lot of work. To craft experiences that take into consideration my students’ unique interests, passions, and needs as learners, to account for their growth and development, to acquaint them with their responsibilities as contributors to a larger community, to really connect with who they are as individuals—it’s a lot to do. And at first, while I seemed to be arriving at greater clarity about my definition of learning, I wasn’t too concerned about learning at the school down the road. I didn’t really have the time. And I gather the same is true for many educators in the K-12 world. We barely have enough time and resources to focus on the students in our many classes. And even then, there are outside forces at play and standards to be met.

Learning at large

After a few years as a teacher, after building a solid foundation of classroom processes and materials and not feeling the pressure to reinvent the wheel at every turn, I began to wonder: Could I pose this learning inquiry on a larger scale?

I briefly considered a more advanced degree in education, my instinct still very much beholden to our underlying degree-based educational system. I even decided to move across the country to attend classes at one of the most prestigious teaching universities in the nation. But after only a few months, I diverged from the traditional educational model that had afforded me so much opportunity. It just didn’t make sense anymore. Would pressing on through several more years of tuition and focused research result in real change? Instead, I looked to a new learning landscape, where the opportunity for immediate effect seemed more promising, and the possibilities endless.

Ed-tech startups and online learning companies are teeming with former teachers. Stepping into the tech world and away from the classroom was, to say the least, an eye-opening experience. At first, it felt constraining not to be able to simulate the immediate contact and personalized feedback you are capable of in a face-to-face learning environment. As teachers, we spend hours, even days, designing lessons, projects, and frameworks. But we also know that once class begins, everything we designed could go right out the window. As students respond to situations and the learning experience unfolds, so too do we adjust and facilitate accordingly. It’s in-the-moment, hands-on, and adaptive.

On the other hand, with technology, we can design for learning experiences that reach beyond the walls of a single classroom, to the school down the road, to the college student in a neighboring state, to an aspiring professional at the other end of the world. With technology, our reach is magnified, as is our ability to analyze the efficacy of our instructional approach. Theoretically, we should be on the verge of a “learning renaissance,” a flowering of opportunity for individuals and employees around the world who require effective training and learning to improve their lives.

So, where do we find ourselves?

From students to university professors to instructional designers, we have not yet solidified our understanding of how learning experiences should be crafted and how standards should be set and met. Instead, many online learning companies rush to build technology to meet a definition of learning that’s comfortable, to align to institutions locked into an educational framework dating back centuries.

Instructional designers and trainers often feel pressured to accommodate a definition of learning that they grew up with as students, a definition that gauges basic fact retention and sorts us by our potential, rather than our “actual.” As regulatory bodies continue to push on quantitative measurement, we easily neglect the growth of alternative methods for measuring learning and performance.

In 2014, eLearning was estimated to be a $56.2 billion industry. The demand is huge, but many of the offerings are so much less compelling, barely scratching the surface of their reach. Even with the buzz that massive open online courses (MOOCs) garner, for example, they continue to retain a framework for learning that fundamentally does not build the skills and competencies the market requires. We use technology to optimize an understood model, yet we do not consider that model’s efficacy from the start.

What now?

Rather than a series of bulleted action items, I’d like to offer a one-word recommendation for your work as an educator and learning professional:


With each new strategy you employ in your instruction, with each new technology you adopt and develop, reconsider.

Look at your definition of learning and how it came to be through your own educational journey. Throw it out, start fresh, and see if you come to the same result.

Ask yourself the following questions in your reconsideration:

  • What skills do your learners need to acquire?
  • Is your objective the comprehension of content, or competency and the practical application of concepts?
  • Does your definition take into account any cognitive science and research?
  • How is technology present in your learners’ everyday lives, and does your instruction weave seamlessly into their experiences?
  • Are learners taking the content they absorb and applying it in a meaningful way?
  • Are you measuring the things that matter?

Rather than shy away from the intellectual challenge of defining and measuring learning, tackle it head-on. Craft instruction in a way that directly, intentionally, meets the needs of those who seek and require learning.

For many educators and learning professionals, there may seem to be little incentive to veer from an established workflow and enterprise. But when traditional definitions of learning clash with new approaches, take a moment and reconsider. What value do these new solutions have to offer? Leave room for the possibility of adaptation and growth in your own definition.

Today, I am grateful to work for a company that sees education and economic opportunity as intertwined. We can connect individuals and their passions to relevant, meaningful instruction. We can create platforms and use data to understand where learners are coming from, what they need, and where they intend to go. We can provide a critical missing link by designing learning experiences that directly serve industry needs.

The opportunity feels massive.

This opportunity drives me, and those with whom I work, to take a close look at the learning experience and to do everything in our power to get it right. It means constantly challenging our assumptions, evaluating and reevaluating how we can design for optimal learning. And it is the type of intellectual inquiry that I wish for every learning professional.

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