Top Ten Insights on Learning

It’s the time of year for reviews.  I call it the season of the “top tens”: we have the top ten songs of 2009, the top ten sporting moments, the top ten films and so on.

I have decided to step on the band wagon and am now pleased to present my Top Ten Insights on Learning.

Here we go:

  1. Learning is constructed
  2. People are curious
  3. We learn best in social settings
  4. Much adult learning is child’s play
  5. We have a Learning Identity
  6. Meet the Digital World
  7. Adults learn what they want to learn
  8. Learning can be additive or transformative
  9. We learn throughout life
  10. We strive to be all that we can be

     1 Learning is constructed

     The best analogy is that of a tree with many branches.

    We learn through the integration of present and past experiences.  As we experience the world we connect new experiences with our past – in other words we construct knowledge.

    Learning has nothing to do with transmission of knowledge – it about personal construction.

    Educators who recognise this focus on process rather than output and encourage students to make their own meaning rather than reproduce the work of others.

     2 People are curious
    We can use whatever terms we wish: “learning as inquiry” “problem-solving” “achievement goals” – the plain fact of the matter is that people are curious.  

    We can be both mentally and physically curious.  We have evolved our higher order thinking skills because our curiosity has provided a competitive advantage on this planet.  

    Curiosity is at the root of learning – to make learning happen provide conditions where curiosity is aroused.

     3 We learn best in social settings
    We have created our society and culture by developing systems to share knowledge, organise tasks, transmit knowledge between generations and collaborate with others to solve problems.

    No matter how clever or knowledgeable a person is – very little can be achieved alone.

    When we learn our instinct is to share and communicate with others.  

    Students who work together through group work will learn much more than the task at hand: they will have to listen, discuss, debate, concede, collaborate, co-operate and share.  These are really usefull skills.

    4 Much adult learning is child’s play
    I said above that people are curious both mentally and physically. Curiosity can be very dangerous if it is left unregulated. 

    I could be curious about what its like to walk on the central partition of the motorway, manage an international bank or pilot a 747 but I’ll never do these things.  

    However, through play and imagination I can experience these actions and their consequences.  
    Many talk about “lifelong learning” I think we should call it “lifelong playing”.  These day’s I’m playing with the Italian language.

    Teachers should let students play – this is also important in 3rd level: role play, simulations, gaming, problem-solving, apprenticeship and peripheral participation can be regarded as adults at play.


    5 We have a Learning Identity

    We all have a Learning Identity and I have written about this in a previous blog post.   

    In my own research on how adult’s go about learning digital skills late in their careers I found that Learning Identity loomed large whenever educational endeavour was considered.  I would ask “why do you want to learn computer skills?” and people would respond with “well I was no good in school…”

    Perhaps it’s because society places such a high value on schooling and educational qualification that those who have had difficult experiences in school feel so inadequate when it comes to learning in later life. 
    It’s as if what they learned in school was that they were not good learners.

    Educators and trainers should not underestimate learning identity.   It’s not just about praising and encouraging (although we should do this all the time) it’s about being aware of social comparison, fear of humiliation and genuine exam anxiety.  The big message should be – this is not like school.

    6 Meet the Digital World

    Your first thought might be that the digital world is “out there” in the places where people are using technology to make things happen.  But what I want to talk about is the Digital World that’s “in here” – I mean inside your mind!   

    We all build the world in our mind and through this process we organise, ascribe our values, assumptions, unquestioned beliefs and preconceived patterns of thought about aspects of the world.

    For me its the Digital World but for other people it may be the world of the literate, of the wealthy, of the workers, of the young or of the future.  

    The important point is critical awareness.  That is the learning task: to be cognisant of our assumptions, prejudices and patterns of thought. 

    7 Adults learn what they want to learn

    This should be written on the wall of every training room and college classroom.  

    Learning decisions are often neglected.  I find this a fascinating area of inquiry: why do people choose to learn at a particular point in time?  

    We can pack our children into a classroom and somehow get away with telling them what they need to know but there is no way this will work with adults.

    Connecting usefulness and application is integral to the learning task for adults.

     8  Learning can be additive or transformative
    Of all the learning typologies this simple distinction is the most useful.  We tend to think often about adding to our bank of knowledge but we seldom describe learning in terms of reorganising our thinking about something.  

    One of the characteristics of transformative learning is that it it involves loosing something (and this can be disconcerting) and rebuilding or putting something new in its place.

    I think that transformative learning can take place at a societal level also.  Imagine the upheavals caused by Calileo’s assertion that the Earth orbits the Sun or when Darwin described the Origin of the Species.  It wasn’t so much that we rejected the new ideas but we also had to face the reality that to do so involved moving away from preexisting, more comfortable, beliefs.

    Transformative learning can take people outside their comfort zone and challenge ‘the way we’ve always thought about things’.  This is not always an easy experience.

    One example of transformative learning that I frequently encounter is the process of college students moving beyond a positivist view of the world to become more comfortable with uncertainty, different perspectives and and awareness of their own subjectivity.

    Teachers who challenge students to think differently, to appreciate other perspectives and to self-reflect on practice will create conditions for transformative learning.  When students argue and critique we know we have accomplished.


     9  We learn throughout life
    We tend to compartmentalise our short existence into a series of stages each with its own tasks and challenges.  

    We are born and grow in childhood developing of motor, language, thinking and communications skills.  As teenagers, we build our identity and later we are tasked with our partner relations, parenting and success in the workplace.  Later still, we face the challenges of ageing and the fragility of our bodies and finally we face the fact that we are mortal.  

    We need to learn as we go – there is no point of arrival where we have all the we need to confront the challenges ahead.  This is why learning is often described as a journey, this journey parallels the journey of life.

    People of all ages look for meaning in their life, learning is one way to give meaning.  Senior learning is often regarded as “nice” – in fact it is much more, it is essential.  Lifelong learning is also learning for a long life!

     10  We strive to be all that we can be
    This is the so-called drive for individuation.  

    One way to think about this is in terms of a desire to be competent no matter what the field of activity.  
    This is not the same as wanting to be good at everything.  To strive to be ‘all that you can be’ is to take account of opportunity, capability and circumstance.  

    But what you need to be good at is: who you are – you need to be the best “put your name here” possible.  As we grow this guides our approach to learning and life.

    We learn to be all that we can be.

    My pictures are from Christmas Day in Maynooth 2009 when Maire and I took a walk by the canal. 



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