Learning is what?

This past week or so I have been wondering what I am talking about when I refer to learning. I have a simple, succinct definition of teaching that I stick to, and it has served me well: Teaching is fostering learning.

However, what is learning? I read about simple slugs with only a few neurons learning, and I think, that’s not

Slug (Photo credit: Michael of Scott)

what I am fostering when I am teaching. At least I don’t think that is what I am fostering. I read about robots learning to do various tasks and wonder if that kind of learning would result from my teaching? I read about organisations learning, and wonder if my teaching fosters that?

Psychologists have identified two broad categories of knowledge, and there has been extensive studies done working out the differences between the two: procedural knowledge (knowing how) and declarative knowledge (knowing what). A third type of knowledge has emerged in recent years that has not been as extensively studied: conceptual knowledge (knowing why). The conceptual knowledge can come in a couple of varieties, shallow knowledge (oh, that’s why), and deep knowledge (I understand why).

The first two types on knowledge (procedural and declarative) come with associated learning (procedural learning and declarative learning). Studies surrounding conceptual learning has been limited to the ability to categorise items – not exactly the knowing why that I am interested in, however, there must be a learning that leads to both shallow and deep conceptual knowledge.

With all of these different types of knowledge and learning, what exactly is it that we talk about when we talk about learning in higher education? What is it that businesses are asking for when they say that students haven’t learned? When we are asked to focus on skills, what type of learning is being referred to? When we hear that students graduate, but can’t think, what are they talking about? When we look at connectivism as a learning theory, what kind of learning is are we talking about?

I know that when I am talking about my teaching, I am talking about conceptual learning for my senior level psychology in education module, with procedural learning in my statistics class (with a bit of conceptual learning thrown in) as I equip my students with the necessary tools to study psychology.

I think there a couple of blogs that arise from different perspectives on exactly what learning is about: students’, employers’, educators’, and theorists’.


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