What is learning? Part 1

What learning is NOT:

Learning is not a process of acquiring facts.  However, I used to think differently. Back in Hillsboro High School, when I used to “cram” for a test, I assumed that I could stuff a lot of facts into my head in a hurry, the night ahead of time. Then those facts would be mine and I could haul them out at appropriate times, for example, on the test the next day. This is the cognitive approach to learning, which assumes that the purpose of learning is the individual’s acquisition of “knowledge”, which is assumed to be an entity or static state. One might call it a the triumph of industrialism: the materialistic world view which reduces knowledge to a possession. Cognitivists view learning as a process of inputs, much as occurs in computer information processing, with knowledge stored in the database of short term memory, coded in symbolic mental models for long-term recall.

Neural network model, Museum of Science, Boston

What learning IS:

Learning is the structural evolution of the brain that occurs as we engage in the world

OK, so learning is NOT the process of acquiring anything. So what is it?

Much of  my thinking about how people learn is founded on research on how learning comes from the structure and biology of the brain. These studies published in the past few decades in fields such as cognitive neuroscience, neurobiology, and neurophysiology, describe how memory traces are formed in the brain as a result of concrete experience, reflective observation, active testing and forming of abstract hypotheses.

According to this research, learning is a physiological process of growth of structures in the learner’s mind–growing new neural configurations as a response to being presented with new experiences.

The manifestation, as I understand it, of this physiological growth, is the evolution of  structures of language, thought and reality (oooh, that’s the title of Benjamin Lee Whorf‘s fabulous book. Check it out!)

James Zull, professor of biology and biochemistry at Case Western Reserve, talks about this in his book, The Art of Changing the Brain.    Knowledge is situated in the growing, evolving network configurations. Those neural configurations are activated in the future when presented with the same types of experiences, and apparently, they reconfigure and grow some more.

In the external world, outside the brain and out in the landscape of Earth, group learning is growing connections between networks. Learning occurs as learners engage in the experiences of practice and reflection, and as teachers, in whatever form, engage them in experiences of modeling and demonstrating.

As my 16-year-old son Zachary once remarked, “You can’t not learn when you’re doing something.”

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