Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What do you mean by “learning”?

Seymour Sarason’s 2004 book And What Do YOU Mean by Learning? keeps pushing the reader to think about what we define as learning. "Learning" is the word most used in educational literature and yet educators have great difficulty in defining it. Sarason demonstrates that the lack of clarity about the concept of learning is at the root of the disappointments of educational reform, the inadequacies of teacher preparatory programs, and policy writing.


Central to Sarason's questions is the distinction between the contexts of productive and unproductive learning; the latter being far more frequent than the former. Here are Sarason’s two main points for the book:

  • First, we’ll never get true “reform” in education until we come to some consensus on a more accurate definition of learning.
  • Second, that “productive learning” as he defines it doesn’t happen much at all in schools.

Sarason writes:

“Learning is not a thing, it is a process…I try on these pages to distinguish between contexts of productive and unproductive learning. And by productive, I mean that the learning process is one that engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive or counterproductive. Is it not noteworthy that the word or concept of learning probably has the highest of all word counts in the diverse literature in education and yet when people are asked what they mean by learning they are taken aback, stammer or stutter, and come up with a sentence or two which they admit is vague and unsatisfactory?” (from the introduction)

Learning = participating in the divine nature. 

Let’s consider how Peter describes the learning process of the Christian life:

“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if any of you do not have them, you are near-sighted and blind, and you have forgotten that you have been cleansed from your past sins.” (2 Peter 1:3–9, TNIV)


So then learning is truly productive learning when it makes you want to learn more. Or as Peter might say, it makes you want to add more godly qualities to your faith. In the context of Christian education, I would suggest that learning that is productive makes you want to learn about God more and be continually transformed into the image of his Son.

Glossing over what we mean by learning limits our teaching efforts. An educator’s business is learning. Only when we become aware of what learning encompasses and the contexts in which it occurs can we have a starting point for real education