This three-part blog series covers three metaphors that aim to answer one important question: What is ‘learning’? This is the first part.

Part I: Acquiring knowledge

What makes for learning?
What is good learning?
What types of learning is there?

Depending on your answer, your solutions in your learning program may differ drastically.

Take a minute and think about how you would define learning? Is the first thing that comes to mind, the increase in the amount of knowledge? What about an ability to use a new skill? Do you think about being able to take part in a new community? Would you go as far as thinking learning is about building knowledge or creating new solutions?

Learning is one of those concepts for which an all-encompassing definition will never be reached. Rather, it is best approached with metaphors. Anna Sfard’s article On Two Metaphors of Learning describes the discussion around the topic around 20 years ago.

There is more to the question about the nature of learning than just semantics. In fact, it is a fruitful starting point for designing your learning program.

Learning as acquisition

The idea that learning means gaining or increase in the amount of knowledge is a self-evident one. When I know something today that I didn’t yesterday, I can say that I have learned something in between. The amount of information in my head has increased. The acquisition metaphor sees the human mind as a container, which can be filled with materials. Learning is about becoming an owner of these materials.

Researchers have presented different frameworks and mechanisms for the process of learning. While earlier theories talked about the passive reception of information, later the move was towards active construction by the learner and the importance of social interaction. At the moment, learning is more or less seen as an endless, self-regulating process taking place in the interaction with other learners, teachers, and learning materials.

Engaging the learners

The challenge of education is to engage learners, take into consideration their prior knowledge and to offer different kinds of learners the right kind of support. To make things interesting, learners should be offered ways to operate meaningfully, use their earlier knowledge, measure their competence and apply what they have learned. Things like bite-size learning, applications and the ability to discuss with peers can make things more interesting.

Essentially, this is what most learning programs are about: whether it is a compliance training, induction to tasks, introducing new tools or teaching skills. The goal is to teach the learner information or skills they don’t have. The role of the teacher, or the learning program is to help the student attain knowledge by delivering, facilitating, mediating and finally measuring learning. Once attained, the knowledge like any other can be applied to a given task and shared with others.

Pathway towards the learning goal

When you design a learning program, you start with a container of knowledge either held by an expert or within documents. Processing the learning program includes structuring the information to what the learners are supposed to acquire. And the path towards that learning goal is designed in a way that it offers them meaningful activities and ways of interacting.

This is what most learning programs cover. They are designed to increase the amount of knowledge and skills. But taking the definition of learning a bit further might help you to rethink your learning programs. Follow up for part two with a move into viewing learning as participation.

Topi Litmanen

Dr Topi Litmanen works as a Chief Educational Scientist in Claned Group. He is responsible for ensuring, that the pedagogical aspects of the Claned are based on latest learning research. Topi makes sure that Claned customers get the needed support for meeting their digital learning needs.

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