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Language: Definitions of Learning

Words do not exist in isolation, they are part of an environment. We use words to define words and in this sense all words are metaphors for the experiences we communicate. They are not the actual things we are attempting to describe, but instead a representation of it, and this is a very enticing proposition. Language is at the foundation for much of what we say, do and think throughout our lives. Words are a kind of raw material that can be shaped, moulded, tuned, refined, designed, played with and explored in order to express ourselves. We can use a single word in a variety of ways, but they can also be used in very limiting ways.

Learning is a word that captures a wide variety of ideas and perspectives. It is not a simple word to develop an understanding of. Without assuming a basic position on it's meaning, however, discussing it coherently becomes difficult. But what is this basic position? ...

I view a dictionary as a place where I can glean the basic characteristics and personality of a word as it is being commonly used in my own culture. Remembering a definition does not mean that I understand it: understanding a word requires more than a dictionary can offer. As I mentioned above, words are always part of an environment - the total surround of our experiences in which we find them. Dictionaries, while elaborating common usage, often provide only a fleeting glimpse of their meaning. Nevertheless, dictionaries represent as useful starting point in building a grammar of learning.

Common targets found in definitions of learning:
a) Knowledge: learning is the means by which we acquire information, knowledge or understanding of something.
b) Skill: learning is the means by which we gain skills or capabilities in a particular area.
c) Memory: learning is the means by which we commit information to memory.
d) Behaviour: learning is the means by which we change and modify our behaviour.
e) Awareness and Attention: learning is the means by which we come to realize something we were previously unaware of.

Common processes found in definitions of learning:
a) Instruction: the notion that formalized training and/or education facilitate learning.
b) Experience (Practice): the notion that learning is embedded in the active participation in events or activities. This does not seem to use the word 'experience' in the more comprehensive sense of the totality of events that occurs in a person's life, but instead is more focused on controlled experiences such as apprenticeship (i.e. - specific practices). This is a misleading limitation.
c) Find out: learning is connected with the idea of discovery and exploration.

Synonyms and common phrases:
a) Erudition: usually refers to "deep" or "extensive" learning, which begs the question of what shallow learning might be. For some reason, the word tends to be used to describe experts with academic credentials.
b) Rote Learning: committing information to memory in the absence of understanding it.
c) Learn one's lesson: to have acquired a new understanding through a negative experience.
d) Learned person: usually someone that has received the status of a scholar or wise person.
e) Learning disability: a fundamentally arrogant view that people who are unable to acquire basic language skills are somehow disabled (but not arising from mental or physical impairment).
f) CBL: Computer-based learning - a term that is nonsensical, but usually points toward courses or instruction being delivered over computers and networks.
g) Learning curve: usually the acquisition of knowledge or skill as measured against time on a graph.

Current problems
a) Anthropocentrism: Definitions of learning are commonly limited to human experience. We know that animals do in fact learn but in ways that are obviously different from us. This tends to lead to ignorance about how the natural sciences describe learning.
b) Technocentrism: Definitions of learning lean toward ideas that originate in machines, that is to say, education and training. This creates the assumption that learning is integrated with education and training, which it is not.
c) Cultural Centrism: While necessary from a publishing perspective, the definitions refer to only a limited and narrow cultural experience and do not incorporate multicultural perspectives. Our culture would only stand to benefit from ideas about learning that are not our own.
d) Educational/Corporate Centrism: While educational and training institutions may have learning as a goal, they are typically directed toward that end in a limited way. The hidden (and incorrect) assumption is that instruction and course completion embody learning.

These problems are not intended as a critic on dictionaries or their publishers. At the same time, knowing how we are being influenced (positively and negatively) by the definitions circulating in our cultural ether is an important step in developing a richer and more rewarding grammar for learning.

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