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> The Definition of Learning

Does the rise of high technology render obsolete our present way of thinking about learning?  Are we being compelled by the tidal wave of modern communications technology to re-think what we're doing within the confines of brick and concrete in isolated classrooms?

Are we being asked to re-think who can learn what?  How?  At what age?  Where?  Under what conditions? 

Learning seems to be a part of the very condition of human life.  No one can be alive, in any acceptable sense of the idea of life, and not learn.  Learning and living seem almost to be unthinkable apart from one another.  To define learning can be as mind-boggling a task as to define life itself.

For one thing, we've all done lots of learning.  That's a fact of life.  If we hadn't, we wouldn't be able to walk, or talk, or read, or write.  Then why can't we define it?  That's simple to explain.  The concept represents a vast and complex range of phenomena.  In this regard, the idea of learning is somewhat like the idea of time.  If someone asks you for the time, you can tell them what time it is.  But if someone asks you what is time, you would be hard put to answer them.  Don't worry.  So would any scientist.

Here are some dictionary definitions of learning, just to give you a picture of what I'm trying to tell you.

- knowledge acquired by systematic study in any field or fields of scholarly application (Random House College Dictionary, 1983)

- the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill (Random House College Dictionary, 1983)

- The modification of behavior through practice (Random House College Dictionary, 1983)

- training (Random House College Dictionary, 1983)

- experience (Random House College Dictionary, 1983)

Synonyms that have been suggested for learning are: education, scholarship (Websters New World Thesaurus); acquisition of knowledge, study, inquiry, search, research, analysis (Rodale: The Synonym Finder).

> Trial and Error Learning

For some, learning is a matter of trial and error.  I suppose some learning is a consequence of experimenting and making mistakes.  On the other hand, to say that all human learning is simply trial and error seems too foreign to our personal experience to take seriously as a model of all types of learning.

> Learning by Imitating

Another way children seem to learn is by imitating what they see and hear.  Grownups sometimes do this too.  Remember how you learned to speak, or learned a new language.  Again, we might be forcing our model to say that all learning takes place this way. 

Perhaps much learning does depend upon our ability to imitate what we see and hear.  In many ways, we seem to copy the mannerisms and behaviors of our parents, our peers, and other persons who might have been or might be significant figures in our upbringing.  After all, much advertising seems to be based on the idea that we like to imitate those who are famous and important and attractive to us.

> Learning as Conditioning

Others suggest that learning is a complicated process of animal-like conditioning.  Learning is describe in terms of a biological process of stimulus and response.  It's a matter of establishing favorable neural connections through mechanisms of pleasure and pain.  Much that occurs formally in school settings seems to give strong credence to this way of thinking about learning.

> Other Concepts of Learning

For some, the idea of learning is associated with reading, or reciting, or listening to lectures, or long hours of practising.  What is your concept of learning?  How would you describe to someone what learning is?  What would put into your design of a school, or a learning program?  Rather difficult when getting to putting on paper specific details, isn't it?

Again, it's somewhat like the question of time.  If you ask me what the time is, I can tell you.  If you ask me what time is, I am lost for words.  Yet, we are able to design a system for keeping track of time.  And time management continues

to be an important topic of consideration for business management, for the management of classroom instruction, in fact for all areas of living.

If you ask me what I've learned, I can tell you, or show you.  If you ask me what learning is, I am lost for words. 

> Models versus Definitions

I want to refer to an article I wrote, "Psychological Modeling and the Dimensions of Human Consciousness," published in the JOURNAL OF THE SOCIETY FOR ACCELERATIVE LEARNING AND TEACHING (1981, 6(2):74-79).  Here I suggest that people operate according to certain models in their heads.  This includes psychologists, teachers, intellectuals, and scientists as well. 

Models are peculiar in several ways.  They immediately and concretely REPRESENT something directly observable, something which literally can be manipulated.  A model once communicated to another human being can be imitated or replicated. 

Models are neither explanations of reality, nor are they right or wrong, logical or illogical.  A model is either easily communicated or difficult to communicate to others, helpful or not helpful to us, adequate or inadequate, useful or no use to us. 

Any model of human experience, insofar as it is a model, must be specific and empirical.  It must be based on what someone can see, hear, feel, taste, smell.  It must be content-free, that is, specific without being individual.  It must include definite criteria for doing whatever is to be done.  Models, in conclusion, tell you what to do, when to do it and what you can expect as a result.  

"Most students, if I may generalize from many years of teaching psychology to adults, approach the study of psychology without much practice in describing how they behave in given situations or how others behave in the same situations.  Mostly they judge or question the rightness or wrongness of what they are doing or feeling, or what others are doing or feeling.  Or they analyze motives and intentions.   Seldom if ever do they describe what they or others are doing or feeling, or do they question with a view to clarifying what they or others are experiencing.  In many instances, I have discovered that such students

just have not developed a vocabulary for adequately describing their personal experiences" (Brodeur, op.cit.,p.75).

If you are interested in reading more about psychological models I recommend the following texts:

R. Bandler and J. Grinder: The Structure of Magic, a Book about Language and Therapy. Volume I (Science and Behavior Books, 1975).

R. Bandler and J. Grinder: Frogs Into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming (Real People Press, 1979).

D. Gordon: Therapeutic Metaphors (Meta Publications, 1978)

S.R. Lankton: Practical Magic: A Translation of Basic NeuroLinguistic Programming into Clinical Psychotherapy (Meta Publications, 1980).

> Developing a Model Of Learning: Changing the Question

I would like to approach the the question of learning from another perspective.  I'd like to change the question.  For me, another kind of question, more important and more useful, is a right-brained type of question.  It goes something like this.  WHAT MUST I BE ABLE TO DO TO BE ABLE TO LEARN?

There's another question related to this last one, and equally important, which I shall address later.  The question is this:  WHAT MAKES IT POSSIBLE FOR ANYONE AT ALL TO LEARN?

Notice, I'm not asking you to define something called learning.  I'm asking you to list those activities, among all anyone can possibly do, which are necessary for anyone at all to learn.

> The Activities of Teachers in the School

Before listing the activities of learning, try listing the activities of teachers, who, hopefully, are good models of learning.

List some ways you have noticed teachers acting in school.  List whatever comes to mind no matter how trivial, how good or bad, how seemingly inconsequential.  List whatever you can remember.

One teacher listed what he called teaching activities.  Teachers, he observed, are not always teaching, whatever that is.  They are often busy doing whatever teachers have to do as part of their job as teachers. 

If you want to know more about what he says, you can read his book (Thomas F. Green: The Activities of Teaching, published by McGraw-Hill, 1971).

He lists activities like:

talking, collecting money, counseling

and guiding, disciplining, evaluating and criticizing, filling out reports, talking with parents, planning, talking with other teachers, attending meetings, explaining, defining, concluding or demonstrating, patroling the hall, taking attendance, asking questions, directing traffic, supervising the cafeteria, conveying information, giving instruction, writing textbooks, running projectors, making transparencies, correcting homework, designing tests, and so on. 

I've added a few to his list.  Notice the choice of words! Do you notice anything peculiar about them?  Are some rather vague, and others quite specific?  Describing human actions in specific, concrete, easily identifiable terms seems to be rather difficult for most people?  Including psychologists!

Green later goes on to divide teaching activities into different categories.  He gets more controversial here.  Sometimes categories can be more troublesome than helpful.  His categories are:

- logical activites (or perhaps, intellectual activities?)

- strategic activities (or perhaps, methods and techniques?)

- institutional activities (or perhaps, housekeeping tasks?)

He later makes even more value-laden distinctions, like conditioning, instructing, training and indoctrinating.

In 1983, an article appearing in the "Phi Delta Kappan," reported observations of teacher-student activity in the classroom.  The population studied lived in the United States.  I doubt the results would differ significantly if the study were done in Canada.

Here are some findings from this report:

- students are exposed to about two hours of "teacher talk" during a five-period day

- about 7 out of 150 minutes, on the average, involve teachers' responses to individual students

- teachers appear to teach in a few set ways which rely mostly on teacher talk and monitoring seatwork

- traditional methods of teaching put the teacher very much in control of the learning

- students rarely plan or initiate anything, read or write anything of some length, or create their own products

- students scarcely ever speculated on meanings, and mostly they listened or worked alone

> A Learning Model For Teachers

I propose a model with five basic categories of activities which I feel are necessary if anyone is going to learn.  The art and science of teaching would demand paying strict attention to these activities.  They are: 


> Noticing or Paying Attention

Somehow we must be able to NOTICE, to PAY ATTENTION, if we are going to learn.  Every teacher acknowledges this fact when asking students to PAY ATTENTION, knowing that if students don't pay attention, they won't learn whatever the teacher wants them to learn.

How do we get students to pay attention, to notice that there's something for them to learn?  How can I get you to pay attention, not to tune out, not to ignore what I'm saying, what you're doing, what I'm doing, what others are doing?

The psychology of noticing is better known as the PSYCHOLOGY OF PERCEPTION, one of the largest specialized areas in the science of psychology.  Without the ability to use our senses, there would be no learning. 

If you want to know more about this aspect of the learning process, then you would want to study the psychology of human perception.  Many textbooks are devoted solely to perception.  It's a vast field of research, which has taught us much about how we experience the world around us.  Yet, relatively speak

ing, much is unknown.  Some phenomena of human perception still mystify scientists. 

The ability to notice relies extensively upon the ability to notice what we see, hear, taste, touch, feel.  Intelligence seems to depend largely upon sensory input.  Intelligence tests call upon this ability, the ability to discriminate differences and recognize similarities.

Those who write about spiritual matters seem to place great store upon the development of powers of discernment, to develop in the student special sensitivity to subtle differences at levels of consciousness more complex than simple sensory awareness.   In more concrete terms, discernment might be said to be the power to tell the difference between the true and the false, the real and the illusory, the good and the evil. 

To the extent we move about in trance-like condition, not seeing, not hearing, not feeling, to that extent we probably deprive ourselves of the capacity to learn from experience.  More directly, it would seem that to increase our potential to learn, we must develop our powers of observation. 

> Remembering

We must be able to REMEMBER to notice, to remember to pay attention to what we have already noticed, if we want the new to become a permanent part of us.  Learning seems to include that idea, that what we have learned is somehow deeply impressed upon us and permanently retained. 

In school, teachers were constantly reminding us to correct our mistakes or omissions.  Often, children don't notice mistakes or omissions.  Teachers notice for them.  They remember to notice mistakes, and to notice omissions.  They also remember how to correct them. 

Now we're adults.  It's more difficult.  We have no one willing to remember for us.  We have to find ways to remind ourselves what to do, and when. 

I've devised a simply card system.  I put cards at strategic points: on the dresser, on my desk - at home and at the office.  I put the NOTICE anywhere I'm likely to PAY ATTENTION to it.  On the card I put what I'm supposed to remember, whether it's to remember to do something, or to practise something, or to remember to notice something, like getting myself to "relax" from time to time, or to notice that I'm getting tense, so I can call upon my ability to relax when I most need it. 

> Practising or Repetition

Another important part of learning is practising.  PRACTISE!  PRACTISE!  PRACTISE!  To increase our powers of observation, to get better at noticing, to be in the habit of paying attention, we must practise. 

Aristotle thought learning was simply habit-forming process.  For many centuries, scholars used the idea of "habits", getting in the habit, so to speak, to explain human behavior.  It became a key to understanding human learning and motivation.  Education was simply for the purpose of cultivating good habits. 

Perhaps, Aristotle was not too far off the mark with his idea of learning as a process of forming new habits.  Today, physiological psychologists talk about "neural patterning," or "imprinting" or "mental impressions," all related ideas.  And more recently, people like Bandler and Grinder have proposed an idea they call "neurolinguistic programming."

Without the discipline of practising, it's difficult to conceive how we could learn.  If, as students, we are unwilling, on a regular basis, to put time and energy into practising what we want to learn, then little or no learning is likely to take place.  I am constantly amazed how many of our university graduate are opposed to the idea that learning requires practise or that changing patterns of behavior requires rather lengthy periods of practise and application of effort to get results.

The branch of contemporary psychology concerned with problems of practising, such as how to encourage practising, and the conditions under which practising could be effective, is called the psychology of behavior modification.  It's also been called conditioning theory. 

The detractors of conditioning theory like to call it brain washing.  Whatever you choose to call it, the fact remains that learning involves practising, constant repetition, until the appropriate neural patterns have been securely encoded.  Another name sometimes given to the kind of psychology concerned with techniques for effective practising is stimulus-response psychology.

> Planning

Learning takes TIME, a fact that grownups seldom like to acknowledge, as I have just mentioned above.  Here I want you simply to recognize the fact that it takes time to practise. And as we get older, we have many more demands on our time than when we were younger.  This compels us to set priorities, something

I have noticed many people put off doing.

Students sometimes tell me they don't have much time to put into studying what I want them to learn.  This tells me something about their priorities.  It doesn't mean necessarily that they don't like what I'm teaching them.  They simply don't consider what I'm teaching them as important as something else they could be doing.  

As you may have noticed, devoting some of your time to an activity is a matter of priorities.  This, in turn, is a matter of values, of what's important to you.  And this, in turn, is the result of making up your mind (choosing or deciding).

What factors go into making the kinds of personal decisions we do make is, of course, a fascinating as well as a complex subject of study.  How much our inclinations influence our important decisions, and how much thought we give to our decisions are questions of interest to management psychologists.  Time management is frequently a subject of seminars and a topic for best-sellers today. 

Whatever your motives may be, if you want to learn some psychology, it's going to take time. And it's going to take even more time if you want to put to use practically what you know intellectually.  Your learning will be commensurate with the time you put in, on a regular basis, to learn, along with the amount of concentration and effort. 

Notice, time alone isn't enough.  Concentrating is equally important.  The greater your powers of concentration, the more effective the time you put in and the more effective your efforts.

How much time are you willing to devote to learning?  In general?  Specifically?  The clearer you are about this, and the more honest with yourself about it, the better the results. 

The psychology devoted to our use of time is, of course, the psychology of decision-making.  Sub-headings would be the psychology of valuing and the psychology of self-management.  

How do we get our values ?  Where do they come from?  How do we decide our priorities?  Or do we?  Do others decide them for us?  Are we simply subject to other people's priorities, those of our parents, our teachers, our government officials, our spouses, our culture, our bosses, our peers?  How much control do we have over what values we accept and act out?  Perhaps a lot more than we've ever NOTICED, or learned to have.

In addition to getting our priorities in order, we need a strategy, a plan to get whatever it is we want.  If what we want is to learn something, to achieve some skill, some expertise, we must do some planning, planning of our time and our selection of and allocation of our other resources, like our money, our friends, our emotional energies.

The problem of organization becomes quite important, especially as we get older.  To be able to continue learning, as we get older, takes considerably more self-discipline and organizing of time and resources as we get older.  In our younger years, others did our planning and organizing for us.  A pity we are never taught in school how to plan and organize ourselves effectively. 

Read what I've said about managing your time.  Obviously, planning and the use of time are closely related in way that makes them almost one and the same thing.  Topics to consider under planning are:  setting objectives, establishing priorities, time estimates, cost, sequencing of steps to be taken, record keeping, reviewing, problem solving, effective writing and communicating.  

> Reviewing

Reviewing entails testing and evaluating where we've come from and where we are and where we want to go.  This provides us with feedback needed to assess our progress and to know what steps to take next to improve or to move forward. 

Data gathering (record keeping), statistics, test construction, and the interpretation of test results become crucial considerations.  An important part of every teacher's training program should be training in techniques for observing behavior, test construction and techniques of measurement.  Otherwise how are we to assess learning and apply remedies when needed?  In my opinion, no persons should consider themselves truly educated who lack an understanding of numerical reasoning applied to their own experience.

Another important technique for reviewing and planning our lives is the practice of meditation.  Much has been said on this subject; nevertheless it continues largely to be ignored by educators in the western part of the world.

Another valuable technique for evaluating our progress and for getting insights enabling us to give better direction to our futures is the journal technique.  Keeping a journal is a wonderful technique for assessing where we've come from,

where we've been heading and for gaining insight to where we're likely to end up if we keep on as we are.


The following are what psychologists call "forced choice" questions.  There are only two possible answers to each question and you must choose one of them even if you don't think either is appropriate.  Pick the answer that is more likely to apply to your behavior.  There are no right or wrong answers.  Complete the psychograph quickly.  Your first response to a question is likely to be the most honest.

1. Which of the following statements is more characteristic of you?

a) I'm a tense person; I worry about getting things right; I'm more nervous than most people

b) I'm relaxed and easygoing; you can't fight life, so you may as well roll with the punches

2. Do you get depressed a lot?

a) Yes b) No

3. Think about the music you like.  Would you say that (a) the beat or (b) the melody is more important to you?

4. If you were learning a new skill, which of the following ways of acquiring knowledge would appeal to you more?

a) reading books and attending lectures on the subject

b) an "experience oriented" approach consisting of field trips, workshops, lab work, and apprenticeship

5. If you were in college, which of these two majors would you select?

a) art or b) math

6.  Which of these games would you rather play?

a) scrabble or c) checkers

7. Which statement more accurately describes your behavior?

a) I'm an impulse buyer; when I want something, I get it even if I can't afford it

b) I'm a deliberate shopper; I think about something before I buy it.  Sometimes I wait so long that what I want is sold out by the time I decide to buy it.  I often talk myself out of things I first thought I wanted.

8. Are you often unsure of your grammar?

a) yes b) no

9. When you learn something new, how does the process usually work?

a) I flounder around until suddenly a light goes on and I get the knack of it; understanding seems to come all at once, as if a curtain had been lifted or a door opened

b) I work gradually, learning one aspect at a time; eventually I begin to understand all the pieces and can put the whole picture together

10. If you had to solve a problem, which would you choose?

a) a crossword puzzle

b) a jigsaw puzzle

11. Do you often have hunches?

a) yes b) no

12. If you could do only one or the other, would you rather

a) read a book?

b) see a movie?

13. Do you often have trouble putting your feelings and opinions into words; do you have trouble expressing what you really mean?

a) yes b) no

14. If you have to park a car parallel to the curb, do you a) usually get it right the first time

b) usually have to pullout at least once and try another time

15. If you were taking a trip and someone were giving you directions would you prefer that he

a) write down the directions, listing the route numbers, turnoffs and landmarks in order

b) show you the route on a map

16. When you're choosing clothes, are you likely to select

a) fabrics with a lot of texture, such as leather, suede, thick wools, silk shirts, corduroy

b) relatively understated fabrics, such as cottons and normal weight suits

17. Do you remember faces well?

a) yes b) no

18. Do you remember people's names well?

a) yes b) no

19. With which of the following statements would you be more likely to agree?

a) there are many things that science will never be able to explain

b) there's a natural law that governs everything; therefore, science should eventually by able to explain things that at first appear to be mysteries

20. Are you a better-than-average athlete?

a) yes b) no


Of the two answers to each question, one is more likely to be chosen by a left-brained person and the other by a right-brained person.  Left-brain choices here are indicated by L, right-brain choices by R.  Check your answers against this key and then add of your total numbers of L and R Responses

1. (a) L (b) R 11. (a) R (b) L

2 (a) R (b) L 12. (a) L (b) R

3. (a) L (b) R 13. (a) R (b) L

4. (a) L (b) R 14. (a) R (b) L

5. (a) R (b) L 15. (a) L (b) R

6. (a) L (b) R 16. (a) R (b) L

7. (a) R (b) L 17. (a) R (b) L

8. (a) R (b) L 18. (a) L (b) R

9. (a) R (b) L 19. (a) R (b) L

10. (a) L (b) R 20. (a) R (b) L

This psychograph does not break down into precise scoring categories.  Brain research is too new a science to have devised any definitive, or predictive tests.  However, large amounts of data have been gathered and it is this research that enables us to lay out some guidelines and make some educated judgements.  You should therefore think of your answers as indicators of probability.

If you chose 13 or more L answers, it is probable that your brain's left hemisphere exerts the dominant force on your personality.  If you chose 13 or more R answers, it is most likely that the right brain dominates.  If you ended up with a relative balance between your L and R answers (that is, if you didn't score more than 12 or fewer than 8 in either category), you are in a special middle group below in the balanced brain section.


The left cerebral hemisphere's skills are those that, at least since the Renaissance, have been most favored by Western Civilization.  It is analytical, rational and practical. People dominated by the left brain do not long for a mystical union with the cosmos; they just want the facts, ma'am!  Because the left brain is almost entirely responsible for all human verbal skills, people in this category tend to be good conversationalists and writers.  In fact, when a split-brained patient talks, it's his left brain alone that is speaking to you.  Information contained in the right brain cannot be expressed in words, since that hemisphere has the approximate linguistic ability of a three or four years old child.

Most technocrats, scientists, mathematicians, computer experts are left brained.  So are lawyers.  They use the hemisphere's logic ability to assemble bits of disparate information into a coherent whole.  Because they combine linguistic and logical abilities so well, people in this category are often brilliant and witty.  But, others come across as driven, nervous and fanatically single-minded.  Ralph Nader, for instance, is a classic left-brain man.  He is devoted to a single goal and allows virtually no outside interests to interfere.


People dominated by their right brains tend to be intuitive and emotional.  They take a Holistic approach to life; they sense things all at once and don't like to get bogged down in details.  They see the gestalt of things, instinctively absorbing the subtle connections and relationships that make up their sphere of consciousness.  There is considerable evidence that creativity is centered in the right brain.  So is spatial perception.  Consequently, most artists are right-brain people. 

Even science at its most creative levels seems to be right brain, according to Einstein's statement when he said that most of his important discoveries came to him as images, in pictures, not words.  Only after he had the inspiration, did he go back and let his left brain work out the linguistic and mathematical descriptions of his discoveries.

Right brain people also have a deep-seated musical sense.  Alexander Luria of Moscow's Burdenko Institute (he is one of the world's most famous brain specialists) once treated a patient, a composer, whose left hemisphere had been incapacitated by a stroke.  The man couldn't say a word, but with his unaffected right brain he went on composing as well as before.  The exception to this rule is the professional musician.  Rather than creating music, he must have extreme technical competence in order to reproduce it accurately.  Therefore, he is likely to be left brained. 

For him, music is not inspiration or melody but a line of notes, a language, to be put in order by his left brain.  Right brained people are also more easily hypnotized.  As a group they are more athletic.  They are also people who can remember your face but not your name.  The face, being an object in space, is remembered by the right brain.  The name, a linguistic construct, is stored in the left brain and thus is not so easily retrieved by the right-brained people.  People in this category make good Californians;they tend to be laid back and mellow.  But their passivity can sometimes disintegrate into withdrawal and depression.


Between the two extremes described above are people whose personalities blend the characteristics of both brain hemispheres.  They are nice folks to be around, since they are not likely to exhibit either the extreme single-mindedness of the left-brained types or the terminal hollowness of some right-brainers.  Depending upon your career, this will never let the other dominate, neither brain is likely to achieve the full exercise of its talents.  yet that limitation may prove a boon in fields that require the skills of the middle-man or the mediator.  True, you may never be a great writer, but you may make a hell of an editor.  You may not be a great artist, but you may make a smashing success as a gallery owner.  You may not be able to design computers, but you may be able to sell them very well.  Your ability to match names with faces could be the basis for a promising political career.

One last thing; you should be great at charades, given the balance you have between your right brain, which gives you the manual dexterity, and your left brain, with its linguistic abilities.  If you are ever offered a job as a professional charades player, take it - you should go far!