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Questioning the nature of learning

The following article was largely inspired in response to reading the 2010 OECD report The nature of learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice. I was already grappling with the question of the nature of learning and had the intuition that the reason why policy-makers and staff of learning institutions alike find responding to the challenge of lifelong learning so difficult is because there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of learning. My hypothesis being that our difficulty to bridge the gap between school or university and learning throughout life as much as the gap between school and work in terms of learning is largely due to an unhelpful vision of the way learning works.
This text is a first attempt to put into words an alternative description of learning one of the results of which is to do away with the apparent insurmountable barriers between school and work and life when it comes to learning because those barriers turn out to be due to the way we see learning.


Learning in school or university is just that: learning! It involves a dedicated set of activities almost entirely devoted to learning. Whereas both in work and in life, most 'learning' activities are just one of many small activities within a given way of working. In other words, rather than being taken as an activity in itself, learning is imbedded in other activities. Being embedded they are not even necessarily perceived as learning because they don't correspond to what learning institutions have taught us to see as learning. Although we have only just begun to describe what learning is, we can immediately see that such apparently tautological statements as: "Learning with technology refers to situations in which someone uses technology with the goal of promoting learning" (OECD 2010 - Pg. 180) are misleading if not incorrect. Any technology can be used as part of a constellation of tools and resources to "learn".

A rich set of practices

Now we have to look closer. There are various ways of going about learning. You might call them learning strategies or learning practices. Learning institutions have a limited set of such practices or strategies. They may not be referred to explicitly as not all learning institutions actually address the question of learning. Limited? Think of the battle between schools of thoughts about the way to teach reading or writing, for example. Think also about how these ways are normative. Any other way would be frowned on if not decried. Think of the reaction of teachers to collusion between pupils during exams or the use of cribs. In another context these strategies would be quite normal. How would a team of nurses in a hospital be able to work if they didn't collaborate with each other to solve problems? How would a pilot safely fly an airplane without the help of a check list? And there lies the point: learning, especially in its many embedded forms, relies on an extremely large palette of ways of learning that goes way beyond the limited palette seen as acceptable learning in schools and universities.
One of the major ways of learning lovingly advocated by teachers and school administrations almost everywhere is that learning is the transmission of knowledge. This approach, which historically dominated schools and universities for centuries, is decried by progressive thinkers who see it as a barrier. Erik de Corte (OECD 2010), for example, quotes a study by Berry and Salhberg (1996) in which it was found that most 15 year-old pupils in England and Finland adhere to the knowledge transmission model. He sees this fact as a major barrier to transforming learning practices. However, if learning consists of picking and choosing appropriate ways of learning, then knowledge transmission is not, per se, a barrier. It is just one of the many ways to chose from. What may be a barrier, however, is the fact that people's choice of learning strategy is limited to only that one.

Combining and re-combining

We have talked about learning as being a set of practices or strategies or ways of doing things from which we chose. That is a rather vague and general category. Let's look a little more closely at those ways of 'learning'. In any given circumstances we complete our strategy or pattern of learning with a choice of tools and resources. The former may be online or offline or both. The later may be people or databases or books, or websites or maps or a picture. Nowhere is this approach of combining and re-combining ways of working, tools and resources better seen than in the online, mobile world. The way people pick and chose from amongst a great selection of small modular apps on telephones or tablets, combining them to select knowledge resources to fit their personal strategy has earned the name: personal learning environment. This is no fixed technological platform but a continually renewed process. Learning, especially embedded learning, then involves a constant process of combining and recombining personal learning strategies, tools and resources and the three mutually influence each other.
These choices are dictated by individual circumstances but also by culture and by the groups or communities a person belongs to. Authors like Wenger (Wenger 1998) and Lave (Lave & Wenger 1991) have developed the idea of learning in communities as being made up of practices that are continually evolving processes defined by negotiation between members of the community and that are intimately tied up with the identity of the community. This can best be understood by thinking of a professional community, say doctors, and what they consider to be acceptable practice, how that practice becomes acceptable and how being a doctor involves adhering to those practices.


One of the natural results of such a manner of seeing learning is that the way a given learning strategy is used, for all the component of shared practice mentioned above, is uniquely personal and situated. All talk of 'best practices' takes place on a much more abstract level, possibly adding to the palette of ways of learning but that practice is in no way better or worse that any other practice except in the original circumstances in which it was used. The notion of best practice prolongs the idea springing from learning institutions, that experts should chose the way people can or should learn. Whereas, ultimately the way an individual learns, even in a school class under the vigilant eye of a teacher, is always a choice that depends on the individual and/or the group he or she belongs to. Advocates of 'best practice' often fail to take into consideration the fact that practice is always taken up and combined with tools and resources in a process that is situated, personal, unique and constantly being renewed.

Individual or collaborative?

The above discussion seems to side firmly with those that see learning as individual and not collaborative. But the two are not mutually exclusive. Erik de Corte (OECD 2010 - Pg. 50-53) mentions that learning is both collaborative and individual. In other words, learning is:

  • Collaborative in the sense of social constructivism as a construction that takes place in interaction with others (people and tools) and,
  • Individual in that every individual's approach to learning is different even in the same circumstances.

So what is learning?

So now we have an approximate idea of what learning might be. It is more often than not embedded in other activities. Much of the meaningfulness of a learning activity derives from it being embedded. It relies on a rich set of practices and strategies that can be shared with other people. This set of strategies is much larger than the one put forward by learning institutions. Seen in the wider context, no particular strategy is necessarily wrong or right, good or bad. All depends on its use and the circumstances in which it is used. Learning involves a constantly renewed process of combining ways or strategies of learning, tools and resources that is individual, situated and unique. It is both highly individual and collaborative.

Having said that how can this way of seeing learning bring down the apparent barriers between learning in school, in work and in life? One of the first things that springs to mind is that in a rich palette of ways of learning it is not a question of adapting ways of learning in one context (school) so that it suits another context (work). Nor is it a question of adopting exciting new ways of learning (online life) in a different context (school). In all of these contexts it is a question of understanding the nature of learning and making the best choices of strategies, tools and resources for the given circumstances. The role of schools and universities, as places centred on learning, then becomes helping people understand the nature of learning and encouraging experimentation in combining different strategies, tools and resources, rather than enforcing the use of a limited range of learning strategies.

Educational reform

Hanna Dumont and David Istance (OECD 2010) underline the failure of repeated educational reforms to produce satisfying results. They say: "Reforms tend to rely particularly on manipulation of the institutional variables most amenable to policy influence or most in the public eye." (OECD 2010 - Pg. 20) And they go on: "This leads many to wonder whether we need new ways to influence the very interface of learning and teachings rather than to treat it as a 'black box'". (Pg 21) Our thinking leads us to believe that the influence they seek over learning can only be gained by a new way of seeing the nature of learning along the lines we put forward here and that embraces a much wider palette of ways of learning. But at the same time, it is possible that in the vision we present of learning, their wish to reform education in terms of changing ways of learning turns out to be misguided. The solution relies not in replacing one way by another, but in seeing all ways for what they are: strategies to chose from according to the circumstances.

Skill set

In this article we have concentrated on the form of learning rather than its content. One of the main reasons for this choice is that the predominant approach to learning is still in terms of content rather than in terms of learning processes. In policy circles, learning is currently seen in terms of developing a set of competences or skills needed by modern day society. It is interesting to note that Dumont and Istance in listing various types of "21st century skills and competences" (OECD 2010 - Pg. 23) make no mention of skills related to learning itself. They talk of applying skills learnt but not of the actual process of learning them. For example, the combination of tools and resources with various learning practices according to a given context, is an emerging but essential skill the would require additional attention. To be honest, a number of the higher order skills the authors mention are constituent parts of learning, but they are not mentioned as such by the authors. It is noteworthy that in a publication centred around the notion of lifelong learning, the essential competences related to learning itself are absent.


Dumont and Istance (OECD 2010) talking about so-called millennium learners say: "understanding how young people learn, play and socialise outside the classroom may thus prove to be a useful inspiration for educational innovation." This seems to suppose that ways and means coming from such activities as social networks (heavily used by the young and now the less young), for example, could usefully be transposed to classroom contexts. Such an assumption misses the point. Now, while such learning methods might be appropriate and stimulating in schools, the central question is not how can we make schooling more palatable or motivating, but rather, why is learning not motivating in schools. Theorists talk of deep learning when learning is taking place in a meaningful way for the learner. They see it as most appropriate for the long term construction of knowledge. When learning is embedded in other activities it is necessarily meaningful and the question of motivation does not arise. The situation requires it. There is only a problem when the person cannot develop a suitable strategy to access or construct the knowledge needed. The fact that learning in schools is generally not embedded, except through artificial exercises, goes some way to explaining the difficulty of schools to motivate young people to learn.

The role of ICT

Dumont and Istance (OECD 2010) talk of widespread disappointment in ICTs because they have not revolutionised learning environments. In fact they have indeed radically changed learning, but the perspective of the authors results in them not looking in the right place for the changes.They speculate that this may be " ... because the investments have focused too much on technology and not enough on enhancing learning opportunities, or because critical thresholds of ICT use for education have not been reached." (OECD 2010 - Pg. 21) From our perspective the problem lies elsewhere, in the failure to understand how learning takes place using ICT such that learning is embedded in other activities (rather than being activities purely designed for learning as in learning institutions), collaborative in nature (for example in peer exchange and social networking) and highly individualised (as exemplified by the personal combination and re-combination of tools and resources in personal learning environments) (McCluskey 2009). It is by providing ways and means of combining software tools and creating platforms destined for social networking that ICTs have brought radical changes to embedded learning and made much more apparent the importance of combining a choice of apps to carry out a particular activity.

Laying the foundations

Dumont and Istance talk of the role of schooling in lifelong learning, considering that it plays a central role. It does, but not in the way they intend. According to them research indicates that "the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes acquired during this early life-stage provide the foundation for the lifelong learning habit." (OECD 2010 - Pg. 23) Seen from the perspective of learning as a rich palette of learning practices that are individually continually re-customised, the authors' statement is clearly false. The "habits" of learning taught at school are often not those that are required elsewhere in life (and work). They are limited in scope and tied to an artificial context. They do not encourage self-directed learning but rather follow an expert driven curriculum. What's more, contrary to schools, learning outside of school (and even often within schools despite teachers efforts) is invariably embedded in other activities. In addition, school teaches many people that they are not made for learning; it's type of learning. So the claim that schools lay the foundation for lifelong learning, albeit reassuring given the investment and vested interests in schools, occults the fact that schools create a learning culture that is in many ways antithetical to learner-driven, learner-centred, non-institutional lifelong learning.

Starting point

The above use of research to justify conclusions, that, seen from a different perspective, appear false, raises the question of the foundations on which research is built. De Corte sees the challenge of learning as being in the relationship between research and "practice", as does the entire OECD publication about the nature of learning. The problem may well lie elsewhere, in the approach to research itself. Our example above illustrates that research may start from assumptions and a world-picture that cause the conclusions reached to be incorrect in the wider context or from a different perspective. It may sound zen to say so, but the starting point is always of capital importance in undertaking any journey. Starting from the wrong point can mean you never get to your wished-for destination. Put in other words, it is possible that certain aspects of what researchers, policymakers, practitioners and even learners currently assume about learning may be the reason why they can't get where they want to go. That is our conviction in putting forward an alternative perspective on learning.


Berry, J. and P. Sahlberg (1996), Investigating pupils’ ideas of Learning, Journal of Learning and Instruction, Vol. 1, No. 6, pp. 19-36.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: CUP

McCluskey, A. (2009) Configurations for learning and change, Saint-Blaise: Connected Magazine, http://www.connected.org/learn/configurations.html

OECD (2010) The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice; Paris: OECD.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise

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Created: March 13th, 2011 - Last up-dated: March 14th, 2011