Commentary— On the Nature of Learning

October 9th, 2009

Human learning is both continual and unremarkable as well as mysterious and magical. Reflecting that duality, the title of this commentary is both banal and arrogant. Both the process and the products of our learning are complex and most of both remain covert, hidden from our view. As thinking agents, we can know that learning has happened but we cannot see, inspect, or deeply understand it, during or after the fact. On the other, banal side of the coin, who really cares about learning? Doesn’t it just happen? And why would anyone want to read about it?

Learning is indeed a mysterious process that always exceeds our full understanding, but failures to attend to learning are visible everywhere, and they concern important issues of public policy, including but not limited to schooling. Failing to attend to learning limits our understanding and progress and, sometimes it seems we simply decide not to learn. We become stuck in our cognitive or political ruts. All can benefit professionally and personally from greater attention to human learning. And some of the time, it’s not that hard.

I work in a university (which you already know if you are reading this entry) and have a responsibility to use my background and expertise for the public good. For most, the word learning evokes schooling, and some of what I have to say concerns students, teachers, classrooms, and schools. In the language of educational specialties, I am a card-carrying educational psychologist. That means I study human learning and development as they relate to schooling. But learning does not live at school and constraining learning to school contexts is a fundamental error. Something of the reverse is also true: There are lessons of learning in school contexts that are quite useful elsewhere.

I have come to know a good deal about a particular kind of learning—or better put, learning of a particular content—mathematics. Mathematics!?!! Before you click away, let me offer some reasons to withstand the toxic-shock of the M-word.

For some years I have studied how ordinary people, kids and adults, understand things mathematical in their lives—at school, at home, and at work. Learning mathematics is not, in the main, getting some version of what is written down in school math books into your head. It is mainly about how people make sense of mathematics, as it enters their lives—through school lessons, work demands, and everyday activity at home. And it does, like it or not, all the time. We all reason mathematically whether we see as such or not. What I have come to understand about learning has been certainly influenced by my focus on mathematical content. But that content has helped me see more about the learning process. And that has paid big dividends—outside of mathematics, and outside of schooling.

Attention to human learning has changed the way I perceive people and situations, made me a better listener, and much increased my capacity to lead and work with others. I am more useful in schools, but I also have more to contribute a lot more in other settings as well. Sharing some of that experience, past and present, is my reason for writing this commentary.