What We Talk About When We Talk About Learning

What do we mean when we talk about learning?

And how often do schools talk about what we mean when we talk about learning?

My sense is, we’re not clear on what we mean, and we don’t talk about it.

Learning is one of those words that becomes the air we breathe- we don’t see it so we’re not fully conscious of its presence or how it works on us.  And though learning is ostensibly the fundamental purpose of schools, we really don’t know what we really mean when we speak of it.

So we’re left with a vague conception of learning that generally means something like ‘acquiring knowledge,’ and this is a vague conception that can thus be measured by high stakes, standardized testing.  The vacuum left by our lack of clarity is filled with those (including, too often, us educators) who unthinkingly behave in accordance with these unspoken assumptions, and we’re left with a culture that determines the end purpose of learning to be an individualistic climb up the ladder of status, confuses  ‘achievement’ with learning, allows test scores and grades to serve  as evidence of  ‘learning,’ and abuses kids who are left harried, bored and robbed of their own personal engagement in the intellectual life.

In contrast to this, Gert Biesta has contributed a phrase that beautifully describes the task of education as a process of ‘coming into presence.’  I submit that this is what we truly want for our students:

While learning as acquisition is only about getting more and more, learning as responding is about showing who you are and where you stand.  It is about what I have called elsewhere a process of ‘coming into presence.’  Coming into presence is not something that individuals can do alone and by themselves.  To come into presence means to come into presence in a social and intersubjective world, a world we share with others who are not like us.  Coming into presence also isn’t something that we should understand as the act and the decision of pre-social individual. This is first of all because it can be argued that the very structure of our subjectivity, the very structure of who we are is thoroughly social…But it is also, and more importantly, because what makes us into a unique, singular being- me, and not you- is precisely to found in the way in which we respond to the other, to the question of the other, to the other as question.”   (Emphasis mine)

Learning is not some abstraction that can be acquired, regurgitated and easily measured.  It is a process that is concrete and completely dependent upon the minute by minute judgement of living humans who are far from working in accordance with a script.  And the intention of such an education is to ‘call into presence’ the power and uniqueness of our own personhood.

Biesta continues,

If education is indeed concerned with subjectivity and agency, then we should think of education as the situation or process which provides opportunity for individuals to come into presence, that is, to show who they are where they stand.  What does it mean to provide such opportunities? It first of all requires a situation in which students, learners, are indeed able to respond, are indeed able to show who they are and where they stand.  This not only means that there must be something that can respond to, that there is a situation in which learning is not confined to acquisition and copying.  It also requires that educators and educational institutions care about what their students think and feel and where they are allowed to express their thoughts and feelings.”  (Emphasis mine)

The interior lives of students matters if our concern involves the students’ subjectivity and agency.  If we care about authentic learning, then we must necessarily care about students’ subjectivity and agency.  (And if that is not our concern, our current approach of learning as regurgitation and testing is working fine.  Let’s just be honest about it.)  And let’s be clear about what we mean by learning.

Please read the rest of Biesta’s article here– it is rich with insight and well worth your time.

For more on Biesta’s work on ‘learnification,’ see Learnification Part 1: Making Bank Off the Banking Concept and The Importance of the Teacher: Learnification Part 2


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