Skip to content

Blog Post Back to Blog

May 27

Gail Brown

“What is learning?” Part 2

  • Mon 7th Jan 2013
  • Gail

Last week, I started sharing with you my “fantastic thinking journey” to answer this seemingly simple question: “What is learning?” How do we think when we learn different things?

However, it was my time travel back to a 1936 article that really stunned my thinking, when I read John Washburne’s paper titled “The Definition of Learning”, and he defined learning as:

 “an increase, through experiences, of problem solving ability” (page 611).

Simple, and succinct, yet quite profound and still current today. He links learning to our goals (think John Hattie’s goal setting), as well as effort and persistence (think Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset and Angela Duckworth’s Perseverance).

I find it amazing that something written in 1936 is still relevant after so much research, and in today’s world of technological changes. Washburne was almost prophetic in his definition, and even more amazing is the metaphor he used to create this seemingly simply definition. He likens learning to a simple electrical circuit, which has both external and internal resistance to the electricity.

Washburne discusses external resistance to learning, in terms of any obstacle external to the learner in the environment that might prevent learning. Today, this might include lack of materials, technology, devices, or being distracted by students or other activities (like emails or text messages). Internal resistance (internal within the learner) was outlined to include “impeding memories, habits, inferences, conflicting goals, and conflicting… activities” (page 604). Maybe distracting emails, phone calls or texts might apply here?

More importantly, and remember this was in 1936, Washburne wrote about what facilitated learning: effort that was “directed and concentrated”, “Help (external to the organism)”, and “memories which aid in… extension of experience toward the goal,… favourable habits” (page 604). Today, this help would include effective teacher instructions, and high quality teaching materials, as well as past successful learning.

Subsequent research in deliberate practice has confirmed the importance of effort, with a focus on the need for sustained deliberate practice over time to develop expertise (see Ericsson & Pool, 2017, for a review of this in their book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise). This is NOT simply “busy work at their desks” – deliberate practice is focused on ensuring that students learn, become fluent and remember the concepts or skills you have just taught them. This is part of what How People Learn II had in mind by their active learning.

My life lesson from this, for my own thinking, is that it’s important to consider evidence-based research, and yet, we can learn from others if we can link their message to what we already know from research, no matter how old their paper is!

Ericsson, K. A. & Pool, R. (2017). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise - Wikipedia

NAP (2018) How People Learn II

Washburne, J. N. (1936). The definition of learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 27(8), 603-611.


Comments (0)