What is Learning

Sounds pretty simple – what is learning. And yet like any good question, the answer usually isn’t quite so obvious. There was a best seller several years ago called “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Cute title, and the book had lots of examples of experiences we had in kindergarten and how they’re true today.

Except we didn’t learn them them in Kindergarten, we experienced them. I propose that’s the difference. Experiencing is one way of gaining knowledge, but not necessarily learning. Learning is when we incorporate that knowledge into our behaviors. For example, I know if I put my hand in a fire it will burn. After getting burned once, I probably won’t do that again. Yet even though I’ve learned it, sometimes other factors might cause me to put my hand in a fire again, such as being too cold. Let me share another example.

I learned from experience that if I drive a car fast on icy streets, I won’t have much traction. So I’m more cautious when I drive in those conditions. This is something many of us have experienced, but some of us have to experience it every year in winter to remember the consequences of not driving cautiously in those conditions. So for some it’s not learned, because although we know it, we either forget it or choose not to behave accordingly.

So when does experiencing something cause learning to occur, and when does learning cause behavior to change? Because that’s what I think we mean by learning – changing our behavior, not putting our hand in the fire or driving unsafely. And behavior (generally) takes a long time to change. It takes conscious, repeated effort of 12-15 months to move from a behavior to a habit. Or it takes commitment and often intrinsic reasons to move that behavior to a habit. Changing your diet because of health reasons might be that commitment.

So the next time you’re “learning” something, decide two things: 1) is this something I can use and if so, 2) how can I turn this learning into a behavior, and this behavior to a habit? And professionals in learning, be sure as you’re teaching something to find ways to make it easier for people to transfer that learning to a behavior and make it a habit. But that’s another topic!


About hprager

Father, husband, brother and son. Delighted to be friends and mentor to so many wonderful people. Passionate about: leadership, learning and development, education, nature and the environment, youth, music, jazz, the tuba, Israeli dancing, networking and helping others, humor, laughter, swimming, hiking, the Cubs, Northwestern athletics, theater, musicals, concerts, traveling and making new friends wherever I go. Helping the world be a better place when I leave it.
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