How To Redefine Learning for the 21st Century

Most of the articles and podcasts here on MetaLearn fall under the theme of learning so it’s a word I use regularly. The aim of this post is to to explore how others have defined it over the years and to present a new definition that's fit for the 21st Century.

How To Redefine Learning for the 21st Century

Do We Have to Define Learning?

Words have meanings and we use them to communicate with each other.

But it’s amazing how often we use one word when we mean another and this is often the major source of disagreement in everything from philosophical discussions to conversations with our family members.

If we both use the same word when we mean different things and don’t clarify what we’re talking about, we can end up going around in circles without realising it because we’re completely unaware of each other’s assumptions.

While defining terms may seem tedious it’s essential to start any discussion on the same page in order to avoid confusing or even misleading people.

Most of the articles and podcasts here on MetaLearn fall under the theme of learning so, unsurprisingly, it’s a word I use regularly in my work. The aim of this post is to clarify exactly what I mean when I use the word learning and to explore how others have defined it over the years.

Learning is Not Education or School

Learning has lost its central meaning in everyday language. Many people’s eyes glaze over if you talk to them about learning because the words immediately evoke images of sitting passively in a classroom, listening to a teacher and trying to avoid mistakes.

People have collapsed the idea of learning with the idea of school, and the type of education that takes place there.

In a previous post, I explored the differences between education and learning. While the terms are often used synonymously, they are not the same thing. While learning is at the very core of education, it only relates directly to the content and methods of education – what is taught and how it’s taught.

But education itself is part of a much broader field that includes questions about the role of the state and the organisation of the school system. A school is thus a component of the educational system – one of the building blocks in the overall structure of the whole.

Ultimately a good educational system should create schools and universities that promote learning. But because our educational system is doing such a poor job of this, people are collapsing the ideas of school, education and learning into one.

There is nothing wrong with education when it’s done properly and there are many examples of alternative schools that produce exceptional results. We should differentiate between good and bad schools, good and bad education rather than rejecting the concepts of education and school outright.

Learning is Holistic

Perhaps my favourite definition of learning comes from American educationalist and philosopher John Dewey whose ideas are often cited but rarely understood.

Dewey defined learning as the amount of “emotional, intellectual, moral and spiritual growth that a man accomplishes over the course of his life”, seeing it as a holistic process that wasn’t isolated to the intellectual sphere.

According to Dewey’s definition, learning is not just about understanding how to solve simultaneous equations or crafting a well-argued explanation of history.

It’s about playing musical instruments, performing theatre and practicing sports. It’s about becoming a better parent or friend, making judgements about what’s right and wrong and communicating our thoughts and feelings.

Ultimately, learning is a process through which we continuously seek to understand ourselves and the world around us. Or as Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti puts it more eloquently – “The whole movement of life is learning.”

Learning is Growth

What exactly does Dewey mean when he equates learning with growth? Surely, growth must have a purpose, a final outcome that it’s moving towards - growth towards what exactly?

Dewey insisted that this question was inconsistent with the concept of growth itself. He viewed growth from a naturalistic perspective, not from the more mechanistic lens we often view it through now - today we talk about economic growth as a means to raising living standards and revenue growth as a means to increasing business profits.

Using the same mental model, learning should always have a very specific end – learning to code in order to start a business, learning a language to speak to a client or picking up a sport to get fitter.

While I think having a clear understanding of your motivation for learning something is crucial, it’s not the only thing that matters. Learning isn’t just a means to an end, it’s also an end in itself – and this is what Dewey was getting at by defining learning as growth.

This makes more sense if we think of growth as analogous to life. What is the purpose of life? Countless philosophers have spent their lives exploring this question, often coming to the conclusion that it can’t be answered.

But from a naturalistic lens like, the one used by Dewey, the answer is simple – the purpose of life is more life. The purpose of growth is more growth; and by extension the purpose of learning is simply more learning.

Learning is Active

Learning has become synonymous with taking in information passively and retaining it. This is one of the biggest misconceptions we carry into our lives after leaving the educational system.

The truth is that all learning is active. It isn’t a process of having something done to you – it’s a process of you doing something to yourself. This doesn’t matter whether you’re learning with a teacher (by instruction) or without a teacher (by discovery).

As American philosopher Mortimer Adler put it:

“All learning is fundamentally an active process, a process of learning from experience, of learning by doing, not by having something done to oneself. That’s why it’s so wrong to say, “I’ll learn you” instead of “I’ll teach you.” For even when I’m teaching you it’s you who has to do the learning by yourself.”

Socrates, perhaps one of the greatest teachers and learners of all time captured this active element of learning perfectly when he compared his role as a teacher to that of a midwife.

“All I do,” he said “is assist the birth of knowledge, the birth of the understanding of ideas in someone else’s mind. And by helping them in the labour of discovery, I make the process of discovery easier for them and less painful.”

Learning is for Life

Learning doesn’t stop when we leave school. It doesn’t stop when we leave university. Learning is the process of a whole lifetime and adult learning is the most important part of the process.

The importance of this continued learning is growing exponentially as we continue to move from a knowledge economy to a learning economy. Whereas a few decades ago it may have been enough for us to master a field of specialised knowledge and spend our careers using that to earn a living, we now need to constantly pick up new skills and knowledge just to stand still and stay relevant.

As Joichi Ito, director of the revered MIT Media Lab notes, “in a time where so much of what we know is being continuously revised or made obsolete, the comfortable expert must return to being a restless learner.”

And contrary to another popular misconception, this isn’t just a possibility limited to the younger members of society – we are never too old to learn. Much of this belief is the result of collapsing the growth and ageing of the body with the growth and ageing of the mind.

While the research on the mental ageing process is largely inconclusive, one thing is certain – if you believe you’re too old to learn, you will be – or as Henry Ford put it “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”

Learning How To Learn

Ultimately, the definition of learning in this post is really what my role here at MetaLearn is all about.

I want to help you become fully self sufficient in directing your learning so that you can master the knowledge and skills you need to make an impact on the world around you.

I want to help you rediscover learning  as a holistic, active process, a vehicle for personal growth and an essential part of living a good life.

I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers but I'm committed to providing you with practical advice to help you thrive on your learning journey.

Because the journey is the destination.