Principle 1

Principle 1 is a simple recognition that the word ‘learning’ is used in many different ways, and that this renders almost all generalisations about it invalid:

Principle 1: The word ‘learning’ is used to mean many different things, including, but not limited to:

  1. acquiring and being able to recall information,
  2. developing a new skill (physical or mental),
  3. developing a habit or automatic reaction (physical or mental).

Reflections and implications

This principle matters because discussions about learning frequently take this form:

Person A:          When people learn, they need X and Y to be successful.

Person B:           But when I learn I need Z.

Person A:          But in my workplace we need X and Y, not Z.

Person B:          But clearly in this story [tells story], Z was crucial.

Person A:          But this study [gives link] shows X and Y were crucial.

[Conversation continues, frustration grows. Issue remains unresolved.]

Here A and B are talking about two different activities that they both call ‘learning’. One needs X and Y, the other needs Z. The frustration this sort of conversation generates is not confined to the world of workplace L&D. Houwer, Barnes-Holmes and Moors laconically observe this in the conclusion to their paper What is learning?: “Given the central role of the concept of learning in psychology, it would be good if researchers could reach some level of consensus about what this concept actually entails.”

Their excellent paper (I recommend reading it) explores in detail some of the issues around defining learning, and illustrates how difficult it is to reach a definition acceptable across a particular discipline.

Rather than labouring to form a definition to add to the many that already exist, I want to suggest something simpler. Let us accept that the word ‘learning’ is legitimately used to cover a wide range of very different activities. Let us also accept the implication that this makes useful generalisation difficult. If someone begins a statement ‘All learning is…’, they should be asked to test this generalisation to see if it holds up.

Here are some examples of challenging these generalisations:

Generalisation: all learning is social

How does this cover someone learning to play the piano alone, or someone remembering a fact they have read? (The idea that this is somehow a social relationship between a reader and a dead author seems to be pushing the meaning of the word ‘social’.)

Generalisation: all learning requires repetition

Some people can remember some things – even quite complex things – without any repetition. The Ebbinghaus Curve certainly applies in particular circumstances, but it does not apply uniformly, across all learning endeavours.

Generalisation: ‘learning’ can only be seen when there is a change in behaviour

This might be part of a good definition in experimental psychology, but in workplace L&D, we must accept that people legitimately use the word ‘learning’ to mean they can now recall a piece of information, even if this has no immediate, observable effect on their behaviour.

It is not difficult to find other examples where generalisations seem useful, only to be rendered useless by a single counter example. The implication here is clear, and important: because the word ‘learning’ is used to mean many different things, generalisations about it are almost always useless.

In this first principle, I have deliberately not defined the word ‘learning’. I have, rather, focused on how important it is to accept the breadth of definitions used in practice by the very people in the workplace that L&D serves.

This is not to say, however, that ‘learning’ can simply mean anything. On the contrary, there is one important generalisation about learning which I believe does hold true, one factor common to any activity which we call ‘learning’. We explore this in our next principle.

Return to main page for L&D Principles.


This was originally published in September 2018 on LinkedIn.