What is learning?


How do we learn? 

What makes us learn?

How do we know that we have learned something? 

Have you ever stopped to consider these questions?  Let’s start with the fundamental question: What is learning?

While examining the physiological nature of learning, Paul A. Kirschner, a profession of educational psychology, sought to answer that question by examining research on short-term and long-term memory.  Kirschner theorizes that the role of short-term, or working memory, is to absorb new information, known as stimuli, either seen (visual-spatial) or heard (auditory).  Working memory organizes the new stimuli, contrasts, compares, and analyzes it and then determines if the new information represents something meaningful and useful to know.  If working memory determines it is something we should know, it sends the stimuli, organized into packets (schema), to the long-term memory.  Long-term’s role is to convert and store the schemata packets for later retrieval and use.  Kirschner theorizes that this is the process of “learning” otherwise referred to as the cognitive load theory.  The “problem” is, as Kirschner sees it, that physiological research confirms that working memory is restricted and limited to loading a maximum seven schema packets at any given time.  If more schema is loaded than can be processed, working memory becomes overburdened and stressed while determining what it should keep (intrinsic cognitive load) and what it can dump (extraneous cognitive load) and must make that decision within a matter of seconds.  The result could be that important intrinsic cognitive load could get dumped because it is connected to unimportant extraneous cognitive load, which can interfere with the germane cognitive load process (the process of storing information for later retrieval and use).  Kirschner’s theory is, when this happens, learning does not take place.  Kirschner lays the blame for failed germane cognitive load directly at the feet of instructors and instructional designers. He warns that care should be taken during delivery and design to ensure intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load are not so tightly interwoven that it interferes with germane cognitive load, which can make it impossible for learners to learn (Kirschner, 2002).

Equally important, while examining the psychology of learning, Jurgen Habermas, a noted German sociologist and philosopher, theorizes that learning is a deliberate social process (social constructivism).  Specifically, when interviewed, Haberman advocated that society determines what is worthwhile to be learned, but refuses to  accept responsibility for ensuring that only truth should be taught.  Habermas advocates that society should dictate that what is to be taught should be dependent upon the continuation, reconstruction, and cynical testing of its concept of valid truth.  Habermas opines that there is a cognitive dimension to democracy, but, that deliberate communicative actions are required to ensure people can function within society in a rational and productive manner.  Essentially,  Habermas’ critical learning  and teaching theory is learning requires deliberate acts that include the gathering and presentation of facts to be communicated between a teacher and learners that focuses on what has been determined by society to be acceptable and valid truths (strategic communications).  Teachers should then challenge learners to engage in activities to prove that those facts are indeed valid (constative communications) and true and that the validated facts align with societal values and mores (normative communications).  Habermas states it is only then that democratic societies can engage in valid communicative speech acts and expressions (dramaturial communications) that ensure democracy is fair and just because it is driven by, and is a specter of, truth and liberty  (Haberma, 2007).  What this means to me is that Habermas advocates that, unless society deliberately ensures that what is to be learned is valid and true, it is not learning at all.  It is just the perpetuation of educated and institutionalized ignorance that is of no benefit to the democratic institutions and people that it claims to serve.


Okay. Let’s test my position.  To test Habermas’ theory, let’s consider my Instructional Systems Design professor’s instructions that required us to prove we could create a personal blog that stated our reflections on learning then share a link to the blog on our classes’ discussion board (strategic communitive acts). I decided that learning how to create and share the blog and link was valid — if I plan to pass her course — so, I tested her truth (constative communitive acts) by using the “Help” function on the WordPress website to identify and follow objective instructions for creating a new blog (normative communitive acts).  The link you used to access my blog proves that my professor’s assigned task and assumptions were valid (dramaturial communitive act) and that I “learned” to create, post and share this blog.  (Yippee.)  Creating this blog also tested Kirschner’s cognitive load theory. Since I had never created a WordPress blog website before, the fact that you are reading this proves my instructor provided sufficient intrinsic and germane cognitive load for me to “learn” how to a create and share a new blog website.  Also, in support of Kirschner’s cognitive load theory, during the germane cognitive load “learning” process, I remembered enough information about how to create new WordPress blogs that I can now create additional blogs for myself and others.

While I do recognize that some might feel that once you have learned enough that is enough, my point is that, to “learn” is a complex physiological and psychological process that one must voluntarily undertake.  I have found that learning is also hard work and that you cannot make anybody learn anything that they do not want to know.

There’s an old adage: “knowledge is power” that has proven itself to be true and valid over the decades.  The fact that I can now create WordPress blogs allows me to support the adage by noting that I can now do something that I could not do before and close with these words: To “know” that you “know” is to “learn” how to “learn” and to “learn” how to “learn” is to “know” that you “know” that you are still alive.

Enough. As mentioned, this is my first for my new “How Jennie Feels About It” WordPress blog.  I am still a little nervous about putting me out here like this in cyberspace for everyone to see. But, hey, I’m entitled to an opinion too. This is it.


[Davidmeme]. (2007, February 1). Jürgen habermas interview . Retrieved from https://youtu.be/jBl6ALNh18Q

Kirschner, P. A. (2002). Cognitive load theory: Implications of cognitive load theory on the design of learning doi:2072/10.1016/S0959-4752(01)00014-7

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