What is Learning?

Chapter 2: The Lights Are On, Is Anybody Home? Education In America

What Is Learning?

“Insofar as a man gives himself up to the pursuit of wisdom, to that extent he enjoys already some portion of true happiness.” St.Augustine

The question that heads this chapter is a little slippery. It’s one of those things that is hard to define, but you know it when you see it—or when you experience it.Technically speaking, most research- ers agree that learning occurs in at least three distinct domains: cognitive, affective and physiological. Basically, this means people learn by thinking, feeling, and doing. Not only do we learn “things” in the process, for example what 2 + 2 is, what an insult feels like, or how to jump rope, but we also get better at thinking, feeling, and doing in general the more we practice them. Regardless of whether learning is a cognitive, affective or physiological process, we might say that learning has occurred when, as a result of experience with one’s environment, there is an internal change that results in the formation of new associations and new understand- ing about the world around us. Or as Woolfolk (1987) says, the learner becomes cognizant of new relationships, perspectives, and possesses new capabilities. Modified behavior suggests learning has taken place as well. For example, most of us don’t have to stick our finger in a light socket or on a hot stove more than once. Ideally, learning happens in personally relevant ways. As Peter Senge suggests,“Learning is about enhancing the capacity to produce results that really matter to you” (italics mine, cited in Jensen, 1996, p. 278). Importantly, many factors, both internal and extra- neous, such as stress, fear, hunger, stimulation, encouragement, expectations, etc. can affect the learning process. This is one reason why the“one size fits all”concept of education is flawed.There are simply too many factors impacting the learning of each student, particularly with the diversity in contemporary classrooms, to believe that what works for one student will work for others—or even the same student in different settings.


In the last decade or so, we have become increasingly aware of the biological processes of learning as well. Until recently, the process of learning could only be inferred. In other words, we could observe people who are learning and see their capabilities or understanding change, but we couldn’t see them learning “on the inside.” However, new technologies such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans, Multiple Resonance Imagery (MRI) and others, allow us to watch the brain “learn” and function. At a cellular level, learning involves the growth of connections (dendrites) between brain cells and the transfer of electrical and chemical impulses across the connections (synapses) (Caine & Caine, 1994; Sylwester, 1995).The more intense the learning, the more “hardwired” the cells involved in the learning become.The importance of this fact for the way learning is planned and implemented in classrooms cannot be overstated.We now know that “what it means to learn” is a far more rich and complex phenom- enon than we previously understood.As a result, the quantity and quality of learning opportunities, particularly in the early grades, can literally impact the kinds of brains our youth will take with them into adulthood (Brain Facts, 2000; Caine & Caine, 1994).

Some examples of more effective learning opportunities are detailed later in this chapter, and in chapters four through seven. In the meantime, I would like to expand on the definition of what it means to learn. Postman (1996), says that to learn is to “appropriate an insight, a concept, a vision, so that your world is altered” (p. 3). One might add that learning results in an improved ability to successfully ne- gotiate challenges that were insurmountable before the learning occurred. Sounds nice. However, most of us would say, based on our experience in school, that learning is something like “studying and memorizing information that allows us to answer questions or solve problems posed by the teacher.”This is because our modern school system is based, for the most part, on an operant conditioning model of learning, i.e., positive or negative feedback for the successful (or unsuccessful) memorization of lots of discreet facts and figures, which ideally are recapitulated in the format asked for on the test. Brain research tells us that “learning” this way uses what is called“taxon memory”(Okeefe and Nadel,cited in Caine & Caine, 1994). Some characteristics of taxon memory are that information is memorized through practice and rehearsal, that motivation for doing so is extrinsic, that memories are rigid or narrow in focus, and that most information in taxon memory is not initially meaningful when first memorized.An example might be the fifty state capitals memorized in fourth grade.Although taxon memories can be important—for example, life can be hell if you forget the PIN number to your ATM card or the password to your email account—the limitations of taxon memory by itself as a system for learning are obvious.


We know from brain research that optimal learning is a very dynamic, highly contextualized and active process—of which taxon memory is a part.Another crucial part is what Okeefe and Nadel (cited in Caine & Caine, 1994) call “locale” memory. Unlike taxon memory, information in locale memory is highly contextualized and represents a“big picture.”It is flexible and adapts to new stimuli readily.We use locale memory to create blueprints or maps that give meaning to our environment and our actions. For example, when you engage in an activity for the first time,say skiing or scuba diving, or even taking a college class, you develop a rich mental picture of nearly unlimited sensory stimuli.You begin to understand what skiing or scuba diving or being in class is.You catalogue huge amounts of information about your environment, e.g., temperature, light,physical surroundings,relationships between objects and people, etc.You become aware of your thoughts and feelings. You begin to make connections between your behavior and the results: If I cross my ski tips, I fall on my face. If I experience an “ah ha” effect in class, I feel relieved or even elated. Your brain also literally begins to create new, physical connections between neurons (brain cells).The point is that this kind of learning is significant because it results in knowledge and skills that are applicable over time and in different contexts. In the skiing example, an individual “learns” a great deal about the act of skiing, but also about the effect of temperature on the characteristics of snow; the effect of friction and slope on velocity; even the impact of attitude on success. The skier may not even realize what has been learned in terms of temperature, friction, velocity,etc.,but the experience becomes part of a highly contextualized and meaningful locale memory that will have applications in multiple other contexts, also potentially without the learner’s conscious awareness. This explains what we intuitively know about “hands on” activity—that it generally results in more significant learning.


One key to good learning is to combine taxon and locale systems of cataloging information, so that strong, meaningful connections are made between information and context; so that information learned one hour or one day can be used to solve new problems and meet new challenges the next day. Caine and Caine (1994) refer to this as“brain-based learning.” They add that“…brain-based learning takes a holistic approach, looking at teaching developmentally, socioculturally, and in other broad ways” (Caine & Caine, 1995, p. 44).

For example,the fifty state capitals can be memorized from flash cards, a purely taxonic phenomenon. If it’s done well, a student can even demonstrate“mastery”on a test by matching capitals and states. Unfortunately, such a test represents just about the maximum application of the student’s knowledge concerning state capitals.

In a much more rich learning experience, the same student, however, could work with another student or pair of students to research something meaningful about the state capitals while learning what state they are in. For example, students in Santa Fe, New Mexico could investigate what the official languages are, if any, of the other 49 state capitals (Santa Fe is officially bilingual, Spanish-English) and how language plays a part in schools in different cities. Or they could compare demographics from capital to capital. Students could correspond with other students in all fifty capitals (by mail or email) and discuss life comparatively in different places.The point is that in structuring the learning experience in this way, students benefit from both taxonic memory, i.e., a list of the fifty state capitals as discreet bits of information, and locale memory, a contextualized treasure trove of information about the state capitals that can be applied to future learning tasks. Moreover, in the process, students develop other important skills such as researching, writing, synthesizing, collaboration, etc., not to mention the rich sum of contextualized information they acquire. Equally as important, by structuring the learning activity so that it involves contextualized and meaningful tasks, the learner can access and use the stored or learned information more easily, consistently and productively than if it were simply memorized.As Caine and Caine (1994) articulate this concept,“A preliminary definition of meaningful learning…refers to storage of items that have so many connections, and are of such quality, that they can be accessed appropriately in unexpected contexts” (p. 47). That, briefly, is what a more innovative approach to education can offer students—not just isolated facts and figures,but information and skills that can be effectively accessed in a variety of subsequent learning endeavors.

It is important to remember, however, that the examples of “meaningful learning”offered above are the tip of the iceberg.The example of learning about the state capitals is still constrained by the limitations inherent in the typical classroom. For the majority of us, our most profound learning takes place outside the classroom. If you think about the knowledge or skills most important to you personally and professionally, chances are they were derived wholly outside of a formal classroom, or what you learned in school served as a point of departure for much more meaningful learning in the real world. Even highly trained professionals such as doctors and lawyers will acknowledge that their most important skills and knowledge have been learned after they finished school in the process of doing their jobs through observation, discussion, practice, etc. Moreover,often our most significant learning experiences are those which involve topics or skills that intrigue us, that we enjoy, or that we need to learn.

The same is generally true for kids too.To learn is not simply to accumulate information.We really learn when we meaningfully connect ourselves with the world around us; we truly learn when, as a result of our experiences and our thoughts and feelings about those experiences, we see the world in new ways, we see new possibilities, and we become new people.