Magazine excerpt: The complexities of learning

Don Taylor argues that learning is complex, fascinating and, above all, an essential part of being human.

Learning is not social. It doesn’t come from teaching. It does not have to be hard work to be effective, nor is it always fun. Despite what we are often told, learning does not always require reflection, nor is it always underpinned by emotion.

It is not linear. It is not non-linear. Learning is none of these things. Or rather, learning is all of these things in part, but none of them exclusively. The capital city of Liechtenstein is Vaduz. I do not know why I know this. I probably read it as a schoolboy, and the fact stuck. It was a painless, non-social, unemotional piece of learning that happened in a moment.

I rate myself as fairly good when I perform as a five-a-side goalkeeper and also as a public speaker. Developing both these skills has been a reasonably painful, drawn-out process, often involving social feedback. I speak some Turkish and French, and my skills in these languages have been acquired in every possible way.

Learning is like breathing: superficially understood yet fundamentally complex and essential to life.

The process has been, and continues to be, by turns social and solitary, fun and hard, emotional or not, prolonged or instant. I am not unique. In our lives, we have all experienced different ways of learning. So why, then, are people so inclined to force this behaviour into the straitjacket of a single process?

It may be that, when faced with a complex issue like learning, once we find something that works, we cling to it. A classroom language trainer finding a great method for helping people learn will want to refine and make the most of it. A provider of online learning experiences who develops a good way to reinforce learning with social interaction will do the same.

These are examples of people doing their work well; something to be celebrated. It is disappointing, however, when people are unable to step back from their own intense focus on a single learning process and accept that it does not explain everything, and that it may in some instances have a negative effect.

It is pointless to insist I add a social element when learning French vocab. What I need is spaced repetition. In contrast, improving my skills in public speaking certainly demands the input of others and my own reflection. We know more about learning today than we ever have.

We have better research, more studies and a wider breadth of understanding about this extraordinary process. Insisting that any one approach is uniquely important is just absurd. Learning is like breathing: superficially understood yet fundamentally complex and essential to life. Like breathing, it is a combination of complicated processes that we take for granted.

The only thing we can say with any confidence about learning is that it defies simplistic explanations, and that it is an essential part of being a human being. As L&D professionals, rather than insist on the superiority of any single process, we should use whatever is the best, scientifically supported approach that each particular learning need requires.

Turf wars are for the small-minded. We’re bigger than that.

This article appears in the October issue of TJ Magazine. You can subscribe here.


About the author

Donald H Taylor is an L&D veteran. Visit his website at​.


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