What Is Learning?


By Troy Headrick

I had this strange experience—perhaps it would be more apropos to call it an epiphany?—this morning.  Part of its strangeness was that I’d already had a similar realization several times before.  Can something be called an epiphany if it keeps recurring?

I’m referring to the sudden realization of how strange everything is right now, during this pandemic.  This epiphany or moment of clarity or whatever you want to call it happened when I was “at work.”  Today, because it is too dangerous for people at the college I work for to gather together, being at work means being at home, sitting in front of my computer.

So, while I was staring at my computer screen, waiting for someone to reach out, it suddenly occurred to me, with the sort of clarity that comes during one of those ah-hah! moments, that my life had become incredibly absurd.  I’m talking Kafkaesque absurd.

I make my living as an educator.  I manage a writing center at one of the local colleges.  Here’s where the absurdity comes in.  Education is, by its very nature, a very “warm” and interactive sort of business to be in.  A lot of what happens during what can be called “learning” is a result of the very human relationship that develops between teacher and student.  Today, though, all my interacting with others is mediated through an unhuman device called the PC.

I’ve been wondering about how successful this kind of education—this “remote learning”—is going to be as we spend the next few weeks (or months?) away from the traditional, bricks-and-mortar classroom.  To help me in my thinking I’ve been reading lots of experts who are opining on this selfsame subject.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to.  We’re going to need to think carefully about what we mean by “learning” when it comes time to decide whether this sudden move to educating students through computer has been a success or not.  If we think of learning as the mere “acquisition of information,” then such education is likely to be found lacking by many.  But, if we think of learning as analogous to “growing” or having a “memorable experience that was somehow transformational,” then we’re likely to find that using technology is a good way to go.

If I were teaching a writing class right now rather than running a writing center, I’d surprise the students by flipping the script on them.  I’d let them pursue topics of their own choosing—people always get excited when they are encouraged to learn about things they want to know more about—and then I’d have them teach me something, via written texts, about what they’d learned.

I’ve long thought that the line that separates teachers from learners is an artificial one.  Back when I was a full-time instructor of writing, I found that I always learned a lot from my students because they are such great teachers.  Turning the tables on them in this way is likely to help them grow personally and intellectually, and it will help them acquire new information about their chosen subjects.  Students mostly know how to use computers; they just need to be empowered to use them in the way they want to.  They need to be encouraged to see them as tools that can be utilized to help them move beyond their comfort zones.

Before finishing up, I’d like to come back to the idea of seeing learning as growing because I think such a view, once embraced, has application beyond the classroom setting.  To be “educated” (in the truest sense of the word) is the act of moving from one state of being—a less astute state—to another.  When one comes to know or understand more, one is transformed by that knowing or understanding.  Formal systems of education often trivialize learning by trying to measure it through the giving and grading of exams.  When we think of learning as more than performance—school tests are tests of performance—we get to the heart of what learning really is:  the fundamental change that occurs within a human mind and heart when that person grows intellectually and emotionally.  It is hard to measure such growth, and often, it cannot even be observed.

Thanks for reading!  I look forward to reading your comments.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

33 thoughts on “What Is Learning?

  1. I always thought our formal way of education really messes up with your mind and confidence. I never was the cleverest student and always had this sense of not good enough. If we just empower learners and find the true meaning of knowledge —learning would be so much more fun.

    Very intriguing read! Great post 👏🏽

    1. There were times when I had test anxiety growing up. It didn’t happen always but it did take place on several occasions, especially during university. That’s because I knew I was being tested on performance and not on how the course had helped me learn more about myself or others or life. Like you, I wish we could take a broader view of education. Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. So true- the value of looking at the entire world as a learning opportunity versus only particular settings or relationships or humans with titles allowing them to teach. Such a disservice to paint ourselves into that corner. Not that I am knocking organized learning facilities or teachers or professors but in my world learning is symbiotic. One of the reasons I love homeschooling my daughter. Thanks for this!

    1. I’ve always been intrigued by homeschooling. How do you feel about the experience? I’d really like to hear more about it since I haven’t talked to many people who actually taught or learned this way.

      1. I was a very strong proponent of public education, having considered myself a successful product of the system. School for me was a safe haven. When we sent my daughter to kindergarten her experience was severely different and we soon became highly disillusioned with the system and how it had changed since I came up. How my daughter could not be supported because the system and staff were completely overwhelmed. My husband was never a fan of school- he hated his experience. My daughter was doing well academically but struggling with anxiety and hated being there. We came to the homeschooling decision after trying to work with the school and feeling unsuccessful and trying to work with our daughter. So, I call myself an accidental homeschooler. But now we are 5 years in and I love it and am so grateful for the opportunity to teach and show my child the way we see fit. We explore different areas of interest and pursue unit studies and really dive in to all sorts of things because we have the time and resources. We do numerous field trips and have a very active social life. In our county there are about 5,000 homeschooling families so there is a lot to do! This year (2020) we have delved into: Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution, Rosalind Yalow, and are now 2 weeks into Ancient Greece. This experience has shown me that educational/ learning opportunities are everywhere. I can let my child be a child and PLAY- something fairly minimized in public school. In addition to our unit studies we do core academics like math, grammar, phonics, spelling, science, etc. My daughter is growing into a creative, free thinker who can address problem solving from multiple perspectives. She can socialize appropriately with people of all ages and abilities. She is kind and sweet and compassionate and she has seen the world. Because of our flexible schedule we can travel when it is not peak season. So she at age 9 had been to several states and about 16 different countries. I am really grateful for the experience even on the hard days. And as you can see, I am passionate about homeschooling.

  3. My college adviser (Psychology) in the 90s was an educational psychologist predicting how education would go totally online and revolutionize learning. He seemed like a crackpot at the time. Even when I ran an online class system for the university system, there was no way I would predict all classes would do more than post a syllabus and maybe 15% be hybrid and under 5% be totally online.

    1. I’ve been reading a lot from experts on where they think all this is going to lead us. One writer said we aren’t currently doing remote learning; we’re doing “emergency learning.” As someone who was required to move everything online virtually overnight, I know exactly what he means by that. What is your opinion about how all this is going to play out? Will it be a success or a failure or a little of both?

      1. They are right. Because everyone hit emergency mode and threw up stuff online, very little is designed for teaching it well. There are not enough instructional designers around to make that happen. Neither are university faculty or traditional school teachers taught how to do it well.

        My neighbor, a geology professor, says his university students basically shutdown. He isn’t getting work out of them. Silence in lectures. Of course, in his normal class he has them touching the rocks as he talks about them. Nothing turned in. Not insurmountable to teach online, but it needs to be different. And that is hard.

        Personally, I think there should be a massive lift right now to prepare everything for online in the Fall.

      2. BUT, students didn’t select the university for the online experience. Why continue this way when there infinite options online? Probably cheaper ones they could finish faster at their own pace?

        If classes are totally online, then does the term matter anymore? Yes, but only because that is how the Feds pay. (Took me a decade in this realm for someone to tell me that.)

    1. Cool. That’s a perfect way of putting it! I think we all need to approach this whole period less as an inconvenience and more as an opportunity–an opportunity to learn. Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. Hello Troy.
    Talk about an epiphany, an ahah moment as my HEART leapt inside me and how your post is perfectly connected to the IMAGES it now contains.

    There is an ache now in my belly to write what my HEART contains in the hope of developing the same IMAGES in yours.

    However I have to go help my 8 year old son with his remote learning, it is something I now treasure and something missing in the normal run of things due to work etc A father at home with son teaching (not school stuff but HEART stuff) bonding, the primal order of learning.

    I have so much more to say but for now my son awaits, the ache in my belly, the excitement growing.

    see you soon.

    1. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that this pandemic is bringing them closer to others. I am working from home right now which means I’m with my wife throughout the day. Before all this happened, we were like two ships passing in the night. She would go off to work just as I was arriving home at the end of the day. Now, I am both physically and emotionally closer to her, more connected to her. There are blessings to this whole ordeal. By this comment, I in no way intend to dismiss the suffering of others–those who are in financial straits or those who have loved ones who are sick. I’m just saying that we can learn and grow during this period even as we lose things.

  5. Do you strictly write for this website, or can I find your writing someplace else, other than blog? I enjoy reading your thoughts, but I am going to unfollow this website due to one writer’s very frequent posting. ( That’s not to say they aren’t good writers. I’m just not a fan personally.)

    1. Hi. Thanks for your kind words. At the end of each blog I post here, there’s a link to my personal blog. Unfortunately, I don’t post there as often as I should.

  6. Great post, Troy. As a fellow educator, I can commiserate with the challenges “remote learning” brings. At my core, I truly believe that face-to-face teaching and learning is best. Having said that, I do think technology and online components can enhance things, depending on how they are used. I think what matters most is for both teacher and student to engage in an authentic moment of exploration, regardless of circumstance. 🕊

    1. Education as exploration! I love that! That’s exactly the way I see what we’re attempting to do when we teach (and learn from) others. By the way, how’s the whole distance thing going? We went into emergency mode a few weeks ago. The biggest challenge was trying to put a system in place at the same time we were using the system that was being built. Crazy. Things are beginning to get a little better now though. Interesting times for those of us who teach!

      1. Interesting, indeed! Things are all right here in PA. I am currently the director of a program that aims to recruit students of diverse backgrounds into the teaching profession, so my time spent on “Zoom” is minimal at this point, thankfully. My husband on the other hand, is a professor. He is doing his best but will be so happy to get back to in-person teaching! 🕊

  7. I’be just done a research paper in my English class on a lot of what you’re talking about here, and I was lead to question what learning is as well. You have a lot of good ideas in here and I’m so inspired that you’re an educator with a blog😊

    1. Thank you! I’m inspired by students who are trying to continue their education at this challenging time. How’s school going? I’d really like to hear your opinion. I talk to a lot of educators about all this but I don’t talk to as many students. How do you feel about this whole remote learning thing? How do your classmates feel?

  8. Great article Troy. I myself wonder what the impact of what we call in MD “distant learning” will have on our youth. Whether just for the time being or if it becomes part of the norm in years to come, the personal connection from face-to-face is irreplaceable especially when it comes to the social & emotional development of kids.

    I wish “formal” schooling in my area had more of an emphasis on learning and developing intellectually and emotionally. The current system of teaching for students to be tested/evaluated doesn’t seem to be developing children and young adults they way it used to.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. Like you, I think a lot about the various ways the internet and cyber “reality” might change us. We certainly have the potential for being more connected than we’ve ever been, if one sees Zooming and the like as connecting. I sometimes think that staring into a screen all day, and I do that a lot now because I’m working from home, is a bit like looking into a mirror. What one sees is one’s own reflection. I like that you use the word “schooling” in your comment. I’ve long distinguished between schooling and educating, with the former being more like simply satisfying the bureaucracy that has grown up around education.

  9. Hello, Troy – another fab post!
    So, I’m of the mindset that if you stop learning, you stop living. Now, that doesn’t mean that every moment of every day must be deeply and intensely thought about. Nor does it mean that people are forbidden from living that way. These things don’t have to be Earth shattering (I’d prefer that they weren’t, I love our planet). Little things make for better understanding of bigger things – which means maybe that class I’m in isn’t beyond me.
    What about when I’m not in class? Good lord, talk about resources to feed the small pink hamster that is my brain! YouTube alone is enough to pack in “what not to do”. There are things that I’ve learned that may make me a better cook, a better listener, or a better friend. I know when one of the cats is “off” and that can make a difference in their lives. Every time you pay attention to something, you learn. ” That guy’s head is down, and he’s weaving – I’m going to let him pass because he’s not looking at the road.” That’s likely not the best example, but traffic is dense enough that observing a discrepancy may make a difference.
    OK, so do I learn better face to face or online? Depends so much on the topic. I’m not the greatest at time management, so even with a calendar in front of me, dates are getting missed. (Nothing to do with shelter in place. Perhaps.) If the topic is one that I’mm struggling with, I need to connect on a more personal level – be able to read body language and so on. I prefer to be able to ask for help in the moment I need it, and not at a scheduled time, because I may be halfway to the answer – and lose that train of thought before the meeting. I’m pulling stuff out of the closet of my mind – waaay back from before – about science-y stuffs than I thought I knew. But there’s thaat devil math, that needs a face to face…
    Stay safe!

    1. I think you and I see eye to eye on the whole notion of looking at learning as growing. I connect curiosity to all of this (and I’ve written about curiosity here). I don’t get people who silo themselves and celebrate the fact that they know what they know and that’s enough for them. I’ve known people like that. The best educational experiences I ever had–I’m too old to have ever studied anything at a “distance”–were those that happened in the company of people who turned me on to the notion that the world is so huge and there’s so much to look at and think about. I’d likely be a dropout if I learned solely on the internet. Thank again, maybe I’d surprised myself? Thanks again for reading and giving me so much to think about.

  10. I really enjoyed this post because it spoke to the season of life I’m presently experiencing. A period defined by learning manifesting in the form of spiritual revelations of my life and God’s amazing grace.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m extremely happy for you! Like you, I feel that this is a wonderfully rich period of learning. My thoughts are with you as you continue on your spiritual travels.

  11. Thank you for writing this wonderful article. I think learning would probably be evolved into something much more in the future other than online classes and such. I still am a firm believer that the important things we learn comes from the journey (growth) we get from them, from the interaction between people (professors, classmates, friends and even strangers), the environment we get it from, and ultimately, each of our personal goals for learning. I hope in the future, we get to have more innovation for faster learning and still integrate the usual traditional classes we are used to. Cheers!

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Like you, I’ve long felt that the real magic happens during the journey. Getting to the “destination” is certainly fun too. But the process is where the real growth takes place. The product is simply the cherry on top.

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