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How People Learn

Learning is the pathway to doing. If an instructor teaches something and nothing changes, no learning took place.

Learning is learnable. You can get better at it. We set up the Meta-Learning Lab to help people learn better, faster, deeper.

"Knowledge is constructed, not transferred. It's built out of known chunks. It's always linked to the situation, thus 'situated.' Skills and knowledge do not exist outside of context. Everything is connected, in mental, physical, or social space." Peter Senge, Schools That Learn

Learning is not what it used to be. I'm working on a redefinition that focuses on doing, individually or in groups, and looking at the individual-with-support rather than the individual with only the head God gave her.

A culture of learning is a big factor in this. While waiting for my words on this to flow, check out JSB's presentations on learning culture.


This book is the best summary of what it's all about.

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, editors. "This volume synthesizes the scientific basis of learning. The scientific achievements include a fuller understanding of: (1) memory and the structure of knowledge; (2) problem solving and reasoning; (3) the early foundations of learning; (4) regulatory processes that govern learning, including metacognition; and (5) how symbolic thinking emerges from the culture and community of the learner."

Robo-teacher has left the building

eLearning was born during the dot-com frenzy. Like many start-up ideas, the first descriptions of eLearning were oversimplified, extreme, and wildly optimistic. Otherwise rational people defined eLearning as putting all learning on computers, as if it had to be all or nothing.

Imagine the savings in plane fare, instructor salaries, and keeping people on the job instead of at the class! Employees could learn anywhere they could plug into the net, whenever you wanted. Learners would save time by studying only what they needed. They would learn at an optimal pace, neither held back nor bypassed by the rest of the class. Cool.

The only problem was that this sort of eLearning rarely worked. Learning is social. Even in the classroom, lots of learning takes informally, between students. Workers learn more at the water cooler or coffee room than during classes.

Learning requires much more than exposure to content. Most people drop out of 100% computer-led instructional events. These same people learn well when computer-mediated lessons are combined with virtual classes, study groups, team exercises, mentors & help desks, off-line events, and on-line coaches.

As the hype cools down, we find that learning hasn't changed; it still requires a variety of activities. Computers can make aspects of learning more convenient but they don't eliminate the need for human intervention. The presumption that eLearning would automate every aspect of learning today seems irresponsible. That dog won't hunt.

For great overviews, see Learnativity and Marcia Conner's Learning & Training FAQ, especially How adults learn.

The old way of looking at learning:

Teach = Fill their empty heads. Assess = See what's inside.

From the Institute for Research on Learning

Constructivism and other theories

Today we realize that learning isn't pouring content into heads. Rather, the real deal is an interaction between what's incoming and what's already there. Learning is rewiring the brain by sculpting new pigeonholes and adding connections.

Instructional Design Models from University of Colorado Denver

Compendium of idea generation methods = a palette of techniques

Theories of Learning, from Funderstanding, explains constructivism, behaviorism, and so forth simply.

Greg Kearsley's Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database is an awesome resource.

Marc Prensky's Digital Game-Based Learning has a great list of theories of how people learn:

  • Learning happens when one is engaged in hard and challenging activities.
  • Learning comes from observing people we respect.
  • Learning comes from doing.
  • Learning is imitation, which is unique to man and a few animals.
  • Learning is a developmental process.
  • You can't learn unless you fail.
  • Learning is primarily a social activity.
  • You need multiple senses involved.
  • Learning takes practice, says one. No says another, that's "Drill and kill?
  • People learn in context. People learn when elements are abstracted from context.
  • We learn by principles, says one. By procedures, says the other.
  • They can'tt think says the one. They can't add, says the other.
  • Everyone has a different Learning style."
  • We learn X percent of what we hear, Y percent of what we hear, Z percent of what we do.
  • Situated learning, says one. Case-based reasoning, says another. Goal-based learning says a third. All ofthe above, says a fourth.
  • Learning should be fun, peeps the girl in the corner. Learning is hard work, answers another.
  • We learn automatically, from the company we keep, says another.
  • People learn in "chunks."
  • No, "chunking" removes context.
  • People learn just in time, only when they need to.
  • People learn aurally, visually, and kinesthetically.

Learner-Centered Psychological Principles: A Framework for School Redesign and Reform, American Psychological Association, Board of Educational Affairs (BEA) 11/97.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Cognitive learning is demonstrated by knowledge recall and the intellectual skills: comprehending information, organizing ideas, analyzing and synthesizing data, applying knowledge, choosing among alternatives in problem-solving, and evaluating ideas or actions.

Affective learning is demonstrated by behaviors indicating attitudes of awareness, interest, attention, concern, and responsibility, ability to listen and respond in interactions with others, and ability to demonstrate those attitudinal characteristics or values which are appropriate to the test situation and the field of study.

Psychomotor learning is demonstrated by physical skills; coordination, dexterity, manipulation, grace, strength, speed; actions which demonstrate the fine motor skills such as use of precision instruments or tools, or actions which evidence gross motor skills such as the use of the body in dance or athletic performance.

I think of these as training the head, the heart, and the hand.


Best Practices

Implementing The Seven Principles of Good Practice

Internet Time Group has found that people learn best when they...

  • Know what's in it for them and deem it relevant
  • Have mastered the prerequisites
  • Understand what's expected
  • Connect with other people
  • Are challenged to make choices
  • Feel safe about showing what they do and do not know
  • Control the pace, navigation, and delivery
  • Use a process that matches their preferred learning style
  • Receive information in small packets
  • Receive frequent progress reports
  • Learn things close to the time they need them
  • Receive encouragement from coaches or mentors
  • Learn from a variety of styles (say, discussion followed by a simulation)
  • Confront maybes instead of certainties
  • Teach others
  • Receive positive reinforcement for small victories
  • Screw up
  • Try, try, and try again
  • Just do it

Excerpts from the LiNE (Learning in the New Economy) Zine Manifesto, Brook Manville and Marcia Conner (6/2000).

  • Metrics of success for the new learning will be traditional financial and performance measures, not fancy, academic concepts.
  • Speed and performance demands in the New Economy will shift starting assumptions from just in case generic to just in time personalized learning?and that?s just fine.
  • eLearning will grow in importance, but will be only one part of the rich mix of choice and mass personalized approaches to learning required by knowledge workers.
  • The distinction between formal and informal learning will and should evaporate.

Learning requires engagement

Methods of engagement include:

1. Presenting information as tentative, which asks the learner to engage in assessing its veracity.

2. Offering opportunities to compare one's views to those of others. "18% of Americans feel public money should not be 'wasted' on art."

3. Feeding back information from a group of peers. "In a poll, 32% of you professed to never have seen porn on the web."

4. Providing challenges that call on one's exformation. "Exegesis means (a) pulling a tooth, (b) tracking feedback, (c) assembling unrepresentative cases to support one's argument -- what Nietsche often did, or (d) disinterring a body from the grave." Go ahead, take a guess. The answer is here.

5. Making connections to other contexts, e.g. You want to learn to fly. Let's compare flying to driving a car. Your mind begins mapping the differences and similarites.

Methods of Delivery

Live face-to-face (formal) • Instructor-led classroom • Workshops • Coaching/mentoring • On-the-job (OTJ) training

Virtual collaboration/synchronous • Live e-learning classes • E-mentoring

Self-paced learning • Web learning modules • Online resource links • Simulations • Scenarios • Video and audio CD/DVDs • Online self-assessments • Workbooks

Live face-to-face (informal) • Collegial connections • Work teams • Role modeling

Virtual collaboration/asynchronous • Email • Online bulletin boards • Listservs • Online communities

Performance support • Help systems • Print job aids • Knowledge databases • Documentation • Performance/decision support tools

from Allison Rossett

Theory and Practice of Online Learning from Athabasca

Internet Time's Method Matrix

Learning Styles for Online Asynchronous Instruction

Apprenticeship A building block approach for presenting concepts in a step-by-step procedural learning style.

Incidental Based on events that trigger the learning experience. Learners begin with an event that introduces a concept and provokes questions.

Inductive Learners are first introduced to a concept or a target principle using specific examples that pertain to a broader topic area.

Deductive Based on stimulating the discernment of trends through the presentation of simulations, graphs, charts, or other data.

Discovery An inquiry method of learning in which students learn by doing, testing the boundaries of their own knowledge.

Why schools suck

A narrow view of how the American public school system got so screwed up. (The Germans did it.)

Schools may be the starkest example in modern society of an entire institution modeled after the assembly line. This has dramatically increased educational capability in our time, but it has also created many of the most intractable problems with which students, teachers, and parents struggle to this day. If we want to change schools, it is unlikely to happen until we understand more deeply the core assumptions on which the industrial-age school is based. - Peter Senge


The Neurobiology of Memory & Learning from Hughes


Employee Motivation in the Workplace

The answer is "C". Both Nietsche and I are guilty of using exegesis to make our cases. BACK

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." -Confucius
"If I hear and see and do and teach and practice, I understand even better." -Jay
Information is not instruction.
Yeah, so? Doing is what counts.

Real learning is not what most of us grew up thinking it was. --Charles Handy

Meta-Learning Lab

The Distance Learner's Guide

I never allowed schooling to interfere with my education. --Mark Twain

Marc Prensky matches content to learning activity to game styles.

"Distance education should be called 'not-so-distant education.'" Bill Clinton, Online Learning, October 1, 2001

"One's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions." -Oliver Wendell Holmes

Let's Tie the Digital Knot by Seymour Papert is a wonderfully feisty, common-sense look at education with fresh eyes. Paradigmatic Vision Using an Internet connection in the classroom to enliven the fourth grade math curriculum is a good thing. By all means do it if you are a fourth grade teacher. But do not confuse it with the prescribed activity of developing a vision of the future of learning. As an exercise of the educational imagination to strengthen your visionary powers, think about a world in which there is:

  • No such thing as fourth grade, because age segregation has gone the way of other arbitrary divisions of people.
  • No such thing as a classroom, because learning happens in a variety of settings.
  • And no such thing as curriculum, because the idea that everyone should have the same knowledge has come to be seen as totalitarian.

Leftovers & Oldies on this topic

Posted by Jay Cross at June 21, 2001 10:54 AM

I'm 68 years old, considering enrolling on an online Masters in E-learning at Portsmouth University(UK) and while searching the web on the subject found your site. I'm impressed and encouraged to take the plunge! Thankyou. Peter Smith

Posted by: peter smith at August 15, 2003 12:00 PM

"We teachers - perhaps all human beings - are in the grip of an astonishing delusion. We think that we can take a picture, a structure, a working model of something, constructed in our minds out of long experience and familiarity, and by turning that model into a string of words, transplant it whole into the mind of someone else.

Perhaps once in a thousand times, when the explanation is extraordinary good, and the listener extraordinary experienced and skillful at turning word strings into non-verbal reality, and when the explainer and listener share in common many of the experiences being talked about, the process may work, and some real meaning may be communicated. Most of the time, explaining does not increase understanding, and may even lessen it."

John Holt, How Children Learn

Posted by: Jay at August 28, 2003 08:45 PM


"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge."

Daniel Boorstin

It is impossible for a man to begin to learn what he thinks he knows. ~~ Epictetus

Posted by: Jay at August 28, 2003 09:00 PM

The Encyclopedia of Psychology http://www.psychology.org

Posted by: jay at October 19, 2003 08:18 PM

A great piece on How People Learn from Stephen Downes. A couple of years old, but classics don't age.

What do we know about learning? Helen Knibb outlined some features:

* Learning starts from what you already know * Learning provides usable knowledge * Learning involves learning to learn * Learning is community centered * Learning is addresses a "discipline base" of knowledge

David Merrill's five principles could form the basis of the Commonplace Book of Learning:

* Good learning is problem centered * It activates previous experience and knowledge * It relies more on demonstration than on telling * Learners should be required to use their new knowledge of skill to solve problems * And it should integrate new knowledge or skills into everyday life

Learning a la Bill Horton, involves:

listening reading examining/exemplars modeling discussing researching seeking advice watching presentations crtiquing and feedback exploring practicing

and i'll add reflecting.


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