What is learning? LO26059

From: AM de Lange (amdelange@gold.up.ac.za)
Date: 02/05/01

Replying to LO26028 --

Dear Organlearners,

Peggy Stuart <pstuart@c2t2.ca> writes:

>I am trying to build a foundation of what learning is for
>my MBA thesis on LOs and am running into some
>challenges. There is a HUGE body of knowledge on
>learning that does not seem to want to be summarized!
>Any suggestions, tips and resource ideas you have to
>offer me would be greatly appreciated.

Greetings Peggy,

Your remark on the "...HUGE body ...." brought back memories of my own
experiences long ago.

My five years of training at university was simplistic and disciplinary.
The next four years as a researcher in the chemistry and physics made me
aware of complexity. The soil system is so complex that symplistic and
disciplinary thinking incapacitate me to understand the dynamics of a
soil. However, I did find a way to understand the complex dynamics of

The spinoff was interesting. How could a farmer manage the complexity of
soils if theat faremer did not learn how to think complex self.
Consequently I changed my mission from doing scientific research to
teaching and to discover for myself how one can learn anything complex. I
enrolled in a postgraudation qualification in teaching and read as many
books on learning I could lay my hands on. This gave me the very
impression which you now have " ... HUGE body ...".

My mentor warned me. He said to me that although I think I could manage
complex systems, should I be a teacher capable of learning authentically
how to teach, I would discover within six months that the act of learning
itself is vastly more complex than any soil system or even biological
system. Well, it took me about six months to understand exactly what he
meant and how little I really knew about complexity. (In those days there
was not yet any literature on complexity.)

How do we, for the benefit of other learners, summarise anything ( and not
merely learning) which is complex and becomes complexer by the day? I
think it is not possible in complexity thinking. Allow me to explain. I am
able to provide a summary from my viewpoint which will serve myself and
those learners who happen to have the same viewpoint. But complexity
thinking involves many viewpoints. Thus others learners may provide
summaries from different viewpoints. When we now comprehend all these
different summaries together, it is indeed one complex summary. My
experience is that it is too complex to be summarised again. But I have to
admit that someday someone else may find a way to summarise any complex

Within that first six months of teaching I became deeply aware that I
needed an "operational definition" for learning. Were it not for my
experience in the complexity of soils, I would perhaps not become aware of
this need. I discovered in soils that their complexity is directly related
to their total entropy. But entropy as such can only be calculated by
making measurements and calculations on tiny increases in entropy and then
integrating these zillions of increases in entropy into one whole. Thus
the "tiny increase in entropy" rather than "any pattern in the total
energy" serves as the "operational definition" for entropy.

Very soon afterwards, by carefully observing the learning of the pupils
and also reflecting on my own past learning, I came up with the following
"operational definition":
. To learn is to create.
It does not mean learning is equal to creating. It also does not mean that
"To create is to learn". It means that creativity is a necessary (but not
also a sufficient) condition for learning. Eventually, experiencing the
immense practical value of this "operational definition", I began to view
it as a tenet of learning rather merely an operational definition.

Peggy, consider for the following which you wrote:

>Specifically, I am looking to explain:
>Q1. What is the definition of learning.


>Q1. Definition of learning. So far, the definition I like is
> ..."gain knowledge of, or skill in, by study, experience,
>or being taught; commit to memory; receive instruction,
>being informed (of) find out (that, how, etc.) (Oxford
>Dictionary of Current English. 1990) Does this work as
>a general definition? It seems to encompass the formal
>and informal learning of both tacit and explicit information.

This OxDic definition says learning is to "gain knowledge or skill ...."
and then specifies "methods" like "studying, experiencing, teaching,
memorising and informing" to obtain this "gain". What strikes me as
particularly important is that each of these "methods" of learning
presents a particular viewpoint from which learning may be described. Thus
the OxDic definition is already trying to comprehend learning as a complex
act. Now what makes this act primarily so complex? One possibility is that
creativity makes it complex. Another possibility is that "knowledge or
skill" of the past make the present "gain" in it so complex. A third
posibility is that both creativity and the total of past learning may make
present learning so complex that various "methods" are needed. I can even
add other possibilities. All these possibilities serves only one purpose,
namely to tell that the act of learning is complex, just as the OxDic self
tells it tacitly by describing some "methods" of learning.

Let us now focus on the "gain" in the "gain knowledge or skill ...." .
What does this "gain" means? Is the gain small or large or even both? Is
the gain in distinct steps or is it homogenously continious or even both?
Will the "methods" of gain given by the OxDic provide answers to these
questions? I think so. But what about the following question. What
relationship does creativity has to each of the "methods" of learning,
namely "studying, experiencing, teaching, memorising and informing"? Is it
possible to execute each of these methods without any creativity?

Furthermore, there is one little word in this OxDic definition which
troubles me. Why is the "or" used since it includes "either only
knowledge, or only skill, or both knowledge and skill" while it excludes
"not knowledge and not skill". I get from the use of this "or" the
perception that the "gain in knowledge" is considered as the "what" of
learning while the "gain in skill" is considered as the "how" of learning.
Is it not simplistic to take the "how" out of knowledge and call it skill?
I think that once we have conceded that learning is complex, then we will
have to concede that knowledge as its integral (accumulative) result is
also complex.

The "what" and "how" of the outcome (knowledge or skill) gives the
impression that learning self has only "what" and "how". However, by using
this "or", two other facets of learning itself become suppressed. They are
the "why" and the "when" of learning. I am convinced after thirty years
that in any act of learning the "why" and "when" are just as crucial as
the "what and "how". Should we use "way" for "how", then we can speak of
the four Ws of learning -- the "way", the "what, the "why" and the "when".

In my mother tongue Afrikaans we make a definite distinction between
"leer" and "geleerdheid". Unlike in English we use the "leer" either as
the verb "leer"=learn or as the noun "leer"=learning. We need not use the
gerund "lerende"=learning for the noun as is required in English. When we
use "leer" in both cases (verb or noun), it refers specifically to the
differential act of which its integral (accumulative) outcome is
knowledge="kennis". (The syntactical equivalent for "kennis" in English
would be the novel word ' knowness '.) But the word "geleerdheid" means
something much different. (The syntactical equivalent for "geleerdheid" in
English would be the novel word ' learnedhood '.)

Now, in English this "geleerdheid"=learning! Yes, the gerund learning in
English refers not only to this "differential gain" in knowledge, but as
this lofty learning="geleerdeheid" also to the entire assidious,
systematic and coherent outcome of learning="leer". Sometimes I get the
notion that in English this second meaning of learning="geleerdheid" is of
a higher order and value as knowledge itself. It may also happen in
Afrikaans. But the majority of Afrikaans speakers still recognise this
lofty learning="geleerdheid" as but a major subdivision on

When in dialogues I begin to question them as to what of
knowledge="kennis" this learning='geleerdheid", does not refer to, it is
almost as if Polanyi becomes a tacit companion to the dialogues. They will
mention things like "voorgevoel" (syntactically ' forefeeling ') which
involves intuition, tacit knowing and forebodes, "gesels" (which means the
entire spectrum of talking, conversation and dialogue) and
"kunssinnigheid" (sense of some arts). It is then when I become very
excited because over the years I have identified what I call the
"Elementary Sustainers of Creativity" (ESCs)

I have strict specifications for an ECS. It has to occur in all cultures.
It has to be employed by humans of all ages. It needs not to be instructed
formally. It also has to occur among other higher order species like
mammals. I have identified five of them so far
* thoughts exchanging (dialogue)
* game playing
* problem solving
* exemplar exploring
* art expressing.
By mentioning things (the non-learning part of knowledge) related to these
five ESCs, it strengthens my convivtion that "to learn is to create" is a

Peggy, I have prepared this long answer above because you ask:

>Q3. The learning process. Would someone please
>explain this or point me in the right direction? Is this
>what everyone talks about when they speak of a "loop"?

This "loop" in learning is indeed troublesome. And with me writing that
learning is one of the outcomes of creating, I do not make it easier for
you. The reason is that very few authors in creativity will even mention
"loop" in creativity. But it is tacitly there in the writings of some
authors. They (like Senge of LO fame) will make a distinction between
invent and innovation. Some would consider invent as part of innovation.
But should we consider invention and innovation as the two complementary
parts of "creating something novel and improving it to satisfaction", we
have the two phases making up a creativity "loop". During the "invention"
phase a novel thing emerges. During the "innovation" phase this novel
thing is brought to maturity by feeding on other creations. Thereafter it
plays the role as a parent during the next "loop" of creativity.

For me the "invention" phase of creativity gives rise to a phase in
learning which I call "emergent learning" while the "innovative phase"
gives rise to "digestive learning". This "emergent learning" and
subsequent "digestive learning" form a "loop" in learning. But this is not
what is meant by "double loop" learning. When a person learns something of
learning itself, this "learn of learning" is called "double loop"
learning. Should you also learn that learning has the "emergent"
(inventive) and "digestive" (innovative) phases connecting in a loop, then
you have accomplished some "double loop" learning. But please do not
equate your learning with my informing. My informing may lead to your
learning, but necessarily so.

With care and best wishes


At de Lange <amdelange@gold.up.ac.za> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

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