Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

What is Learning?

"Do not train children to learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius in each." ~ Plato


e have seen that the meaning of assessment is the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something. We have also examined why assessment does not require quantitative measurement.

The next critical question we must answer is what, specifically, we are attempting to assess in education? The answer seems obvious. We send children to school to learn, so it seems logical that what we must assess is the learning of the students. This is where simplicity ends and tremendous complexity begins. The article Learning and the Brain points out the disconnect between current educational practices and the way the brain works. But perhaps the key question is "Can learning be assessed?"

While most of us have a sense of what it means to learn, the truth is that there is no commonly accepted definition, nor is there one that encompasses all the many different types of learning. The most obvious place to look for a definition is the dictionary…and here's what it says:

Learn: gain or acquire knowledge of, or skill in (something) by study, experience, or being taught.
Related synonyms: acquire a knowledge of, acquire skill in, become competent in, become proficient in, grasp, master, take in, absorb, assimilate, digest, familiarize oneself with…

As we examine the primary ways in which learning is supposedly assessed in public schools—standardized testing—it appears that acquiring knowledge and skills is accepted as the primary working definition of learning. But if someone asked you to list the three most important things you have learned in life, would all three of those things fall into the category of "acquiring knowledge or skill"? Certainly acquiring knowledge and skills is a necessary part of learning, but is it sufficient to encompass what learning really means?

How Metaphors Shape Our Thinking


o better understand the unconscious, but extremely influential way in which educators think about learning, let's examine a set of common educational metaphors. A metaphor is defined as "a figure of speech in which one thing is spoken of as if it were another." For example, in Shakespeare's famous line "All the world's a stage…", he compares two different conceptual categories—the world (or life) and a stage. In this way, Shakespeare encourages people to experience, or think about, the world in a specific way.

But comparing the world, or life, to a stage is only one way to conceptualize it. Forrest Gump's mother told him, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get." Jawaharlal Nehru said, "Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism; the way you play it is free will." Samuel Butler claimed, "Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes."

The metaphors we use to describe an abstract concept, such as life, learning, education, or knowledge, reflect our unconscious perceptions and beliefs. Once a metaphor is in play, it enables certain kinds of thinking and inhibits others, simply because they are not represented in the chosen metaphor. For a more in-depth discussion of the role of metaphors, see this article.

The dictionary may define a metaphor as a "figure of speech," but Linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson(1) provide convincing evidence that metaphors may be people's primary mode of mental operation. They argue that, because the mind is "embodied"—because it experiences the world through the body in which it resides—people cannot help but conceptualize the world with respect to bodily perceptions. Our concepts of up-down, in-out, front-back, light-dark, and warm-cold are all related to orientations and perceptions acquired through our bodily senses. "Teacher talk" is filled with such metaphors. A top student represents a vertical orientation, whereas falling behind, or more famously No Child Left Behind suggest a horizontal orientation. (Italics will be used to draw attention to metaphors.)

The common language of education is filled with metaphors. The concept of standards, for example, arises from the factory metaphor, which conceptualizes students as products. Putting students in tracks implies that, like a train, one must stay on the track. Switching tracks is a complex process that is difficult to accomplish. Then again, one can get off the track, in which case one won't get to the train's final destination—Testland! The larger, underlying metaphor here is that learning is a journey. Let's see where that journey takes us.

Lessons Require Movement across the Knowledge Landscape

Researchers frequently quote "teacher talk" that almost exclusively uses the metaphor of lessons as movement across a landscape. Here are some examples from an interview of a single teacher by Professor Hugh Munby.(2)

Not only is the lesson a journey across a landscape, but the journey appears to be along a fixed two-dimensional road. This teacher defines her role in terms of covering a specific distance along that road in a specific amount of time. In this metaphoric context, some behaviors, such as discussions about topics that interest students (getting off the subject) are unlikely to occur. Notice how the metaphor puts the subject matter—the road to be covered—in the foreground and assigns value to the students with respect to how much of that road they have traversed. Further, this metaphor contains the assumption that there is only one correct path to knowledge! Is that true? (You may wish to read this article on the latest research about individuals and how they learn.)

Many educators think of the concepts and principles they teach—the bits of human wisdom deemed "essential knowledge"—as ends in themselves. This adds yet another layer to the knowledge is a landscape and a lesson is a journey across that landscape metaphor. Concepts, facts, and principles are objects that can be found at various locations on the knowledge landscape. As students move across (cover) the knowledge landscape, they must pick up the required knowledge objects until they have covered the entire landscape and arrived at their final destination—Testland. Here, students are tested must prove that they possess the knowledge objects acquired during the journey.

Learning Means Acquiring Knowledge Objects

In this set of metaphors, learning is characterized as covering the knowledge landscape in the prescribed amount of time, while collecting the required knowledge objects along the way. The thousands of bits of information listed in standards and benchmark documents are collections of so-called essential, and therefore, required knowledge objects.

Multiple choice tests that are now the dominant forms of assessment in public schools are entirely consistent with these metaphors. Because knowledge objects are discrete and unique, they are perfect raw material for multiple-choice test questions that have a single correct answer. Can you identify Newton's 1st Law of Motion or not? Can you solve an equation for x or not? Can you identify the gerund in a sentence or not? Can you identify the Constitutional Amendment that gave women the vote or not?

Each of these questions assesses whether or not students "possess" the appropriate knowledge object. None of these questions assesses whether or not the student can actually use the knowledge in any meaningful way! Is gaining or acquiring knowledge of something sufficient to assess that one has "learned," particularly when the key skill being assessed in this way is the ability to memorize facts that are often removed from their context. If anything, this is the lowest common denominator of learning, particularly in the digital age in which "facts" are available at the touch of a fingertip.

Despite volumes of research demonstrating that rote memorization is the least effective form of learning, the prevailing "coverage" metaphor forces any focus on the individual learner into the background except as a repository for knowledge objects! The students' minds are seen as inanimate filing cabinets in which the requisite information must be organized and stored! But, suppose a student has demonstrated the possession of every knowledge object included in standards, benchmarks, and lists of essential knowledge. Does that mean that the student is educated? Even if we accept that acquisition of knowledge objects is, or should be, a necessary goal of learning, is it a sufficient definition? Does a test that results in a single numerical score actually measure learning?

Over the course of the year, a student collects, or is given, every tool available on the 'tool landscape.'

Some argue that these knowledge objects are simply tools that every student will need in the future. O.K., let's think of the "knowledge objects" as tools. Over the course of the year, a student collects, or is given, every tool available on the "tool landscape." At the end of the year, each student displays his or her collection of tools. The underlying metaphor suggests that the more tools a student possesses, the more they have learned. Is that true? The answer is yes if and only if you limit the definition of learning to the acquisition of knowledge objects! What is missing in these metaphors (and in the assessments) is the issue of what, if anything, a learner can actually do with the tools?

In the definition of the word learn, we saw the following synonyms: acquire a knowledge of, acquire skill in, become competent in, become proficient in, grasp, master, take in, absorb, assimilate, digest, and familiarize oneself with. It doesn't take much analysis to see that these terms are not equivalent. If I "familiarize myself with" a hammer, I will probably be able to pick one out of a collection of tools. But it doesn't mean that I have "become proficient in" or even "competent in" the use of a hammer. It certainly doesn't mean that I have "mastered" its use.

Terms such as absorb, assimilate, and digest (all metaphors in themeselves) suggest that what one has learned has become part of the learner. Doesn't this require more than "collecting" or "acquiring" knowledge of something?

Given the nature of assessments and the metaphors that are prevalent in education, one must conclude that, consciously or unconsciously, traditional educators believe that the only facet of learning they need to address in both teaching and assessment is acquiring knowledge objects (facts, concepts, skills). This article on the types of knowledge also supports the idea the learning is a much more complex process.

Expanding the Definition of Learning


et's take the tool metaphor a step farther. How would you "assess" the ability of a carpenter, or a plumber, or an electrician? Regardless of your answer, I doubt that it consists of only one criteria—counting the number of tools the worker owns. Most people would be more interested in seeing or hearing about the person's work, what they are able to do with or without tools, how they go about solving problems associated with their profession, and whether they take pride in their work. In other words, they "assess" the ability of the person based on that person's performance.

Why then, does education insist on assessing the ability of learners based almost solely on the number of knowledge objects they amass without ever looking at what they do with those objects—or whether they even know what the objects can be used for?

Here are a few other definitions that characterize learning in very different ways.

I'm sure you could add your own definition to the list, as could anyone who has ever thought about the subject. But while all of these defintions are true, none is complete. Is a single definition of learning even possible? Clearly, learning how to tie one's shoes requires a different process than learning to respond appropriately to the emotions of others, learning to cook, learning the causes and effects of the American Revolution (as facts), or understanding the causes and effects of the American Revolution and extending that understanding to other situations.

Of course, the minute we replace the word learn with the word understand, we have entered a much more complex dimension. Unfortunately, as standards and benchmarks proliferated during the No Child Left Behind era, the word understand was often used synonymously with words such as know, recognize, list, explain, etc. But does a person who recognizes the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government necessarily understand the purposes of each branch and how that government functions?

If an educator believes that understanding consists of the ability to recite a long list of facts about a concept, that educator's perception (assessment) of a student's understanding will be based on that belief. Other educators who believe that understanding involves the application of knowledge will conclude that the student who can't apply the information doesn't understand even if that student can spout all of the related facts.

How educators conceptualize learning or understanding plays a huge role in, not only the kind of assessments they use, but of greater importance, in their judgment of the abilities of individual students. Contrary to the common belief, learning is not something that is "given to" learners by teachers. It is not a gestalt—a moment in time that can be assessed by one's "possession" of a given collection of knowledge objects. If there is no single definition of learning that suits all situations, we know one thing for sure. Learning isn't a thing! It is a process that begins before birth and continues until death.

Can Learning Be Measured?


áté Wierdl, a professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Memphis, suggests that there is no need to argue about the relevance of standardized tests that claim to measure learning. Wierdl reminds us that, according to the fundamental laws of logic, you can draw any conclusion you want from a false premise. But those conclusions are meaningless simply because the original premise is false.

Those who claim that student test scores can be used to measure, not only a student's learning, but the effectiveness of a teacher and/or a school have begun with the premise, "If learning is measurable, then this student's/teacher's/school's performance is low on the scale we set forth."

Any premise that begins with the word "if" is meaningless—it is a false premise from which any conclusions can be drawn. If I were rich, I wouldn't have to work. If you were taller, you could have been a great basketball player. If pigs could fly…etc. Of course, reformers don't begin their premise with "If." They simply state that learning can be measured and tragically, few people question that premise. Reformers can't produce research proving that meaningful learning is measureable. Therefore, their statement is a false premise, making any conclusion they draw from it meaningless.

Wierdl states unreservedly that "…learning is not measurable, so it's immaterial whether they find a school's scores low or high!"(3)

If we accept that learning means possessing knowledge objects, then yes, it's possible to measure that type of "statable" learning in the most simplistic way…just show me the objects! However, the premise that learning means possessing knowledge objects is equally flawed. At the very least, it is grossly incomplete and fails to recognize that learning is a complex, intangible, and ongoing process.

Our next question is, "If learning can't be measured, can it be assessed?" And the answer is a resounding "Yes!" However, replacing standardized testing with authentic assessment will require a major shift in the way we think about learners.

  1. Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 5.
  2. Munby, H. (1986). Metaphor in the Thinking of Teachers: An Exploratory Study. The Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol. 18, 197-209.
  3. http://dianeravitch.net/2016/03/23/mate-wierdl-the-fallacy-of-corporate-reform/

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