An earlier form of this essay was published in Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki Understanding Schools: the foundations of education 1990 New York. Harper & Rowe

Models of Learning
©2000 NewFoundations


edited 4/15/14


What can be learned?

Learning as Forming Character

Learning as Gaining Understanding

Skills Acquisition

Most people who have ever been to school have very firm expectations about what teaching and learning should be. These expectations, founded in long-standing traditions, often make it difficult for us to examine teaching and learning to see what, if any causal connections there might be between them.

What we try to teach students is often less determined by what we think they can learn, than by what we think they should learn. Since ancient times, the curriculum has guided learning. It is only with the development of pedagogical focus that learning has been addressed in its own right.

"Learning" is at best a vague and ambiguous term (1). There is still some dispute whether it should be considered a generic or multiplex term, that is, whether we should look to find a common process in every situation where we would want to say someone has learned something, or whether we are willing to allow for the possibility that our everyday use of the term is sloganistic and that different processes may be discovered depending upon the kind of learning we are considering. (This dispute is discussed in the essay Causal Fallacy.)

A second ambiguity occurs when people confuse process with product. If our interest is in what is going on while someone learns and whether that going-on can be enhanced, then we are concerned about process. If, however, our focus is on outcomes, we are concerned about product.

This ambiguity between learning as process and learning as product tends to intensify the dispute over whether learning is generic or multiplex. We might, for example, agree that students exhibit learning (products) in a variety of classes without committing ourselves to the theory that a single kind of learning (process) has occurred in each classroom.

In this chapter we will restrict our attention to learning products. Historically, people have been able to identify these without having very much of a conception of the learning process. More important, they can often agree on what the products are even if they disagree on the underlying process. Indeed, in many areas of schooling, the relationship of teaching to learning has a somewhat mystical, even magical character. We will discuss this below.

What can be learned?

We have inherited a broad and conflicting set of traditions as to what can be learned. However, there is widespread consensus on the way teaching and learning relate to one another. We can identify some principles upon which our beliefs in learnability rest. By "principles" we mean slogans that link ideas in a way that makes them widely acceptable to people from different communities. Despite our society's being very pluralistic in some ways, there are conceptual linkages we all share. Let's look at some of these.

What can be learned? A wide variety of things. Let's use X as a variable which represents a possible curricular item and state a common misconception, which we can call "the curricular principle of learnability":

The curricular principle of learnability: if X is in the curriculum, X can be learned.
It is unlikely that -- upon reflection -- anyone would find this "principle" acceptable, yet such an assumption underlies many educational decisions, until it is explicitly challenged. Clearly, the problem with this principle is that it does not help us decide whether something should be added to the curriculum. Secondly, it overlooks that possibility that X has been mistakenly put there.

(Can you imagine trying to teach in a community where a principle like this one was generally accepted? Subject matters that had been introduced into the curriculum for political or other reasons might not be challengeable on pedagogical grounds. For example, students would be compelled to study history or algebra because it was "good for them" or "important for national security" quite irrespective of whether they understood it our not, or whether it would make any difference to their out-of-school lives!)

Let us continue our examination of common assumptions about learning. Certainly, physical impossibility rules out learnability. We can formulate the following principle:

The physical impossibility principle of learnability: if it is physically impossible to (do) X, X cannot be learned.
This seems reasonable enough. We might suspect that a broad consensus exists on this principle, even if there is dispute about specifics. Consider the contrary. What could we make of it if someone were to say, "This can be learned but it is physically impossible to do"? It would probably strike us as nonsense.

Of course, our ideas of what is physically possible can change. But so then would our ideas about what is learnable. Before the development of bio-feedback devices, most experts would have thought it physically impossible for people to consciously control their pulse rate or their blood pressure (2). But, they can learn to do so and this fact expands our notions of the physically possible. Some people believe in mental telepathy, others do not. The latter would rule out that one could learn to perform feats of mental telepathy. The believers might not. "Might not" is a crucial phrase, because the principle is very broad. It tells us that physically impossible things cannot be learned, but it does not say that all physically possible things can be learned. Certainly, some physically possible things may be unlearnable for other reasons.

Most of us have some belief that learning depends upon developmental appropriateness, i.e. that if a person is intellectually, or emotionally unready, certain things cannot be learned by that person, even though they might be learned at some later, more developed, stage of life. We can formulate this as:

The developmental appropriateness principle of learnability: if it is developmentally inappropriate for certain person, P, to (do) X, X cannot be learned by P.
Different cultures vary widely in how they believe children are capable of behaving. Table manners may be expected of two-year-olds in one culture; in another, children are not expected to learn table manners until they are eight or nine. Again, we have a principle of likely broad although shallow consensus.

If we put the two principles together we come up with the following:

If X is physically possible and developmentally appropriate for P, then P can learn X.
For example, it is physically possible to broadjump 20 feet. John is an athletic person. Therefore, John can learn to broadjump 20 feet. However, we might well consider that bad coaching, bad weather, tight pants, etc. could frustrate John's learning. Perhaps we need a supportive principle along these lines, e.g.
The non-impediment principle of learnability: if certain circumstances impede learning to X for person P , X cannot be learned by P under those circumstances.
This "principle" seems even more obvious than the rest because it merely states that some things impede learning. It is useful only if it allows that other things beside physical impossibility and developmental inappropriateness impede learning.

One more principle is necessary to identify the structures of belief that connect with a widely held notions of learning. Many people believe that "natural gifts" or "talents" are not learnable, although they may be developed or "sharpened" through learning. We could formulate this as:

The talent principle of learnability: if talent is necessary for X, X cannot be learned without that talent.
Playing the piano probably does not require talent. Playing Mozart's Turkish March well probably does. What this means is that while we may place "piano studies" in the school curriculum, we should not place "brilliantly playing Mozart's Turkish March " in the curriculum, unless we believe that we can control the bestowal of talent. One cannot help but wonder if those who make recurrent calls for "excellence" in our schools might be neglecting the talent principle of learnability.

What we are trying to do in laying out these "principles" is to spell out a consensus of beliefs that underlie our notions of learning. So far we have discovered that learning connects with our beliefs about physical and developmental possibility, with the belief that some circumstances are impediments to learning and to a concept of talent. We might want to argue as follows:

Everything in the curriculum must be learnable by any normal child. Therefore we must exclude things that
a. are physically impossible;
b. are developmentally inappropriate;
c. require talent to be done.

Furthermore, we must take care to remove other impediments to learning as we discover them.
The reason this all seems so obvious is that it is highly sloganistic. No specifics are given. But the slogans in effect tells us much about our "conceptual map" in the area of learning, i.e. our concept of learning is related to our concept of physical and developmental possibility, and to our notions of talent and impediment.

This "conceptual map" can be a practical tool. If we expect learning to take place under certain circumstances and it doesn't, we use that "map" to look for specific impediments, to reconsider the physical and developmental possibilities and to rule out the possibility that we are trying to get someone to learn what we believe only those with special talent can do. Perhaps academic excellence requires rare talent. That would explain its scarcity.

What the specifics are that underlie our "principles" will depend upon the authorities we accept for determining such specifics. Chart 4 illustrates how the same conceptual map may be used differently by people from different disagreeing cultural subgroups. According to the beliefs held by each group, they might come to different conclusions as to whether a particular item is learnable.

Chart 4

In chart 18.4 we might imagine that group A are members of the American Medical Association. Group B would be psychiatrists of a certain type and Group C would be certain Fundamentalist Christians. What figure 18.4 demonstrates is that all groups share a common conceptual map of learning as it relates to physical possibility, developmental appropriateness, talent and impediments. Where they differ is in the specifics of each category.

Character, skills and citizenship are often given as major curricular goals. Let's investigate conceptions of learning in each of these major types. These conceptions will be:

learning as forming character,
learning as gaining understanding, and
learning as skills acquisition.
Learning as Forming Character
It is not then how much a man may know, that is of importance, but the end and purpose for which he knows it. The object of knowledge should be to mature wisdom and improve character, to render us better, happier, and more useful; more benevolent, more energetic and more efficient in the pursuit of every high purpose in life.
Samuel Smiles (3)
The most ancient concept of learning is that it is the formation of character. This is the primary thrust of the Temple image of the school. Morality, propriety, a sense of social fitness, all of these take precedence over "mere" knowledge, e.g. book learning and skills. Samuel Smiles, a widely read author of popular self-help and motivation books of the late Nineteenth Century, restates this ancient idea in the quote above in terms of what a newly industrialized America would recognize as virtues, e.g. happiness, usefulness, energy and efficiency.

This leads us from the Temple to the Town Meeting. Character is a sufficiently vague notion that not only traditional communities but national governments can define it to their own purposes. Nothing guarantees that learning that "forms character" will produce something good. Spartan parents no doubt felt that their sons' experiences in slaughtering helpless helots strengthened their character. The Nazis had similar objectives in mind for members of the Hitler Youth.

Character is not merely a matter of intellect, but also of emotions and values. To the extent that modern schooling does not address the issues of educating the emotions (4) and lacks consensus on the values to be emphasized, to that extent do some contemporary theorists believe schooling cannot be educational.

In terms of the curricular interests formulated in The Foundations of Curriculum, learning as character is a status interest. It serves to maintain a system of values of particular social groups. Thus, "character" is also a slogan-term. We could no doubt find wide agreement that schools should develop the student's character, and yet, when we press for depth, discover that what exactly "character" meant to different people might vary from community to community or even person to person.

Learning as Gaining Understanding

Learning in many cultures is seen to be gaining understanding. But it is the understanding of tradition, authority and passed­down wisdom. A more modern status concept of learning is that learning is understanding, even understanding to the point of self-actualization, where individual values oppose those of the community. We must not imagine that understanding done in terms of long-standing traditions is the same as the kind of understanding pursued by individualist theorists. People in many traditions do not worry, for example, about indoctrination. To them, reason which conflicts with tradition is false reason.

To believe that reason can lead one into conflict with tradition requires commitment to one of the many variants of Socratic theory that exists in our culture. In the Socratic tradition status learning, the pursuit of Truth, struggles with social control interests, the recognized authorities of the community. Understanding becomes the possession of an elite who possess a method, an intuition , whatever it is, that is justified within the tradition as a legitimate alternative to received wisdom.

Learning as Skills Acquisition

The oldest explicit focus of schooling has been to develop skills. We take the demonstration of new skill to be an undeniable sign of learning. Unless, of course, we believe it to be a matter of natural development, in which case we are less likely to call it a skill and more likely to call it a new "ability." Notice that careful appraisal of our linguistic traditions can give us insight into the conceptual structures that incline us to find such ways of thinking to be more "reasonable" (5) than others. These traditions are not ephemeral verbalizations but are culturally deeply rooted in time-tested practice.

For example, animals show many different complex abilities as they mature, web-weaving, nest-building, etc. We tend to relate "skill" to learning. No matter how complex behavior is, if we believe it to be unlearned, we tend not call it a skill (6). What makes birds build nests better than spiders is not greater skill, but, perhaps, better "adaptation." Similarly, what makes spiders build better webs than birds is not greater skill, either. Birds and spiders do what they do because their bodies work they way they work. "Adaptation" is not a skill-concept; rather it is an evolutionary notion of talent, talent that comes to be. (Perhaps educators presume on Mother Nature when they try to bestow talent through schooling.)

In general, what develops naturally we tend to distinguish from what may be developed through teaching interactions. If coming to know, or to do, or to be is traditionally recognized as a kind of learning, then not all learning is a matter of acquiring skills.


(1) B. Paul Komisar, "More on the Concept of Learning" Educational Theory. Vol.XV, No.3 (July 1965)

(2) Cf. John Paul Brady, Lester Luborsky, and Reuben E. Kron "Blood Pressure Reduction in Patients with Essential Hypertension Through Metronome-Conditioned Relaxation: A preliminary report" in Leo V. Dicara Bio-Feedback and Self-Control 1974 (Chicago: Aldine, 1975) pp.256-262

(3) Samuel Smiles, Happy Homes and the Hearts That Make Them (Chicago: U.S. Publishing House, 1882) p.302.

(4) Daniel R. DiNicola, " The Education of the Emotions" Philosophy of Education 19

(5) Some classic investigations in this vein can be found in:

B. Paul Komisar and C.B.J. MacMillan (eds) Psychological Concepts in Education (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967)

R.S.Peters (ed.) The Concept of Education (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967)

Israel Schleffler The Language of Education (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1960)

B. Othaniel Smith and Robert Ennis (eds.) Language and Concepts in Education (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1961)

(6) Cf.Noam Chomsky, "Review of B.F. Skinner, Verbal Behavior." In Language, v.35, 1959. pp. 26 - 59.for his criticism of Skinner's theory that language is built up from elements to reach higher and higher levels of skill.