#H800 What is Learning?

Courtesy Marc Kjerland

There is a lot of research on how people learn, and it’s a central objective of the course to investigate how technology can enhance learning.  This assumes that we know what learning is.  However, learning is not a scientific process or unit that you can define unambiguously. Therefore it seems a good idea to discuss in Week 3 what learning actually is. By lack of a clear definition, we use (without realizing) metaphors to describe what we mean by learning.

Core of the discussion is a paper by Anna Sfard (1998), in which she describes two main metaphors that are used when talking about learning: the acquisition metaphor (AM) and the participatory metaphor (PM). The idea at the heart of Anna Sfard’s article is that metaphors are basic units of conceptual development. The metaphor you choose, determines how you see learning and also how you will see the potential of technology in learning. Two extracts explain the main point.

The language of “knowledge acquisition” and “concept development” makes us think about the human mind as a container to be filled with certain materials and about the learner as becoming an owner of these materials.(p.1)

“Participation” is almost synonymous with “taking part” and “being a part,” and both of these expressions signalize that learning should be viewed as a process of becoming a part of a greater whole (p. 4-5).

The metaphors basically refer to the objective of learning.  In the AM it is gaining knowledge as an individual, whereas in the PM, it is actively being part of a community of practice.  Learning is an ongoing process, that is embedded in a particular context, embedded in a  culture, and influenced by a particular community and idiom.  This relates to the “learning to be” idea, put forward by John Seely Brown the previous week.  He referred to the open source movement as an example of learning by being amidst experts. Students are observing or contributing in the periphery, and gradually, as they become experts, move on to the core of the community.

Both metaphors don’t refer to how learning occurs.  In both metaphors this can be in group or individual, and based on various learning theories, such as learning by transmission or learning or the constructivist models stressing development of knowledge and the construction of meaning.

Sfard warns against the exclusive use of one metaphor in learning, or what she calls “theoretical excesses”.  Educational practice should be based on  different recipes, catering for various study preferences.

Dominance of the AM was present in most geography courses at the K.U.Leuven.  Course material consists of a tome of hundreds of pages, studying entails transferring the information from the manual to the brain as good as possible and assessment is based on recollection of  knowledge elements from the manual. Group tutorials aim at a better understanding of the course material.  In this kind of course, the use of technology aims at a better “storage” of information.  Examples are concept maps, databases and text processing.

Dominance of the PM was very strong in the recent LAK11 course.  A wide range of learning materials was made available, learners were invited to select resources most interesting to them and to engage with the material through contribution (active or passive) in the forums and during the lectures.  Here, technology supports the active involvement in the community, examples are online Moodle forums, Eluminate and possibly Twitter and Facebook.

However, as more information is stored online and is abundantly available, finding, selecting, assessing and retrieving it becomes a matter of participating in a network of people, rather than using your network of neurons.  In this way technology is used to “acquire” information through “participation” with a community, confusing or blurring the boundaries between the metaphors.


Sfard, A. (1998 ) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’, Educational Researcher, 27(2), March 1998, American Educational Research Association

One comment on “#H800 What is Learning?

  1. Ged schools says:

    Well summarized article.

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