Undefining Learning

Editor’s Note: Visser, J. & Visser, Y. L. (2002). Undefining learning: Implications for instructional designers and educational technologists. Educational Technology, 42(2), 15-20.

The guest editors of this special issue of Educational Technology Magazine have asked authors to reflect on “the implications that broadening of the definition of learning would have for educators and educational technologists.” In this article, we shall refer to a redefinition of learning earlier developed by one of us and look at its implications for the instructional design and educational technology fields. In passing, we shall refer to a line of research currently underway that makes it possible to get a better insight into the meaning of learning from the perspective of those who learn, rather than the point of view of those who design or facilitate learning.

Negotiating the Environment

More than 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers populated the Tibetan highlands. They shouldn’t have been there, but they were. Recently established archeological evidence from high-elevation environments of the Tibetan Plateau suggests that portions of the late Pleistocene or early Holocene” (Brantingham, Olsen, & Schaller, 2001, p. 326). The environmental conditions of that region, today’s Chang Tang Nature Reserve, are among the harshest of the planet. At an elevation of 12,000 feet, severe cold, cutting winds, water scarcity and sparseness of vegetation are the order of the day. In an account of these findings in Science News (Bower, 2001), one of the scientists involved, Jeff Brantingham of the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, comments: “We’ve probably underestimated the diversity of hunter-gatherer adaptations to extreme environments during the late Stone Age” (p. 7).

Why would people decide to live more than 10,000 feet above sea level, like the Stone Age folk referred to in the above paragraph? Why would other folks decide to live, like a considerable part of the Dutch population, at 10 to 20 feet below sea level? Most other animals would rather walk away. They might never even have come close and given it a try. A possible answer to this question is that human learning is qualitatively different from animal learning. Poorly prepared biologically to adapt to its natural environment, the human species has perfected learning to beyond the level we have so far been able to fully understand. It has given humans the ability to adapt the circumstances to them, rather than for them to merely adapt to the given circumstances. Humans problematize[1] and transform their environment, producing change that benefits them and those close to them, but also affecting, positively or negatively, others—and other life forms—in the process.

At the time when the populations studied by Brantingham and his colleagues populated the Tibetan highlands, the total world population is estimated to have been around eight million. It had probably remained at that level, fluctuating around it, for a long time since, three million years earlier, hominid development began. However, shortly after our foraging ancestors populated the Tibetan Plateau, agriculture was invented, which rapidly overtook hunting and gathering as a primary activity. It caused the human population to rise exponentially ever since (Tudge, 1998). So, we were three billion in 1960, and we added another three billion before the twentieth century was over.

Not only did we grow in number, we also became cleverer and cleverer. With what we know now we could, as a species, probably decide to live comfortably, retiring from our historical business of transforming the world, but somehow that is not in our genes. Having put the process in motion, we can no longer stop it. What we can do, though, is manage it better, becoming metacreative, so to say.
Metacreativity, we suggest, is the capacity to creatively intervene in our creativity, to apply our creative energy to addressing problems that emerge from our creativeness. It requires reflectiveness, autonomy of thinking, solidarity with one’s fellow human beings, the capacity to perceive of one’s world as made up of problems, and the desire and ability to take charge of one’s life in a problem-oriented fashion. In short, it requires the development of learning at a higher, more comprehensive level than what is foreseen in most textbook approaches to the development of designed instruction. One could also say that it requires a broadening of the set of competencies and attitudes with which instructional designers come equipped, a broadening that should be based on a more complete perspective of the contribution that learning in an instructional context can make to human learning in general.

Not by Instruction Alone

People can change their performance capability by being instructed. It makes sense, therefore, to carefully design instructional processes if one wants to ensure specific gains in human performance. Thanks to the decades-long history of the development of the instructional design discipline, great advances have been made in our ability to shape processes of human performance development in a controlled manner, i.e., in ways that allow us to predict the performance change when we put certain conditions in place.

Before there was instructional design, there was instruction. Instruction originally developed out of the largely intuitive practice of exposing novices to the expert performance of elders, allowing the former to model their behavior after the latter, in a reduced-risk environment, before facing real-life circumstances alone. When particular abilities became essential requirements for all members of a community to fully participate in the life of that community, these same processes became institutionalized (initiation, schooling) and formalized, so as to ensure that members of a new generation would all have the required abilities they would need in adult life. The institutionalization and formalization of instruction greatly expanded during the industrial era. Educational systems developed in which instruction became a centrally planned phenomenon, ensuring uniformity of outcome. The schooling practice started to universalize as people became more and more aware of the ethical responsibility (and probably also of the socioeconomic wisdom) that every citizen should be given the same chances in society.

With the increase in and development of the schooling practice, it is not surprising that learning has become identified, in the minds of many people, with “being instructed” and all the various connotations that go with that phrase. It has thus become less evident that learning also occurs in non-instructional contexts, pertaining to the social, economic, cultural, historical, and spiritual spaces, in addition to the school, in which people operate. As a consequence, the awareness in society about where to invest its creative and material resources to promote and facilitate learning became highly focused on—if not obsessed with—formal institutionalized instruction, particularly the school system. This coincided with a growing neglect—also occasioned by other transformational processes in society—of, for instance, the important role for the development of learning at both the cognitive and metacognitive level, as well as in terms of its—often unrecognized—emotive dimension, played by the family environment, the broadcast media (in more than their mere educational use), as well as in exploratory spaces such as provided by museums, nature, libraries, reading rooms, the Internet, community centers, and clubhouses for the young and the old.

Not only is the strong focus on instruction problematic because it keeps resources and attention away from other contexts in which people learn, there is also another problem with particularly the schooling practice, at least when interpreted as a way to prepare young people for life, providing them with the kind of skills that are the standard offering of most schools around the world. The existing conception of the school is based on the premise that the past generation is able to determine what the new generation should learn and that change is sufficiently slow so that the evolution of how humans deal with change can occur at the pace with which generations replace each other, i.e., a timeframe of approximately 20 years. That premise no longer holds. Change has become so rapid that it has overtaken the pace of generational change. Consequently, there is now an essential need for people to take their learning life in their own hands.

If the school still has an important preparatory function, and we believe it has, then it must prepare people for the autonomous development, throughout their lives, of their capacity to learn. When we say “autonomous,” we mean that to include awareness of one’s being part of social settings and thus to reflect on the learning individual in his or her ever changing social environment. That objective is poorly served by programs and curricula that deal with skills in isolation; compartmentalize knowledge; encourage and evaluate learning emphasizing individual achievement; dissociate learning from its context of application.

What we are saying here does not mean that we think the school should no longer have a role in the development of such important basic skills as reading, writing, and the ability to deal with numbers. Nor do we say that the school should not give to those graduating from it a broad frame of reference in history, geography, and the arts and sciences, in addition to knowledge about their own body and the ability to maintain and develop its adequate functioning. What we are saying is that the development of such important faculties should be undertaken with the foresight that people, during their entire lives, will be dealing with problems that mostly transcend the boundaries between disciplines. We are also saying that the development of these faculties should be integrated with the development of other important abilities that allow students to take charge, in an increasingly autonomous manner, of their own learning.

What applies to the school, applies no less to any other instructional setting, as any such setting is an opportunity to enhance the development of learning of the individual benefiting from the instruction. It is, in our view, an ethical responsibility of the instructional designer to have that opportunity in mind and to act on it. Consequently, we argue that the training of instructional designers should include the creation of awareness of this more complex world of learning in which designers intervene as well as provide designers with relevant competencies that allow them to intervene more wisely in that world of learning.

One may compare this with how in the field of medicine the attention ought to be on the well-being of the whole human being rather than on some technical procedures that restrict a medical intervention to dealing with a specific piece of tissue or a particular organ. Much is still to be developed for the suggested change in the training of instructional designers. Among other things it requires recognizing the importance of context as well as understanding context as a multifaceted concept (e.g., Tessmer & Richey, 1997; J. Visser & Berg, 1999). It equally requires introducing in the training of instructional designers (and thus also in the evaluation of their training outcome) of a continuous focus on real-life problems, in a similar fashion as innovative medical schools and schools of architecture apply this concept (J. Visser & Y. L. Visser, 2000).

The Undefinition of Learning

The changed perspective on instructional design we alluded to above requires a different vision of learning. School-based learning has so much become part and parcel of every generation’s lifecycle that most other planned learning events are modeled after it. Most people thus think that it is the only modality of learning worth that name. Consequently, few people question the concept.

Often, when asked what learning really means, people are embarrassed to discover that they have difficulty to say more than a few superficial things about it. It is one of those words we use, assuming that everyone understands what we mean without having to check the dictionary. Taking the trouble to look it up in, for instance, Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, one finds that it is being defined in terms of gaining knowledge, understanding, or a skill through study, instruction, or experience, the latter with specific reference to learning a trade. Additional meanings refer to memorizing and changing behavior. We contend that such a definition insufficiently reflects on the meaning of learning in the historical perspective of the evolution of humankind, of which we provided a Stone Age snapshot at the opening of this article.

A subsequent snapshot is that of today’s world, described by Lederman (1999, April) as one of unprecedented change,

so much so that it differs, in the requirements on the participants, from the world of teachers, parents, school officials, legislators. It is a world of information technology and the challenge of access. It is a world of globalization, of a paradox of unprecedented global interdependence and, at the same time, of defensive local cultures, nationalism, and community coherence. (p. 2)

This is a world that calls for deep understanding and wisdom. As the events of the day on which these lines are being written, September 11, 2001,[2] show, it is a world in which relatively small human entities are able to wreak unprecedented havoc on their fellow human beings, doing so consciously and by design. It is also a world in which our collective behavior is able to cause even greater disaster—unwanted by anyone, yet resulting from the cumulative effect of the actions of us all—as together we contribute to slowly developing demographic, socioeconomic and environmental instability. As Lederman goes on to comment:

Projections of the human condition, the strength of family, the level of moral and ethical behavior, the economic health, social and political stability are all subject to the explosive advance of science and of technology. Major global problems of population, of environment, the dwindling of natural resources, including fresh water, the habitation of fragile land areas, sensitive to flooding, natural and man-made catastrophes, new pandemic diseases, all speak to the need for a greater understanding and control…. Advances in our understanding of molecular genetics and of human cognition open vistas of opportunities, which include the possibility of rational manipulation of human evolution. (p. 3)

In order to deal with the challenges and opportunities of our time, and more so even of the future, we are insufficiently equipped if our learning continues to have too strong and exclusive a focus on gaining specified knowledge, particular ways of understanding the world, specific skills, prescribed sets of memorized facts, or well-defined behavioral change. What we need most, in addition to all those things, is the ability to see ourselves using all those faculties we gained and then to reflect on what we are actually doing with them. In other words, we must look for points of view that lift us above ourselves as mere organisms able to do clever things without ever questioning our own behavior. For that to happen, we must liberate our ideas about learning from their current narrow focus. In short, we must “undefine” learning (J. Visser, 2001). The following five considerations are in order.

First it needs to be recognized that learning is not something one does every now and then, with periods in between when one does not learn. The faculty to be reflective of what we do with what we learn can only be turned off to our peril. We thus better keep it on and think of learning as a lifelong disposition.

A second important point is that for anything we do we are always impacting on the lives of others. Being now more than six billion on a small planet, using technologies that can extend the radius of impact of any individual’s action to the entire planet, the rate and cumulative effect of interaction has dramatically increased. This must once again make us realize that learning is what it always was: dialogue. The emphasis on learning as dialogue is clearly present also in the work of, for instance, John Shotter (1997, 2000). It transpires from John-Steiner’s (2000) work on “creative collaboration.” It is a corollary of the emphasis that Tessmer and Richey (1997) put on “context” as an important factor in the design of learning environments as well as of the idea that learning and activity are inseparable concepts (Jonassen, 2000). It is also embedded in how Cole & Engestrom (1993) see the building of knowledge as a cultural-historical process.

In the third place, and as exemplified by, for instance, the development of the arts and sciences, the learning dialogue is not only a dialogue with other human beings. It is in general a dialogue with our human, social, biological, and physical environment. As in the case of any true dialogue, we are talking here about a reciprocal process. Not only do we, as individuals, interact with our environment; that same environment also interacts with us.

One realizes immediately, and this is our fourth point, that if, as we said above, our environment interacts with us, we are ourselves also part of that environment and are integrated in it not as isolated individuals, but at different levels at which we organize ourselves socially. We should thus perceive of the dialogue as one that has multiple dimensions; takes place at different levels of complex organization; and is engaged in by both individual human beings, and all manner of social entities to which they pertain. By logical extension, this means that learning is an ecological phenomenon (see also J. Visser, 2001).

Finally, and in the fifth place, it is a dialogue engaged in with a purpose. That purpose is concerned with our ability to interact constructively with change. The adverb “constructively” is deliberate and essential. The faculty to choose between being constructive and destructive, to reflect on whether we enhance existence or subtract from it, is a profoundly human faculty. We thus conclude, as one of us already proposed elsewhere, that human learning should be undefined as follows:

Human learning is the disposition of human beings, and of the social entities to which they pertain, to engage in continuous dialogue with the human, social, biological and physical environment, so as to generate intelligent behavior to interact constructively with change. (J. Visser, 2001, p. 453)

The Story of Learning Told by Those Who Learn

As part of the Meaning of Learning (MOL) project of the Learning Development Institute, both authors are involved, together with researchers at collaborating institutions, in collecting and analyzing learning stories. We mentioned above that people often react awkwardly when asked to explain what learning means. However, giving them the time, and encouraging them to reflect on their entire learning life experience, they are able to generate helpful insight into the importance of learning for human development and clarify the conditions that help such development along.

We have reported elsewhere on the initial results of our research (Y. L. Visser & J. Visser, 2000), which is still ongoing. Because of space limitations, we encourage readers to explore the Web site of the Learning Development Institute  for further detail about the Meaning of Learning project and the Learning Stories Research project that is part of it. The same Web site also features some sample learning stories. While the sample stories on the Web are written accounts of people’s learning experience, we note that not all learning stories are in the form of written documents. One of our associate researchers, Cole Genge at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is currently collecting such accounts from largely illiterate Aymara and Quechua speaking communities in the highlands of Bolivia, making audio recordings of the stories as they are being told. We also have stories expressed in the form of drawings and one in the form of a poem (in Hindi).

Standing out in our initial analysis of people’s accounts of their most meaningful learning experiences is the low incidence of references to the school or similar instructional contexts. What is referred to as playing a significant role in initiating and sustaining people’s most meaningful learning experiences is curiosit—such as a child’s interest in exploring principles of electronics by taking apart and reassembling electronic equipment, and challenge– such as working through a seemingly impossible problem, or developing alternative solutions in the face of resource constraints. Equally of interest in the research findings is the considerable number of cases in which reference is made to constructive and conscious involvement in someone else’s learning—for instance as a teacher, parent or sibling—as a powerful way of learning oneself in a meaningful way. Not unrelated to this is also the identification of the presence of a role model or emotionally significant support as an important condition for learning to take place.

Whither Instructional Design?

We highlight the above five specific elements because of their relevance for the argument presented in this article. The fact that instruction is apparently not seen as dramatically important for learning, should, in our view, not be interpreted as a negative perception about the importance of instruction. Within the ecological vision of learning referred to above, no specific learning context may be dramatically important, but all are essential. Relative importance of each of them will vary across members of the audience surveyed. We therefore suggest that our findings should lead to a rethinking of the importance and relevance of instruction in the wider and vastly diverse context and varied configurations in which people learn.

The emphasis on the role of curiosity and challenge as conditions present in people’s most meaningful learning experiences speaks directly to the design of learning environments and instructional materials. In recent years, the increasing emphasis has been put on integrating opportunities for authentic practice into the learning environment as a way to address the element of challenge in instructional design. However, we argue that there is a need to more fully integrate the notion of “challenge” into the learning environment, by integrating challenge and curiosity as related concepts in learning. Curiosity can be viewed as the basis for Initiating and sustaining both learning and inquiry. It makes it possible for people to overcome difficulties, and respond to challenges in creative and constructive ways, so that learning can be more meaningful, allowing the learner to feel empowered both while participating in the learning process and as a consequence of what was being learned. In other words, we must identify and respond to the learners’ innate curiosities, rather than simply designing instruction to elicit curiosity. Furthermore, challenges should be integrated into the learning experience in a way that is natural in the framework of the learners’ intrinsic curiosities and actual learning contexts. At present, there is a tendency for instructional designers to integrate the element of challenge by placing the learner in a performance context, rather than the learning context. Designing challenging environments where the basis for the challenge is learning (and reacting to the feedback from the learning process) may be a more appropriate response.

The highlight on conscious and constructive involvement in someone else’s learning sustains our reasoning that learning is best interpreted as dialogue, and thus that instructional design should emphasize opportunities for creative collaboration. Moreover, such conscious and constructive involvement is only possible when those involved in the learning situation are consciously engaged, in other words, when they reflect on the learning situation. This supports our emphasis on the inclusion among the concerns of the instructional designer of metacreativity, metalearning, and metacognition, requiring inventiveness in identifying opportunities and relevant mechanisms in the instructional setting for instructors and students to become conscious of and assess how learning happens.

The reference to emotionally significant support in the learning context points to two important recommendations. The designed instructional environment should have ample opportunities for people to be collaboratively involved in the shared attainment of both individual and collective learning goals. Due attention should be given, by the designer, to ways in which students and instructors can attend to each other’s emotional needs. Motivational design (Keller, 1983) is part of this concern, but not all of it (see also Driscoll, 2000).

At the broadest level, the nature of the learning stories research speaks to the merits of integrating the learners’ perceptions of the meaning of learning into the instructional design process. Instructional design emphasizes careful analysis and evaluation throughout the planning and implementation of instructional interventions, with particular emphasis on such things as determining performance outcomes, salient learner attributes, and prior knowledge, skills, and attitudes. However, learners’ perceptions are rarely integrated into the analysis and evaluation processes, since the instructional designers and subject matter experts are often regarded as having a better sense of learners’ dispositions and attitudes than the learners themselves. We would propose, however, that instructional designers give more careful consideration to the learners’ perceptions of what constitutes meaningful learning, and that they integrate this information into all major phases of the instructional design process, with particular emphasis on the analysis and evaluation phases.

In general, a focus on problems and integration with real-life situations (for instance Marshall, 2000), and thus the recognition of the “purposeful act” (Kilpatrick, 1918, p. 3) as the typical unit for instruction, are, in our view, among the most natural, and also most adequate ways to attend to the totality of concerns expressed in the above recommendations.


Bower, P. (2001). Stone Age folk in Asia adapted to extremes. Science News, 160, 7.

Brantingham, P. J., Olsen, J. W., & Schaller, G. B. (2001), Lithic assemblages from the Chang Tang region, northern Tibet. Antiquity, 75, 319-27.

Cole, M., & Engestrom, Y. (1993). A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Driscoll, M. P. (2000). Psychology of learning for instruction. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

John-Steiner, V. (2000). Creative collaboration. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Jonassen, D. (2000, October) Learning as activity. Paper presented at the Presidential Session on In Search of the Meaning of Learning (J. Visser, Chair) at the International Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Denver, CO; http://www.learndev.org/dI/Denverionassen.PDF

Keller, J. M. (1983). Motivational design of instruction. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: An overview of their current status (pp. 383-434). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kilpatrick, W. H. (1918). The project method. Teachers College Record, 19(4), 319-335; http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3606.

Lederman, L. M. (1999, April). On the threshold of the 21st century: Comments on science education. Paper presented at the Symposium on Overcoming the Underdevelopment of Learning (J. Visser, Chair). Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.

Marshall, S. P. (2000, October) The learning story of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Paper presented at the Presidential Session on In Search of the Meaning of Learning U. Visser, Chair) at the International Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Denver, CO; http://www.learndev.org/dI/DenverMarshall.PDF

Shotter, J. (1997). The social construction of our ‘inner’ lives. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 10, 7-24.

Shotter, J. (2000, October). Constructing ‘resourceful or mutually enabling’ communities: Putting a new (dialogical) practice into our practices. Paper presented at the Presidential Session on In Search of the Meaning of Learning (J. Visser, Chair) at the International Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Denver, CO; http://www.learndev.org/dI/ DenverShotter.PDF

Tessmer, M., & Richey, R. C. (1997). The role of context in learning and instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 45(2), 85-115.

Tudge, C. (1998). Neanderthals, bandits, and farmers: How agriculture really began. London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Visser, J. (2001). Integrity, completeness and comprehensive­ness of the learning environment: Meeting the basic learning needs of all throughout life. In D. N. Aspin, J. D. Chapman, M. J. Hatton, & Y. Sawano (Eds), International Handbook of Lifelong Learning (pp. 447-472). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Visser, J., & Berg, D. (1999). Learning without frontiers: Building integrated responses to diverse learning needs. Educational Technology Research and Development, 47(3), 101-114.

Visser, J., & Visser, Y. L. (2000, October). On the difficulty of changing our perceptions about such things as learning. Paper presented at the Presidential Session on In Search of the Meaning of Learning (J. Visser, Chair) at the International Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Denver, CO; http://www.learndev.org/dI/DenverVisserVisser.PDF

Visser, Y. L., & Visser, J. (2000, October). The learning stories project. Paper presented at the International Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Denver, CO.

Jan Visser is President and Senior Researcher at the Learning Development Institute. He is also the former UNESCO Director for “Learning Without Frontiers” and a theoretical physicist by original vocation.
Yusra Laila Visser is Vice President and Researcher at the Learning Development Institute as well as instructional designer for the Open and Distance Learning program in Florida State University’s Department of Educational Research.

  1. The verb "to problematize" is not commonly used in the English language, in contrast with, for instance, French or Spanish. Many dictionaries don't even list it. The Complete Oxford Dictionary defines it as "to propound problems." We use it here to refer to the mental and emotional disposition to analyze one's environment in terms of the challenges it affords and thus the opportunity to address such challenges. We think of this ability as an essential human ability. We see "questioning" as an important ability that is part of—but not equivalent to—the disposition to problematize.
  2. The day of the terrorist attack on the cities of New York and Washington.

This content is provided to you freely by EdTech Books.

Access it online or download it at https://edtechbooks.org/educationinnovation/undefining-learning.