Education and learning are different things

Laurentius de Voltolina

Education and learning are very different things. It seems that we often confuse the two, to our detriment.

The other day I bumped across a fascinating article, Giving Teaching Back to Education,1)Biesta, G.J.J. (2012). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology and Practice 6(2), 35-49. by Gert Biesta.2)Gert Besta’ home page The author makes that argument that we should allow teachers to teach. While there is definite benefits from having teachers play the guide on the side role, we also need them to be the sage on the stage.

He makes a good case for his main thesis, and I recommend reading the paper, but what I found interesting was a section early in the piece where he makes the strong distrinction between learning and teaching.

Learning is something personal. It’s something that you, an individual, does. Learning has you pulling in new knowledge and skills, experimenting and testing them, before you adopt what works for you while rejecting that which doesn’t.

Education, on the other hand, is something that’s done to you. It’s an intervention, a black box where the student enters on one side and leaves on the other changed in some way. This change may be the acquisition of knowledge, as it was so often in the past. It could be the acquisition of attitudes and behavours that you couldn’t develop on our own. Or it might even be the development of an awareness of the intersection between what you’re good at and what you like.

Learning is (ideally) something that you do continually. Education is something that you seek out when you need help.

This leads us to the somewhat radical conclusion that schools – or any educational instutition for that matter – are not places of learning. The place of learning is whereever the student is. Sometimes that place of learning is located at the educational institution. Often it’s not.

Calling any educational instutition a place of learning is a bit silly as it implies that learning is restricted to occurring at discrete and well-defined places (even if these places are virtual), when clearlly it could and should happen anywhere. Indeed, during the development of a recent Centre for the Edge report in the changing nature of education (more on that in the weeks to come) we even heard one senior K12 education state that their school is not a place of learning – it’s a place of education – as the learning should occur where ever the student is.

Making a clear distinction between learning and education also leads us to the conclusion that a lot of the discussion about life-long learning is really talk of periodic, life-long reeducation. I’m not sure that periodic, life-long reeducation makes any sense for students who are quite capable of managing their own learning. It does, however, make a lot of sense for educational instutitions who intend to charge students each time they return to the knowledge well.

Finally, the confusion between education and learning means that all the problems in the education sector are treated as learning problems. This worries me as it’s becoming clear that many of these problems stem from our inability to develop a shared understanding of what it means to be educated in this day and age.

It’s clear that the modern workplace is placing new demands on workers. Analysis skills used to be top of the list – the ability to to pull problems apart, optimise the pieces, and then put them back together. Now it’s creativity that’s in demand – the ability to pull together disparat ideas and make something new. We used to work alone, sitting in our office. Now we work in teams, often with members drawn from different organisations and cultures. And so on…

Today your value to the firm is not based on what you can prove that you know or can do, but in what the firm expects you to achieve. Firm’s are looking for individuals who a demonstrable interest in a problem the firm has; someone who has a track record of integrating new ideas from other disciplines and domains to create new, novel solutions; an individual who can effectively integrate into the firm’s team; and someone who’s background and culture will helps broaden as well as deepen the reach of the firm when searching for ideas.

This new generation of workers – Google calls them “smart creatives”3)Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg (2014), How Google Works, Grand Central Publishing – have different educational needs.

As we say in the Centre for the Edge’s education report:

The goal of a formal education should be to prepare students for life after their formal education. In a world dominated by change it would be wise to define ‘being educated’ as having the ability ‘to adapt to whatever life might bring’. An increasingly important part of education – and intervention – will therefore be to instil in students the importance of continually updating and expanding their own knowledge stocks, as well as fostering within them the sensitivity to know when they need to do this. Doing this is a skill in and of itself. It is a skill built on habits of mind, the attitudes and behaviours that a student develops during their formal education.

Education and learning might have been synonymous in the past. primarily as educators had a virtual monopoly on knowledge. That is no longer true as it’s not what you know, it’s what you can google that matters.

What we think of as education is expanding and changing in repose to the changing nature of society. Education and learning are now very different things but we continue to view all problems in the education sector as learning problems, to our own detriment.

References   [ + ]

1. Biesta, G.J.J. (2012). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology and Practice 6(2), 35-49.
2. Gert Besta’ home page
3. Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg (2014), How Google Works, Grand Central Publishing

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