The word learning is used in many different contexts and its definition varies based on the context and the author. It can get quite confusing.

Let’s look at a few definitions…

Wikipedia says…
Learning is the act of acquiring new or modifying and reinforcing existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences which may lead to a potential change in synthesizing information, depth of the knowledge, attitude or behavior relative to the type and range of experience.
Google Dictionary says…
the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.
Merriam Webster offers three  different definitions…
1. the act or experience of one that learns 
2. knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study
3. modification of a behavioral tendency by experience

While the list here is not exhaustive, these definitions focuses on the act of acquiring skill and knowledge through various means such as instruction, experience, study and other various methods. These definitions view skills and knowledge as a thing to be acquired or possessed.

In the learning and development industry, various experts define learning differently.

Marcy P. Driscoll, Professor of Instructional Systems and Educational Psychology of Florida State University and author of Psychology of Learning for Instruction
A persisting change in human performance or performance potential…[which] must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world.
Dr. Susan Ambrose, Professor of Education and History at Northeastern University and author of How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching
A process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential of improved performance and future learning.
 Robert Gagne, an American Educational Psychologist and author of The Conditions of Learning
A change in human disposition or capability that persists over a period of time and is not simply ascribable to processes of growth.

While not an exhaustive list, the commonality across these expert definitions is that learning is a process, rather than an acquisition. Learning is seen as a journey or an experience, in which the learner’s goal is to enhance one’s performance, capabilities and character.

While the two sets of definitions are similar in many ways, there is one subtle distinction. The first set of standard definition looks at learning as a thing to have. While the second set of definitions by industry experts, focuses on the learners becoming through experience.

Why is this distinction important? 

When we approach learning as a thing to have, there is a greater emphasis on the learner to collect certificates, produce handwritten notes, read x number of books/articles, commit words to memory, etc. Because having is tangible, there is documented evidence that the learner has possess a set of skills and knowledge. This form of learning does not necessarily transform the behaviour of the learner because their primary motivation is to acquire learning evidence.

Eric Fromm, a distinguished humanist psychologist and philosopher, described a different kind of learner in his book called, To Have or To Be?. He calls them the being learner.

instead of being passive receptacles of words and ideas, they listen, they hear and most important, they receive and they respond in an active productive way. What they listen to stimulates their own thinking processes. New questions, new ideas, new perspectives arise in their minds…

Being learners focuses on seeking answers, to help solve problems of their own or of others. The affects of a being learners is not as tangible as obtaining evidence, but it is certainly observable. What is observed, is that each learner has been affected and has become different after the learning experience than they were before it.

To be aware of this distinction, between having and being, will help you identify your learner’s motivation. Also, it will help to shape your programs and its methods that will better engage your leaners as well as effectively transfer the required skill, knowledge and behaviour.

In our daily lives, both types of learning is required. We cannot escape society’s expectation to have learning evidence. After all, a certificate are required for job applications, for university entrance, etc. It’s the way our world is shaped.

Though, we must not forget that the ultimate pursuit of learning is to give ourselves the opportunity to live up to our highest potential and become the best of ourselves.

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