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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford

What is Learning?

Leadership Thoughts | Issue #101

I was thinking about my experience with the stages of learning last week. I shared my thoughts with two thought-leader colleagues, who suggested I make it a topic for Leadership Thoughts.

In an attempt to answer a complex question and provide a simple answer, I thought I already knew the answer to, what is learning, re-learning, and extended learning. Once you establish the practical value of what was known, you will expand your learning. If you learn something, forget about it until you need it, then you have to re-learn. Sometimes, you need or desire to extend your learning with additional study and practice.

I started my research process to prove my hypotheses correct. Consulting search engines, I was left with yet another query: what is learning, and do we have a clear understanding? I have been part of numerous conversations about learning in the past, but only a handful of people could back up their ideas with evidence. If you're one of these learning experts, the following rather simplistic explanations might leave you feeling like 'yes, but we should also consider…'.

What is learning?

Attempting to answer this question, I realized I had conflicting learning ideas. I believe that knowledge can be obtained and recalled, but authentic learning only occurs when a person's opinion, skills, values, or attitude changes. Therefore, learning is not static; it evolves. This is my current definition of learning, which may change with further exploration.

"Learning is a change in behavior or knowledge because of an experience. The learning occurs by acquiring new knowledge and skills through the experiences." – Pat Crawford

Here are a few other definitions of learning.

"Learning is the relatively permanent change in a person's knowledge or behavior due to experience." –From Learning in Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Richard E. Mayer

This definition has three components:

  1. the duration of the change is long-term rather than short-term;

  2. the locus of the change is the content and structure of knowledge in memory or the behavior of the learner;

  3. the cause of the change is the learner's experience in the environment rather than fatigue, motivation, drugs, physical condition or physiologic intervention.

"We define learning as the transformative process of taking in information that—when internalized and mixed with what we have experienced—changes what we know and builds on what we do. It's based on input, process, and reflection. It is what changes us." –From The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner

Learning is acquiring new knowledge, skills, attitudes, or values through experience, study, or instruction. It involves changes in behavior, understanding, or thought resulting from acquiring new information or insights. Learning can be intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious, and can occur in formal or informal settings. The learning process can involve various methods, including trial and error, observation, and exposure to new information. The outcome of learning can result in improved performance, increased understanding, and personal growth. -ChatGPT

Stages of Learning

According to my research, the experts say there are 3, 4, 5, or 7 stages of learning depending on the expert. The following is how I explain the stages of learning.

"The three stages of learning include learning, re-learning, and extending learning. Learning is incremental and progressive but not always linear. Each stage is subject to conscious and unconscious events contributing to learning." – Pat Crawford

The following are several other examples of the stages of Learning

"The four stages of learning skills are Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence, and finally, Unconscious Competence." -Abraham Maslow

In Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (1984), Kolb defined learning as "the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience" (p. 38). This learning experience consists of four stages:

  • Concrete Experience (CE): feeling

  • Reflective Observation (RO): watching

  • Abstract Conceptualization (AC): thinking

  • Active Experimentation (AE): doing

The stages of learning are generally understood to be a series of steps or phases that individuals go through as they acquire new knowledge, skills, or behaviors. While different models of learning may describe these stages differently, many models include the following primary stages:

  • Unconscious Incompetence: At this stage, the individual is unaware of their lack of skill or knowledge in a particular area.

  • Conscious Incompetence: In this state, the individual becomes aware of their lack of skill or knowledge and seeks ways to improve.

  • Conscious Competence: At this stage, the individual has developed the necessary skills or knowledge but must actively focus on using them.

  • Unconscious Competence: At this state, the individual has fully mastered the skill or knowledge and can perform it without conscious effort.

It's worth noting that not all learning experiences will necessarily go through each of these stages and that the pace of progress through the steps can vary greatly depending on individual factors and the nature of the learning experience. Additionally, some learning models may include additional stages or describe these stages differently. Still, the basic idea is the same: learning involves progressing from ignorance or incompetence to a state of competence and mastery. - ChatGPT

During my brief exploration into the field of learning, I have been left with more questions than answers. I believe those in leadership and instructional roles should strive to become learning experts. To do so, one should answer the following questions:

  1. What is your understanding of learning?

  2. How does your interpretation align with what the experts say?

  3. What knowledge have you acquired that has caused you to alter your beliefs, attitude, or behavior?

  4. In your current position and tasks, how do learning and stages of comprehension apply to those around you and your organization?


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