How does learning happen? What exactly is going on when we acquire knowledge or skill?
When we consider our own education, it’s evident that over time we learn quite a lot – some of it may even overlap with what we’re taught. First we don’t know x or can’t do y and then at some later point we can. Learning has taken place, but it’s not always clear how.
We must be finding similarities and making connections between what we already know or can do and the yet-to-be-known or as-yet-inexpressible. Memory, retrieval, recall and practice all clearly play a part. The process is surely also shaped by our identity and our social, physical and emotional relation to others; who we are, who we are with, how we feel, and what we and others want.
The mystery of learning is explored in a wonderful short essay Memories of Learning by the German sociologist and philosopher Frigga Haug, based on her original text Die Unruhe des Lernens (2020).
For Haug, the word ‘learning’…
“…brings on a deep sense of discomfiture. It attaches itself to memories of command and attempted obedience, of failure and displeasure, of guilt.”
Many of us will relate to Haug’s account of the pain and struggle of learning to read:
“Reading presented itself as an unattainable goal… I stared at the characters… and strove to find some meaning in their juxtaposition…It didn’t work. The letters kept stubbornly to themselves; two characters together yielded nothing, let alone three or more. I sat in despair for what seemed like hours over the curves and strokes; it didn’t help that they were big and brightly coloured.”
And then there must have been some kind of change of state:
“…the letters must have been turned into words and this process must have been meaningfully transformed into an activity that one might want to practice.”
But having eventually learnt to read, what Haug remembers is not the meaningful transformation but the struggle and sense of frustration and failure.
I learnt to read, at school aged 5, using a French primer which I think was called ‘Poucet et son ami l’écureuil’ (Poucet and his friend Squirrel). I liked the illustrations of Poucet’s adventures which mainly involved him exploring the farm where he lived. Most of all, I liked the page which showed Poucet going with his mother on a journey to Paris by bus and train. For me, the pictures were the story and it seemed quite impossible that I could ever recount it by simply reading the text. I don’t think Poucet was ever shown doing any reading himself, but I felt that the page with the train represented the promise of future reading and that getting to that point would be the start of further journeys. I remember the book and its illustrations vividly and I also remember feeling that reading was just too big a challenge, but I can’t remember the first time I actually read on my own. The skill must have emerged so gradually that there was no single transition point.
Frigga Haug goes on to recount some of her other negative learning experiences, from ball games and university seminar rooms to using a word processor. In each case, the outcome is generally:
“At some point, I must have learnt how to do it… But what I still remember is those anxious hours in which my head felt so curiously empty.”
We like to emphasize the ‘joy’ of learning, the ‘Aha!’ moments when a student gets it at last, the overcoming of barriers and the life-changing possibilities of learning. That’s a teacher perspective. But the flash of joy or the moment of intense pleasure is often the tip of a big scary iceberg which the learner is only too aware of. Yes, learning can be transformational, but that transformation often comes with an emotional cost.
“…without a doubt, the lasting memory of failure in learning influences the development of one’s personality and the form and attainment of learning objectives in the future.”
Haug wonders why it is that she can’t remember the learning process for all those skills she eventually mastered, including those she took to ‘with ease’, like arithmetic, swimming, climbing and running. She became a teacher herself, guiding others through learning, and she can see how it would be useful to better understand how we acquire whatever it is we have that we want to pass on to our students.
What Frigga Haug offers us here is a powerful personal attempt to evoke the learning process as she experienced it – something with essential and life-enhancing outcomes but which could also be painful and difficult. Perhaps this simply reflects the fact that our learning is the result of our constant interaction with the world; our restless confrontation with the unknown and the not-yet understood. If learning is living, then it naturally includes all the challenges that life presents.
“Learning promises competence and ability, but at the same time it means a loss of security, of illusions…”
Haug draws on her experience in the women’s movement and the way she successfully created discussion and action planning gatherings within the wider Action Council she worked with in Berlin. She concludes that…
“…the teaching-learning problem cannot be expressed in terms of teaching as a thing imposed from above (with) learning as the fate of those below. Rather, one needs to grasp the political dimension… (and to understand teaching as both) the attempt to discover other possible paths through the world but also to find companions for the fight to change it.”
Gert Biesta devotes a whole chapter to the problem of learning in his brilliant book ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education’ (2014). He challenges the idea of learning as natural, inevitable and desirable and shows that descriptions of learning are not neutral and tend to domesticate rather than emancipate the learner. Learning means nothing unless the learner is specific about content and purpose. To say that we have learnt something is to make a political judgement, so as learners we need to seize our learning and make it work for us rather than the other way around.
In order to try to explain what’s happening when we learn, one could reference John Dewey’s social constructivism, Lev Vygotsky’s socio-cultural approach and the Zone of Proximal Development, Paulo Freire’s democratic dialectic and generative themes, bell hooks’s transgressive engagement or Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, amongst other models. Here, Frigga Haug has instead chosen to explore how learning feels: personal, social, political and often also very mysterious.
Memories of Leaning, Frigga Haug (New Left Review 137, Sep/Oct 2022)
Overcoming the barriers to learning (January 2022)
Learning from Utopia (December 2021)
Reading bell hooks (April 2021)
Freire for today (March 2021)
Learning through conflict (November 2017)
The skilled learner DOES (June 2015)
Gransci’s grammar and Dewey’s dialectic (December 2014)