What do we Mean by Pedagogy?Characterising learning (part 1)

Learning is a very complex area of research due to its ubiquitous presence in what it means to be human. As such, learning is a process which occurs in many different ways and in many different contexts. Here, I am interested in how we might understand learning in relation to the other elements of an expanded notion of pedagogy (i.e. curriculum, teaching and assessment) within the context of post graduate taught study.

Definitions of learning can lead to very broad statements which, whilst they might contribute are so broad as to have only limited practical utility in a pedagogic sense. Some definitions see learning as purely cognitive in nature, for example:

‘We define memory as a behavioral change caused by an experience, and define learning as a process for acquiring memory.’ (Okano et al, 2000: 12403)

Others are more holistic and move beyond the cognitive whilst retaining a central role for cognition, for example,

‘The combination of processes throughout a lifetime whereby the whole person – body (genetic, physical and biological) and mind (knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, emotions, meaning, beliefs and senses) – experiences social situations, the content of which is then transformed cognitively, emotively or practically (or through any combination) and integrated into the individual person’s biography resulting in a continually changing (or more experienced) person.’ (Jarvis, 2009: 25)

Another complexity in defining and characterising learning is its dual nature as both outcome and process. Recently, there has been a tendency to emphasise the outcome perspective of learning, stressing learning as being simply the remnant of information in long term memory. This is an important insight. However, it is deficient in that it can tend towards a downplaying of the process of learning. In pedagogic terms, the process is extremely important as it is only by considering and understanding the processes leading to the outcomes that we can begin to derive insights about processes which might aid learning. Saljo (2009: 206) makes the point in a discussion concerning the difficulty of characterising learning that:

‘The concept of learning has many potential units of analysis, all the way from the molecular level of neurochemistry, via other fields of neuroscience over to various areas of psychology, education, organization studies, and many other social sciences. These levels of inquiry, and their respective units of analysis, stand in very complex relationships to each, and to bridge between them is often a complex affair.’

This leads to a view that we need to be aware of, and consider, the many different perspectives relating to learning, something which is hard to do, and in some circumstances, may be impossible. But by questioning assumptions and attempting to work across, Saljo does reflect that:

‘Behaviors and cognitive processes no longer suffice as basic constructs for providing a coherent and interesting conceptualization of learning; there are many other issues that have to be considered such as time, situatedness, and reciprocity between individuals and cultural practices. Also, in the literature it is no longer just individuals who learn and remember but also collectives such as organizations, societies and systems of people and artefacts.’

Therefore, Saljo emphasises the multi-dimensional processes involved in learning. Cognition is central but not sufficient to understanding learning in a pedagogic sense. Interaction, situatedness and the social need to be attended to. One way of beginning to capture this multi-dimensional view of learning is through the work of Illeris (2003). He argues that what is learned in educational contexts,

‘..is a complex totality of traditional and up-to-date knowledge, orientation and overview, combined with professional and everyday life skills and a broad range of personal qualities such as flexibility, openness, independence, responsibility, creativity etc.’ (Illeris, 2003: 397)

Illeris argues that learning occurs through the fusion of an internal cognitive process and an external interactional process. Learning is seen as an internal process of acquisition which is composed of cognitive and emotional dimensions. Therefore, cognitive functions such as memory and attention are central to learning. However, their effectiveness is in part influenced by the emotional dimension of learning which includes variables such as motivation. ‘…all cognitive learning is, so to speak, ‘obsessed’ by the emotions at stake – e.g. whether the learning is driven by desire, interest, necessity or compulsion.’ (Illeris, 2003: 399). However, it is very rare that we learn through acquisition only, i.e. by ourselves with no interaction with others, be it synchronous or asynchronous. Therefore, external interaction (social, cultural and material) through participation, communication and co-operation is also extremely important.

From this consideration there is a strong suggestion that in pedagogic settings learning as a process needs to be seen as a complex process involving a number of temporal and spatial scales interacting both internally and externally to the individual. In the next post, this consideration of the nature of learning will be extended through a consideration of the work of Alexander et al (2009) and Geary (2009) who both attempt to capture an overarching characterization of learning.



Alexander, P.A.; Schallert, D.L. & Reynolds, R.E. (2009) What is learning anyway? A topographical perspective considered. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 176-192.

Geary, D.C. (2009) The why of learning. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 198-201.

Illeris, K. (2003) Towards a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International Journal of Lifelong Learning, 22:4, 396-406.

Jarvis, P. (2009) Learning to be a Person in Society. Abingdon: Routledge.

Okano, H.; Hirano, T. & Balaban, E. (2000) Learning and Memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97(23), 12403-12404.

Saljo, R. (2009) Learning, theories of learning, and units of analysis in research. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 202-208.


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