Information Age Education
   Issue Number 178
January, 2016   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

The Problem with Defining Learning

Geoffrey Caine and Renate N. Caine
Educators and authors

All the world is my school and all humanity is my teacher. (George Whitman; American-born owner of Shakespeare & Company, a fabled English-language bookstore on the Left Bank in Paris; 1913-2011.)

The place to begin school learning is with an understanding of everyday learning from life. Most people, when talking about schooling and education, use the word “learn” happily and freely as though its meaning were obviously generic. Indeed, the meanings of “learn” and “learning” seem to be so obvious that they are used more than 100 times in No Child Left Behind, but they're never defined.

Many attempts have been made over the years to explore the many meanings of “learn” and “learning.” One example goes at least as far back as the 1956 framing of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1984) and its reworking (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). Other examples include the SOLO Taxonomy of Biggs & Collis (1982), Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Guide (2009), and a variety of attempts to map these objectives onto differing ways to use technology (e.g., Carrington, 2013). Excellent treatises on how to teach more effectively also use the nature of learning as a starting point. (e.g., Jones, 2013; Reigeluth, 2012).

Most of these attempts to unpack the meaning of learning are framed with education and schooling in mind. Let’s adopt a different tack. Imagine that we are exploring the way that the words “learn” and “learning” are used in the course of everyday life. Without seeking to be complete, nor completely accurate, these twelve (of many more) common usages define what it means to learn:
  1. We might have to learn a phone number or the way to barbeque chicken. Here “learn” means memorize and acquire information;

  2. We might have to learn why the weed killer that is great for killing the clover that covers our beautiful lawns could also harm the environment. Here “learn” means grasp core concepts;

  3. We might have to learn why social and economic systems can be influenced but not controlled because they are self-organizing systems that emerge as the cumulative result of the beliefs of all the individual members. Here “learn” means develop a deep theoretical understanding;

  4. We might have to learn how to design and market a website and, perhaps, know a lot about Web design and do it really well. Here “learn” means acquire a skill or skill set and become expert;

  5. We might have to learn how to read the situation and react appropriately when we unexpectedly meet new people at a friend’s apartment. Here “learn” means developing new situation lenses. Sometimes this is revealed as having a feel for things;

  6. We might have to learn the reasons why both men and women often select the wrong sort of partners or procrastinate. Here “learn” means become aware of;

  7. We might have to learn how to avoid impulse buying, delay gratification, and plan for the longer term. Here “learn” means develop some self-mastery;

  8. We mighty have to learn how to work and connect better with others. Here “learn” means develop more social intelligence;

  9. We might have to learn how to adjust to new cultures or situations or technologies. Here “learn” means become more adaptive;

  10. We might have to learn how to design a yacht in radically different ways in order to win a yacht race such as the 2013 America’s Cup, where the hulls of the competing catamarans were literally above water much of the time. Here “learn” means be creative and generative;

  11. We might have to learn how to function more effectively as citizens who need to work together to survive and thrive in a very complex world. Here “learn” means grow up and become more mature;

  12. We might have to learn a more general way of seeing and being ourselves in the world. Here “learn” means develop mental models and worlds of personal meaning.
And so on.

One word, many meanings. And all of us use some or all of those different meanings at different times in our everyday lives. Yet most of those core meanings are left at the door when discussions about schooling, education, and test scores take center stage.

Left at the door? Everyone does it. Parents talking about school and what their children are learning; reporters writing reams of stuff about every facet of education and the impact on learning; educators at every level, from teachers to administrators, who want to improve learning; bloggers flooding cyberspace with opinions about schooling, education and learning; policy makers intent on raising standards by having students learn more and learn better; politicians who make “better education” and “closing the achievement gap of learners” front and center of their campaigns; and (this is perhaps the most breathtaking), vast numbers of research scientists and academics who research and study and report about learning without bothering to precisely define it.

A Generic Definition of “Learning”

Rather than leave the word “learning” undefined, let’s look for an umbrella process of which all of these elements are a part. We believe that the place to begin is with the dance of perception and action. Every human being (and every living organism to some extent) must be able to “read” its environment – the essence of perception – and be able to act appropriately in and on it – action (Caine & Caine, 2011). These are not two separate and distinct processes. Rather each is a part of, and interacts with, the other. Even basic sense perception, at the level of responding to a bright light, calls for parts of the body to be positioned and move appropriately. These two processes are central to all experience. “Learning” means making sense of experience and developing capacities to act in and on the world (Caine & Caine, 2011).

It can be seen that all the different learning outcomes spelled out above are embraced by this definition. That challenge is to develop sufficiently sophisticated approaches to teaching and schooling to blend and incorporate them all naturally. The approach that best does this is what we call the Guided Experience Approach. It is unpacked in depth in the third edition of our book, The Twelve Brain/Mind Learning Principles in Action (Caine, et. al., 2015).


Anderson, L., & Krathwohl, D.A. (2001). Taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Biggs, J., & Collis, K. (1982). Evaluating the quality of learning: The SOLO taxonomy. New York: Academic.

Bloom, B. (ed.) 2nd ed. (1984). Taxonomy of educational objectives, Book 1: Cognitive domain. New York: Addison Wesley.

Carrington, A. (2013). The pedagogy wheel. In support of excellence. Retrieved 10/2/2015 from

Caine, R.N., Caine, G., McClintic, C.L., & Klimek, K. 3rd ed. (2015). The twelve brain/mind learning principles in action: Teach for the development of higher-order thinking and executive function. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin.

Caine, R.N., & Caine, G. (2011). Natural learning for a connected world: Education, technology and the human brain. New York: Teachers College.

Jones, T.B. (ed.) (2013). Education for the human brain: A road map to natural learning in schools. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Reigeluth, C. (2012). Instructional theory and technology for the new paradigm of education. RED, Revista de Educación a Distancia. Consultado el (dd/mm/aaa) en Retrieved 11/2/2015 from

Webb’s depth of knowledge guide: Career and technical education definitions (2009). Wisconsin Center of Educational Research. Retrieved 11/2/2015 from$!2b+Institutes/Center+for+Teaching+


Geoffrey and Renate Caine are educators and authors. They pioneered the synthesis of neuroscience and psychology as a foundation for understanding, learning, and improving teaching and education. They have coauthored nine books and their work has been translated into several languages and used throughout the world. Their most recent book is The Twelve Brain/Mind Learning Principles in Action: Teach for the Development of Higher-Order Thinking and Executive Function by R.N. Caine, G. Caine, C.L. McClintic, & K. Klimek. 3rd ed. (Corwin, 2015).

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