A word about the “learning” word

Earlier in this section, we showed how people learn in many different ways and for many different reasons – both inside and outside the workplace. On this page, let us take a moment to consider the meaning of the word “learning”.

Donald Taylor, in the first of his Principles of Learning, The word ‘learning’​ is used to mean many different things,  shows how difficult it is to define “learning” and generalise about it, and recommends the following:

“Let us accept that the word ‘learning’ is legitimately used to cover a wide range of very different activities. Let us also accept the implication that this makes useful generalisation difficult.”

In his second principle, Learning is an internal process, Donald Taylor makes 3 important points about “learning”:

  1. Learning is different from things designed to stimulate it.
  2. Learning is different from content.
  3. Learning is different from delivery mechanisms.

In other words, it is important not to misuse the word “learning”. Words like “training”, “courses”, “content” are not synonyms of “learning”. “Learning” is not a product nor a commodity; it is an internal process, so, in other words:

  • You can’t design learning  – you can design training, a course, or content – but that’s not designing learning
  • You can’t deliver learning – you can deliver training or a course – but that’s not delivering learning
  • You can’t transfer learning – you can (try to) transfer knowledge – but that’s not transferring learning
  • You can’t manage learning – you can manage participation on a training course or access to some online content – but that’s not managing learning. The only person who manages learning is the individual him/herself.

Similarly, individuals don’t consume learning – they consume content (which might possible result in learning), and vendors don’t sell learning – they sell training, courses or content.

The word “e-learning” is problematic too, because it is now used pretty synonymously with “online courses”, whereas it was originally meant to describe all the different ways that people might learn online. A better word for “e-learning” would therefore be “e-training”, and “online learning” would better be described as “online education”. Similarly, other terms like “mobile learning”, “social learning” and “micro-learning” are also used now to describe types of technology-driven training content and approaches, and better terms would therefore be “mobile training”, “social training” and “micro-content” or “micro-training” which would more accurately reflect what they do.

This is not just a case of semantics or being pedantic; euphemisms really don’t help. In fact the misuse of the word “learning” doesn’t just cause confusion, it also perpetuates the idea that “learning” is only something that can be put into someone’s head (in some sort of formal, designed, “packaged” way), when we know that most “learning” happens in informal and non-designed ways as people use the Web or carry out their daily work. This latter type of “learning” is just as important, in fact, as has been shown is considered much more valuable than the former.

Furthermore, it is not about designing, delivering or managing the latter type of “learning”;  this requires a whole new set of verbs!

  • It’s about enabling learning – helping managers to ensure the right conditions and environment are in place for people to get the most out of and learn from their daily work
  • It’s about encouraging learning – helping individuals understand the vast range of opportunities to learn for themselves – both at work and outside work – in both formal and informal ways.
  • It’s about supporting learning – helping individuals to learn in the multitude of different ways that are now possible – both inside and outside the workplace.

Misuse of the word “learning” also extends to the term “Learning & Development (L&D) department” itself.  If an L&D Dept focuses on designing, delivering and managing (e-)training, (e-)courses or (e-)content, then shouldn’t it really be called a Training & Development Dept? There’s no problem with that! It clearly explains what their work and approach is. But, calling itself an L&D Dept is once again giving the wrong message about what workplace learning is all about nowadays and their role in it. A true L&D department is one that also enables, supports and encourages learning in the many other ways described briefly in this section and in more detail in the following sections of this book. 

To summarise then: Take great care when using the word “learning”, and whenever possible use another word instead that more accurately and clearly describes the activity involved. For instance, “training”, “courses” or “compliance” (as appropriate)  or “performance”,” improvement” or “discovery”.

And watch out, there’s another term that needs to be used carefully too – and that is “informal learning”, as I explain on the next page.


⇒  The difference between formal and informal learning

Last updated: December 10, 2018 at 8:42 am

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