Learning as a Product Versus Learning as Process

Many of the theories of learning that were developed during the first decades of the twentieth century tended to conceptualize learning as an end product or outcome – most often as a distinct change in behavior.

Students and educators who subscribe to this notion of learning-as-product tend to see learning as consisting of the following:

  • A quantitative increase in knowledge
  • Memorizing or storing information that can later be retrieved.
  • Acquiring facts, skills and methods that can be retained and used as necessary.

However, it is also possible to see learning as an ongoing process, and people who subscribe this notion of learning tend to describe learning as:

  • Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning, learning that involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.
  • Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way, learning that involves comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge.

These later two descriptions of learning as an ongoing process see the learner as building upon his or her previous experiences and, in some instances, changing his or her behavior as a result.

Learning as a process is the view of learning that many contemporary educationalists and psychologists would concur with. As Bruner (1996) puts it ‘learning is not simply a technical business of well managed information processing’. Instead, learning might also be seen to involve individuals having to make sense of who they are and develop an understanding of the world in which they live. From this perspective, learning can be seen as a continuing process of ‘participation’ rather than a discrete instance of acquisition.

IMO working within a marketised education system encourages us to see learning as a product – that is the ‘bottom line’ of education is the results, and there is much store placed on exam-training in order to game the system and get better results (the final outcome), and students, teachers and parents increasingly judge the quality of a school or it teachers on their ability ‘to deliver results’.

This is, in fact, an extremely narrow and shallow way to judge the quality of education.

If, on the other hand, we consider ‘learning as a process’ this forces us to focus on the quality of the learning experience and the context in which learning takes place – reflecting on the marketised system we realize what a poor educational experience many of us get (teachers and students alike) because of the pressure to achieve results. In such a system, there is little time to ‘understand the world and who we are’.

Another benefit of seeing learning as a process is that we come to realize that ‘learning’ takes place in many contexts outside of the formal education system – at home, at work, and through the many informal channels through which we ‘develop ourselves’.

Maybe more of us need to forget formal education with its obsession with learning as a product, and instead just focus more on life-long learning and self-development outside of formal education?


Selwyn (2017) Education and Technology – Key Issues and Debates

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