No Word For Learning

My trip to Denmark is going quite well right now. The weather is more beautiful than I would have imagined, that’s for sure. About 70 degrees each day with blue skies and lots of fun. I’ve wandered the streets of Copenhagen and seen plenty of evidence of why the Danes are regularly ranked near the top of the World’s Happiest People list!

Most interesting educational fact of the week so far has been that the Danes had no word in their vocabulary for ‘learning’ until the 1990s. Before that point, the words that they used when talking about schooling were ‘education’ and ‘instruction.’

This was a result of an educational system that was driven by the church since the times of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Schools weren’t designed for students to ‘learn.’ Instead, they were vehicles for delivering the mandated ‘curriculum’ that was predetermined by the church and the state.

So what I’m left to wonder is if our country’s curriculum is ‘learning’ friendly? Is the difference between ‘learning’ and ‘instruction’ simply a matter of semantics, or do the words that we attach to concepts highlight our values and beliefs?

Think about this: The governing body for education in my home is the State Department of Public Instruction. Shouldn’t it be the State Department of Public Learning? Would simple refocusing on learning make any difference in our country?

4 thoughts on “No Word For Learning

  1. Mike

    Dear Bob:
    Indeed. We are called “teachers” for a reason. What students go to school to do–“learn”–is called learning for a reason.

  2. Bob

    Each of you bring out useful views that I also hold. I don’t think differences between “learning” and “instruction” in the dominant US culture are semantics. They describe two different duties of two different actors, sometimes in the same setting. Teachers know these differences, regardless of how we talk or act. Right?

  3. Jonathan

    An interesting observation, and I agree with Mike that this isn’t necessarily a negative. The Shqip (Albanian) language has the same word for learn, study, and teach…hence the name of my edublog, Mesoj. In Shqip, the schoolkids are doing the same thing the teacher is. I’ve found a lot of meaning in thinking of education in this way…just as I have in remembering one of my college professors telling us that education is a form of acculturation.

  4. Mike

    Interesting indeed Bill. Even though the Danes focus on instruction, are we to suppose that Danish students did not, and do not, learn? I suspect that the Danes see things differently than we do, and for the better. They appear to believe that the schools deliver an appropriate, professional educational opportunity, and expect students to take advantage of that opportunity. Individual responsibility! Imagine that.
    We, on the other hand, have gone ridiculously touchy-feely and instead of focusing on the reality of the educational process, we focus on buzz words and feel good concepts, such as “student centered learning.” Some have gone so far as to suggest that children are inherently so wise and creative that all we need do is be “facilitators” who will merely assist them in discovering their own curriculums and learning. After all, the ancient teacher/student model merely serves to stifle the immense creativity and genius of children. Structure? Teaching? Passing on the timeless and hard won wisdom of the ages? Outmoded, worthless concepts. Sigh.
    To whatever degree the Danes recognize that in order to learn, human beings needs direct, effective instruction, substantial, correct practice over time, and that learning is an individual responsibility, they have it right. Americans? We’re too busy reinventing the wheel and giving that reinvention a new term or acronym.

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