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Is 'learning' a contaminated concept?


Len Holmes, University of North London (at time of presentation)

Draft working paper

prepared for 'Learning and Practice' one-day conference of the Learning and Critique Network, Manchester, 8th November 2000


The ubiquity of the discourse of 'learning'

How should we view the apparent ubiquity of the term 'learning' not only in educational discourse but also in political-economic discourse and the discourse of human resource management? For many, this is to be welcomed, bringing as it does the opportunity for dialogue and consensus on the value of education (and training and development) not only for individuals but also employing organisations and for the country as a whole (in terms of both economic and social well-being). Moreover, the emphasis upon learning may be seen as a humanising and democratising move, shifting from the authoritarian tendencies of traditional didacticism. For others, particularly influenced by shifts (in the second half of the twentieth century) in our understanding of the role of language in the construction of social reality, the discourse of learning may 'ring warning bells'. What are we to make of the new vocabulary ('learning process', 'learning outcomes', 'learners', 'learning organisation', 'organisational learning', 'learning society', 'lifelong learning/ learners', 'learning strategy')? Does this signify a better understanding of some crucial aspects of the social world? Or does it serve to construct a new social reality and, if so, is this to be welcomed? Followers of a Foucauldian approach, for example, would certainly find much to be concerned about, or at least to analyse, in the 'truth regime' of the discourse of learning, particularly in terms of the forms of subjectivity it produces (Henriques, 1984; Rose, 1990).

The learning agenda

Protagonists for the 'learning agenda' would seem to view the emphasis upon learning as being based on new insights and understandings, and as providing new forms of educational practice. A key notion is that of learning as a process sui generis, distinct from and in principle independent of any pedagogic activity. Moreover, such learning process may be regarded as an activity, something which a person may actively do, in contrast to the view that learning happens to or is done to someone. Because 'doing something to someone' is, according to some versions of humanism, fundamentally wrong ethically, an exercise in power over others, only self-directed learning is permissible from a democratic, humanist perspective. Others, less concerned with such ethical matters, may argue that 'real' learning can only take place where individuals themselves determine what will count as 'learning'. For this, the person's own experience is paramount, but requires the engagement in reflection on such experience, to draw out personal meaning which may be tested through actively applying such meaning in action in the world, resulting in further experience in a continuing cycle. Above all, learning is viewed as an internalised process undertaken by sovereign individuals, monadic entities. Individuals are thus active doers of learning, referred to as 'learners' in preference to traditional terms such as 'students' or 'trainees'. So programmes of learning (rather than programmes of 'study' or 'training' programmes) should, it is asserted, be designed in order to 'facilitate' such learning. Aims and objectives are now 'learning goals' or 'learning outcomes', which must be openly stated and agreed with learners (as a 'learning contract'); their design ('learning strategy') should emphasise active engagement by learners using experientially-based approaches. Assessment should involve the learners determining for themselves what will count as evidence of learning; indeed, formal assessment for credentialisation purposes is, for some, anathema.

The above sketch is admittedly a somewhat crude caricature in parts. However, its elements may be seen in many representations of humanistic learning theory based on certain readings of the works of writers such as Rogers, Maslow, and Knowles, and particularly of Illich. Although the work of Kolb on experiential learning may be assimilated to a more cognitivist approach, many protagonists of the learning agenda deploy the humanistic approach and use de-schooling rhetoric to discount 'traditional' approaches to education and training. The new discourse of learning is often presented as heralding a new age ('the learning age') in which personal fulfilment (aka 'self-actualisation') will accompany economic and social well-being throughout a (learning) society in which learning is freed from the shackles of previous unenlightened approaches to education and training. Who can gainsay such a worthy project? Certainly not government and government agencies, charged with promoting economic and social well-being for its citizens, for as David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, stated in the foreword to the Learning Age Green Paper:

"Learning is the key to prosperity, for each of us as individuals as well as for the nation as a whole".
(DfEE, 1998)
Certainly not, surely, all well-intentioned educational practitioners, who will take steps to develop their understanding of and abilities to apply the principles of the learning agenda (and, of course, demonstrate they are on-message by seeking membership of the Institute for Learning and Teaching).

A key problem for all of this is that higher education also claims to be concerned with critical engagement with knowledge claims; it is a 'critical business' (Barnett, 2000). Knowledge claims must be subject both to the test of empirical support and to theoretical and conceptual challenge. This paper will seek to consider the discourse of learning from a philosophical perspective, in terms of conceptual analysis ie examining the meanings of the concept of 'learning'. It will argue that there are indeed different meanings indexed by the single term, according to the context of its use. 'Learning' is thus systematically ambiguous. Moreover, failure to recognise such difference in meaning has resulted in discursive convergence (Holmes, 1995), resulting in misapplication of the connotations proper to one discursive context in other contexts where such connotations are inappropriate. We might therefore consider this to be a case of 'conceptual contamination', the deliberate use of such a metaphor providing some suggestions on how to prevent and/ or remedy the situation.

The Meanings of 'Learning'

Clearly the term 'learning' is used in a variety of modes of discourse and the contexts for these. In particular, we may note the following contexts:

  1. mundane, ie as used in everyday interaction and conversation;
  2. the arena of education and training, especially in relation to credentialisation;
  3. professional and academic psychology, particularly in respect of various modes of experimental research and related theorising;
  4. the management of employees within work organisations, in relation to decisions about selection, deployment, and training and development;
  5. the management of such organisations themselves, as in, eg the notion of the 'learning organisation;
  6. the political-economic arena, ie in policy discourse.

To assume that the term 'learning' is used synonymously in each mode of discourse is to render us liable to a fallacy identified as long ago as Aristotle who pointed out that many terms may be used paronymously. Aristotle gives the example of the term 'healthy' which may be used about an individual (a 'healthy body'), of a city, of diet and exercise, of complexion; we even talk of a 'healthy argument'. Clearly, the ways in which bodies can be healthy are not the same as the ways in which cities, diets, exercise or complexions (or arguments) may be healthy, although we may wish to say that there is some connection between the different meanings.

Flew (1979) uses the term 'systematic ambiguity' for

"words or expressions that may always have the same meaning when applied to one kind of thing, but have a different meaning when applied to another kind of thing."
(Flew, 1979: 11).

Flew appears to identity systematic ambiguity with Aristotle's use of 'paronymous', as he gives the same example of the word 'healthy'. This seems to accord with Austin's discussion of paronymity, whereby

"on different occasions of its use, [a] word may possess connotations which are partly identical and partly different..."
(Austin, 1961: 27)
Waismann (1952) states that the term systematic ambiguity was coined by Russell in connection with his Theory of Types, but goes on the apply the term more broadly to the 'many-level structure of language'. Ryle discusses 'systematically misleading expressions', particularly whereby the syntactical form of sentence containing a certain word, appearing to describe some state of affairs regarding an object referred to be the term, may mislead us with regard to the meaning of the expression.

Without engaging in debate over the meanings 'paronymity', 'systematic ambiguity' and 'systematically misleading expressions', we can take the general point that certain terms may be the source of ambiguity which is particularly difficult to notice because they are used in a variety of modes of discourse. Given the variety of contexts of its use, the term 'learning' is a prime candidate for possible systematic ambiguity, and we must beware of the fallacy of assuming that it has the same meaning when applied to individual persons and to various collectivities such as organisations and societies. Rather we should engage in sound conceptual analysis of the term 'learning' in order to avoid what Wittgenstein warns us as the 'bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language' (Wittgenstein, 1953: 109). Moreover, given the social, economic and political consequences deemed to be at stake, we should heed Andreski's warning that

"constant attention to the meaning of terms is indispensable in the study of human affairs, because in this field powerful social forces operate which continuously create verbal confusion..."
Andreski, 1972: 61)

Learning as a technical and an untechnical concept

A particular difficulty with regard to the term 'learning' is that it is used in mundane discourse, as an 'untechnical concept' (Ryle, 1954). We seem to have no problem with understanding what someone means, and what we ourselves mean, in such usage. When, however, the term is used in a more technical sense, Ryle argues, the meaning can only be grasped in relation to a complex of other terms appropriate to the technical domain of its use.

Thus, for example,

"[t]he technical terms of genetics are theory-laden, laden, that is, not just with theoretical luggage of some sort or other but with the luggage of genetic theory. Their meanings change with changes in the theory. Knowing their meaning requires some grasp of the theory."
(Ryle, 1954: 90)

Similarly when considering the meaning of 'learning' when used in the discourse of political-economy, or (scientific/ professional) psychology, or human resource management, or education and training, we must consider the 'theoretical luggage' of such different discourses.

We should be clear here that we are not just talking about 'mere' language. Ryle's analysis is consonant with that of Wittgenstein (1953) in relation to what he terms 'language games' within which expressions have their meaning. By this he does not mean a 'game of language', mere playing with words. Rather, Wittgenstein is referring to sets of practices, linguistic and otherwise:

"I shall call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the 'language-game'."
(Wittgenstein, 1953: 7)

The meanings of 'learning' within the arenas identified above must therefore be considered alongside the actions into which the language of learning 'is woven'.

When we examine the discourse of learning in the context of government policy (advocated, debated, enacted, contested), primarily concerned with economic matters, we see that references to 'learning' generally concern measurable targets and outcomes expressed in terms of credentials, time spent and numbers of participants in formal education and training, expenditure, differentials in income in relation to level of education, and so on. These are typically the measures adopted within human capital theory and other economics based approaches to educational theory, policy and practice. Thus the National Learning Targets are stated in terms of proportions (of the population) who should have achieved various qualifications levels. Even the 'participation index' for lifelong learning is expressed in terms of participation in formal education and training. In a recent speech, the newly appointed Chair of the Learning and Skills Council (for England) stated that the Council has a statutory duty to 'promote learning'. But it is clear from the passage that follows in his speech that he is referring to formal provision of education and training, ensuring that it meets demand, is of high quality, is effectively marketed and promoted, and does not present barriers to access. The term 'learning' in such discourse could simply be replaced by the terms 'education' and/or 'training' as conventionally understood (albeit taking account of non-conventional modes of delivery) without loss of meaning.

Turning to the discourse of learning in respect of the management of employees or 'human resources', we may see how this has become a supplement to, or a replacement of, other discourses that are concerned with work performance. Indeed, when considered, it is difficult to understand why an employer should be concerned with learning, and its purported outcomes (skills, competence etc) except as the basis for desired improvements in work performance intended to enhance organisational performance (managerially determined particularly under conditions imposed within a capitalist system). So whether someone has learned, and what they have learned, are of concern within the practices of the selection and recruitment, and of deployment, of employees as 'human resources' to productive processes. Here the emphasis is upon future performance. However, future performance cannot be predicted, in the strong sense of certain expectation, but only anticipated under uncertain conditions. Other practices concerned with 'motivation' (often tendentiously referred to as 'reward management'), assessment and appraisal, discipline and the 'management of culture' are also required within a framework of 'performance management'. Despite claims to be able to predict, observe and measure performance, such practices are undermined by the essentially 'open texture' of human behaviour. That is, situated human behaviour is understandable not in terms merely of observable 'movement' but only in respect of the interpretation and construal of these in terms of meaningful actions oriented towards the performance of socially constructed acts (Harré and Secord, 1972). Thus any particular situated episode of behaviour may be interpreted in a variety of ways, dependent upon what social practice(s) are deemed to be instantiated and upon the perceived position or 'emergent identity' of the actor (Holmes, 2000a; 2000b). The discourse of learning may be seen as a mode of warranting such interpretation, on the basis of which certain actions (eg to employ or not employ someone) may be presented as rational. Such argument may also be made in respect of that other key management technique, 'motivation' (Mills, 1949; Peters, 1956).

The connection between the meanings of 'learning' in the discourses of political-economy and human resource management, on the one hand, and of education, on the other, now appears tenuous. However, it might be assumed, at least we can look to the 'scientific' research and scholarship on learning, and apply the findings to educational practice. The 'usual suspect' here is psychology, as a professional scientific endeavour. A problem here is that psychologically-based research on learning, and indeed much psychological theorising and research, may be challenged on the grounds of being ecologically invalid. That is, there are serious questions over the relevance of principles derived from experimentation, controlled episodes purportedly demonstrating cause-effect chains resulting in measurable learning, to what counts as learning in educational contexts and in respect of everday life (Louch, 1966). Although the behavouralism-based approach of connectionist or conditioning theory is largely discounted within the contemporary discourse of learning, its replacement by cognitivism faces no less a challenge. The meaning of 'learning' in such psychological research and theorising carries the 'theoretical luggage' of psychological theory.

Conceptual contamination and decontamination

If on analysis, then, the meaning of 'learning' varies according to the discourse arena in which the term is used, we should examine what is happening that there is an apparent consensus that the meaning remains stable across those arenas. How is it that protagonists for the learning agenda present the case they advocate by reference to arguments which elide such difference in meaning? Here, I suggest the metaphor of 'contamination', that the meaning of 'learning' in one discursive domain 'contaminates' its meaning in another discursive domain (or 'language-game'). Such a metaphor may be seen as drawing on the analogy of hygiene, the transfer of noxious substances such as harmful bacteria (eg salmonella) from one object to another. Similar analogies include forensic investigation (think of DNA samples from a crime scene being contaminated by the unwitting introduction of 'foreign' DNA), or the scientific analysis of 'frontier' environments such as the surface of Mars or the surface of Antarctica below the ancient ice-cap. The contaminating substance may be infinitessimally small as to be unobservable to normal senses. Yet the effects may be dramatic, even fatal (possibly literally in the case of hygiene).

Pursuing the metaphor, we may note that we normally consider contamination in terms of one-way traffic. Something of value is 'spoilt' by the introduction of the 'foreign' element. That which is spoilt is seen to be 'at risk', 'in danger', often because of limited capacity to resist contamination. In the case of education, we may argue, the 'foreign' meanings of learning have contaminated what we understand to be learning in educational terms. This may be because education and educators have not yet developed a sufficiently robust theory of education in which learning may carry its own theoretical luggage. Educational theory is seen as interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary, regarding this as a welcome state of affairs. Yet arguably education practices have a greater direct impact on people's lives than psychological experimentation and theorising or political decision making which must do their work indirectly. Interdisciplinarity may be thus be seen as merely a case of being 'unhygienic'.

The metaphor of contamination suggests two sorts of responses: remedial and prophylactic. Remedial responses evoke notions of disinfection and decontamination. We might thus engage in a systematic process of examining all uses of the term 'learning' ('learn', 'learner' etc and also 'skills', 'competencies' and cognates) in educational discourse in which we are involved, checking for possible ambiguities which suggest conceptual confusion, and substituting alternative expressions which are less ambiguous (see Ryle, 1968: 36 on systematic restatement). This must, in the short term, probably be undertaken at the personal level, with regard to our own usage ('removing the beam in our own eye'), rather than an exercise to conduct on our colleagues' usage. However, the systematically ambiguous usage by protagonists for the learning agenda might be regarded as 'fair game' for critique, albeit in the 'proper spirit' of academic critique.

Prophylactic measures, the prevention of contamination, evoke ideas of building up resistance and creating a sterile environment. The term 'resistance' is, of course, pejorative when used by advocates of change of any kind, that is, when used as a political term. We might therefore allude to the medical connotations of the term, building our resistance to unwelcome influences in the interests of promoting 'healthy' debate and a 'sound body' of theory and research. The idea of 'sterilising the environment' suggests undertaking the task of paradigm-building for an educational theory of learning, addressing the purposes and processes of education in relation to the lives of those who undertake it. Such lives are lived in the social world rich in a multiplicity of practices and of shifting identities. Rather than looking to an 'inner' realm of individuals (eg the mind) as the location of some mysterious process of learning, an educational theory of learning should address the nature of participation in such practices and in the communities comprised of such identitiesm (Holmes, 2000c).


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Barnett, R. (1997) Higher Education: A Critical Business, Buckingham: Open University Press

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Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Basil Blackwell


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