What is Learning?

When I was writing my dissertation, my supervisor was very focused on etymology. Knowing the origin of words, was in his opinion, a strong basis of all analysis and learning. As a result I learned to look at the etymology of terms as part of my own work and etymology has influenced my pedagogy as well.

Learn (v) has the following etymological roots:

  • “Old English leornian “to get knowledge, be cultivated; study, read, think about,” Gothic lais “I know”, with a base sense of “to follow or find the track.” [..]
  • “From c. 1200 as “to hear of, ascertain” […] was acceptable from c. 1200 until early 19c. It is preserved in past-participle adjective learned “having knowledge gained by study.” [..]
  • “Old English also had læran “to teach”” (“Learn”)

So learning has evolved from getting knowledge, studying, reading, thinking to also gain a relationship to the sensory in terms of hearing. The special emphasis on learning as something related to hearing suggests modes of instruction that we still talk about today such as Socratic dialogue and lecturing. However, the earliest definitions and roots of “learn” focus more on a solitary quest: to learn is to read, to study. But also to learn is to teach, so it makes sense that so many colleges and universities have Teaching and Learning Centres or that we think of these as paired concepts because these two concepts are related from etymological origin.

This origin story for the word learn allows us to reflect on what we prioritize and support on our campuses in relation to learning. Focusing on learning from a student point of view allows for learning opportunities for faculty as well through workshops and professional development to enrich the student experience. It’s also important to realize that learning looks like different things to different people and that we need to open our minds to learning(s). Something like the 9x9x25 Challenge is a perfect example of this, a way to open our minds to different kinds of learning and different perspectives. Learning is a process of reading and hearing each other to inform our teaching, our curriculum, and our design processes.

The great aspect of being part of this community of bloggers is having 9 weeks to reflect, hear, read, think, and learn- whatever learning means to you. More importantly, these blogs demonstrate that there is no time, space, or geographical limit to learning. The hashtag and syndication will allow us to “follow or the find the track” as all of this learning comes together.

Reflecting on the origins of words is just one way to learn a concept; finding word origins is also an interesting activity that I have brought into my classes and suggested to faculty. Students often enjoy discovering how a word came to be and how language continues to evolve. What we learn from each other and from the roots of words is always surprising. I would be curious to see if any of you have tried this in your classes and if so what was the outcome; what did you learn?

Works Cited

“Learn.” Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/learn


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