Cultural Considerations

What counts as "learning" for educational purposes depends on cultural, social, economic and political factors, because implicit in education as a deliberate enterprise is the notion of prescription. Education is supposed to be a "Good Thing". So having a phobia about worms may be learned behaviour, but it does not count as Education. Nor does acquiring greater skill in breaking into cars as a result of learning from peers in prison.

 levels of analysis

The process starts with what the society considers to be desirable knowledge, and indeed what counts as knowledge at all: consider the ambivalence about astrology, or complementary and alternative medicine. The social structure is also reflected in the attitude to the knowledge — is it unquestioned truth, to be learned and reproduced but not modified, or is it provisional knowledge on which critical faculties can be trained? (As one sociologist said, "Newton stood on the shoulders of those who went before: sociologists stand on their heads!") This leads into culturally endorsed models of the learning process, and variable acceptance of the initiative of the learner — as seen in constructivism or andragogy.

The subject matter, framed by culture, imposes its own discipline: it may be linear (like maths, in which you have to learn the concept of number, counting, addition, substraction, multiplication and division, in that order, before you can go on to anything else) or accessible at any point. It may be governed by a clear philosophical structure (like science), or by its history (like law), or none of these. It may be convergent or divergent. See inter al. Kolb on this.

The society produces an educational system in its image, whether it makes use of informal — “situated” learning — or is seduced (as Illich would see it) by the Western model of dedicated educational institutions, whose inadequacies have been so clearly discussed in Becker’s wonderful essay.

Slightly off topic, but click here for some of the most concentrated wisdom on teaching on the net, from Howard Becker to a former student

Then that educational system imposes its own constraints on what can be taught and learned and what counts as learning, through its assessment and accreditation procedures. This in turn is filtered and interpreted by the teacher. The micro-culture of the learner's group or class may encourage, inhibit or distort various kinds of learning. Then there is the learner as a person, making continuous "cost-benefit decisions" (Claxton, 1996) about what it is worth learning, and endowed with certain aptitudes and preferences: until finally we reach the "learning bit" of that person.

Critical Approaches to Education

For a selection of different critical stances to the construction of knowledge and educational assumptions, start (!) with some "golden oldies";

PLATO "The Republic" for starters...

DEWEY J (1938) Experience and Education New York: Macmillan

FREIRE P (1972) The Pedagogy of the Oppressed Harmondsworth: Penguin

ILLICH I (1970) De-Schooling Society Harmondsworth: Penguin

There is a good overview of issues in the field in this paper: Brookfield on Adult Learning (even this is getting a little old, from 1995)

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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