Do You Still Believe Learning Happens Through Getting Information? Think Again!

Books sitting on a stair


Few people ever ask themselves what learning really is. Their default idea is that learning involves getting information – sometimes it sticks and sometimes it doesn’t.

So learning can feel like some sort of mystery that just kind of happens somehow, or it can feel like some sort of chore – you have to work very hard to keep the information in your brain and most the time you fail.

Ideas like these set both trainers and learners up for poor learning experiences.

Learning doesn’t happen because people receive information – there’s much more to it than that. By understanding how to help learners process what they receive and then do something with it, you set them up to actually learn.

What Experiential Learning Really Is

All organisms on this planet, including humans, are involved in a constant exchange with their environment. As our bodies and brains move through the world, we take in what’s going on around us, chew on it to make sense of it, and then respond to it through action.

That’s learning in its most basic biological sense.

Data is taken in through our senses in the form of words, images, sounds, smells, textures, colour, shape, spaces and relationship between things. Each of our senses connect us to the world around us and what’s going on within it. They provide us with information to chew on and a heck of a lot of information that is!

Biology of learning diagram - sense - integrate - act


Most of this information is pre-cognitive in that we aren’t fully aware we are experiencing it until we direct our attention toward it. Nevertheless, it impacts how we understand whatever we’ve encountered and sets off a process of trying to make sense of what we’re experiencing. The meaning we make from processing the data we’ve picked up guides us on how to move through the world.

In more practical terms, it looks like this:


biology of learning diagram - see fire - it's hot - avoid

biology of learning diagram - hear lecture - what a bore! - check instagram


Taking Learning One Extra Step

Kolb’s cycle of learning is one of the most prominent theories of human learning and it aligns very well with what we know is occurring in our brains. According to Kolb, learning originates through concrete experience.

Kolb's cycle of learning diagram - concrete experience, reflective observing - abstract hypothesis - active experiment


First, we have an experience, then we reflect on what it means using our memory and past to categorize and sort what’s happening, then we make an abstract prediction about it and then do something to test our hypothesis.

To show you how it works, consider the following word:

(just pause here and try to become aware of what your mind is doing before you move on)


What happened in your mind?

Did you notice your brain immediately connecting the word to something familiar? Perhaps you see “jacken” which kind of looks like “jacket”. Perhaps you picked out case and saw an image of a suitcase or a briefcase or some other kind of case?

Whatever came to mind, you’ve now become aware of your reflective observation process. Your brain is trying to connect this unfamiliar word to something it already knows. You don’t have to try to do this, it just happens.

What happens next?

Maybe you’ve decided this is gibberish because it doesn’t connect to anything you know – that’s your hypothesis. Or maybe you’ve shrunken a little bit because you are feeling worried you are the only person who doesn’t know what this means. You’re abstractly hypothesizing about potential embarrassment. In both cases, you do not know if you are correct.

And then?

To bring your hypothesis out of abstract and into reality, you have to do something to test it out. You could ask someone else, look in a dictionary, or email me asking for the answer.

Doing any of these completes your learning cycle as you’ve acted to find out whether your hypothesis was correct or not.

When I tell you the word is gibberish, you now have a new concrete experience and the cycle starts over again.

Learning Is an On-Going Process, Not an Information Event

Your learning goes on and on and on. In fact, you can’t stop learning ever. That doesn’t mean you always learn and grow in ever wiser ways. A lot of learning is about reinforcing a current understanding of the world through blocking out or failing to notice important data. Or it can be learning that teaches you something harmful like how to develop an addiction or how to remove your attention from all experiences to such an extent that no real processing takes place (hello multi-tasking!).

In any case, learning is much more than the information you receive. It’s a process, not an event. Learning requires you doing something with information, both inside your brain and through your active engagement with the world around you.

That’s why we all need to move beyond the idea that giving people information is enough. If we are being paid to guide people to achieve better outcomes in their lives, work and businesses, then we need to help them process and act upon the information we give them.

Kolb’s cycle of learning can lead us into thinking learning is a rational process which isn’t really the case – it’s much more untamed than that. We haven’t touched upon tricky things like how memory, emotion and environment play into a person’s learning process. We’ll go further in that direction in another post.

For now, I leave you with a request.

See if you can become more aware of your learning cycle now that you’ve read this entire post.

  • What do these ideas surface in you? What thoughts, images, memories, associations is your brain making?
  • How could what you’ve read impact the way you will learn in the future? What could you do with these ideas?
  • How will you test your hypothesis in your work and life?  

Remember the process:


Reflect on Meaning 


Take Action to Test Out Your Ideas


See what happens when you start doing that in your daily life and let me know what your findings are.

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One Comment

  1. Pingback: Why Expecting Learners to Pay Attention Is a Tall Order: Creating an Environment That Helps People Focus (Part 1) – ALLISON HILLIER

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