What is Learning For?

Learning, PreK-12

Recently, the Getting Smart team explored ways to inspire a love of learning, the importance of the social and emotional learning, and the role relationships play in learning. In this article, Valerie Hannon writes about the need for a radically transformed education system. She asks: What is Learning For? In order to embrace our 21st century challenges, we can (and should) create discourse around why we learn.

This article was originally published in the European Journal of Education, Vol. 50, No. 1, 2015. It has been adapted in length for publication on GettingSmart.com.

Valerie Hannon

Why revisit the old question?

Can we not take the purpose of learning for granted? Since Aristotle, via Confucius, Voltaire, Dewey and a host of others, the question of purpose has been posed and answers proposed. Some solutions have aspired to the status of eternal verities: intrinsic, somehow, to the human condition. Others have been — self-consciously or otherwise — more ideological. Moreover, the question has classically been framed in terms of ‘education’: i.e. the purposive arrangement of experiences to promote learning. In contrast, humans cannot help learning. We are wired for it, and, because of that, our evolutionary status progressed.

But if we conflate the two issues and ask the question: “what should be the purpose of organized learning experiences in contemporary conditions?” then we have a very important and massively consequential question, which is, paradoxically, scarcely addressed in public discourse.

Debates about the question have never taken place in conditions such as the human race currently faces. These include:

  • Existential threat to continuing life on the planet within a few generations
  • Resource depletion of fundamental resources — water and food — and their inequitable distribution in a globalised context
  • High levels of destructive violence (again, posing potential existential threat) often accompanied by fundamentalism and intolerance, with the concomitant issues of immigration and dislocation
  • Technologies of awesome power and transformational scope (including of the very stuff of evolution and human beings), which pose threats, but also hold the potential to solve some of the challenges we face — many of which are of our own making.

Never before was the very planet’s future (at least as a liveable home to humans) under threat. Nor had we developed technologies with which we ourselves will, in the foreseeable future, merge. Old narratives about economic competitiveness or personal fulfilment are plainly inadequate. Today, learning has to be about saving our species on this planet, and in conditions which do justice to our aspirations for good lives.

Another dislocation with the past arises in the democratization of this question. Previous generations had it answered on their behalf by élites supported by experts. Prevalent industrial educational models reproduced stratified societies. Today, an education worth having is not just that defined by others. As the channels for learning have opened, individuals (almost) anywhere can define, design and achieve their learning goals without institutional or state mediation. The collective task, perhaps, is to help to shape those individual learning goals in order to address the greater challenges and possibilities we face as a species and in our communities. If learning’s purpose is to secure our survival in conditions which are better than just tolerable, we can consider the challenges in four clusters.

Four Levels of Purpose for Learning

Challenge Cluster #1: Planetary/Global

Collectively and individually, we have to learn to live within the earth’s renewable resources. This entails not just learning how to redirect new technologies, but also to be responsible consumers and reshape economies so that they are not predicated on endless growth and limitless consumption.

Challenge Cluster #2: National/Local

As economic turbulence and restructuring proceed apace, learning to earn a living through ‘the start-up of you’ must gain center stage. In our increasingly longer lives, we must learn to expect and embrace change of job, career, field, skill-set — not once, but regularly. And as economies will increasingly depend upon entrepreneurship and creativity, so too will individuals, both for material well-being and their own satisfaction.The processes of learning and earning will become symbiotic. So, as there will be no sharp distinction in start- and end-points of education and work, learning’s purpose and function will be intrinsic to working life. Learning to make a living successfully and contribute to the new economies will entail learning to think and act ‘green, lean, and eco’. It will also mean learning to adapt to work with automation, and with co-workers who are robots.

Challenge Cluster #3: Interpersonal

It is relatively recently that learning to live well together has come to be seen as a purpose of learning. As we become more reflective (and knowledgeable) about the conditions for, and skills involved in creating and maintaining healthy human relationships, we recognize the scope for learning in this space. The damage done to individuals through dysfunctional families; the scarring of societies by sexist and racist behaviours — from atrocities to discrimination — is incalculable. Again, fast-changing conditions in this century increase the urgency for education to address this cluster of challenges. Changes to family structures and multicultural communities provide the diverse contexts within which learning to relate authentically and respectfully takes place. But education needs to equip learners with the knowledge base and the skills to acquire empathy and insight. Engagement in the arts of all forms is one route for achieving this. Finally, learning to care for and nurture others must moreover extend well beyond family ties: demographic changes are creating aged societies, not all of whose denizens will remain healthy and independent till death.

Challenge Cluster #4: Intrapersonal

Learning about and within our own selves presents the ultimate frontier — and for some thinkers is the precondition for authentic learning in other domains. The notion of ‘self’ will change; humans will have access to more and more forms of enhancement (physical and cognitive). Humans must learn to deal with exponentially increased levels of artificial intelligence applied to everyday life; to a gradual incorporation into our own bodies of powerful technologies. Life journeys will be much longer, centenarians not unusual. Taking early personal responsibility for health and fitness will be a precondition for later well-being (in addition to preventing the collapse of health systems because of lifestyle illnesses like the obesity epidemic). Dignity, purpose and social engagement will be the dividends of continuing to learn. And lastly, the spiritual dimension cannot be omitted. Increasingly, in mechanised, technology-infused, confusing modern life, the need for mindfulness, awareness, inner silence and balance will demand to be met.


This short contribution has dealt with the ‘why?’ not the ‘how?’ of organized learning. It is immediately clear that current education systems are not even close. Radical redesign is needed, and it is urgent. The disjunction with the conceptions of the past arises in recognizing that today, learning is so intimately entwined in every aspect of life, throughout life; for everyone; and in a context where we will incorporate and merge with learning technologies. The dimensions of learning may stay the same, although the emphasis has shifted from the individual to the collaborative and the social. We are still addressing values, dispositions, knowledge and skills. Of these, values have been the least considered and yet are perhaps the most critical. There is an enduring response to this question of learning’s purpose. It consists in wisdom — though redefined for our post-modern context.

For more on innovations in learning, see:

Valerie Hannon is a Co-Founder of Innovation Unit in the United Kingdom. 
Follow her @valeriehannon.


Photos via Innovation Unit.

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