August 15, 2016

Shazza Ali, research student at the Centre for the Study of Group Processes asks – Learning – What is it, how do we do it and what is it good for?

Learning is defined as a relatively permanent change in behaviour due to experience.

These changes can come about by explicit teaching, studying, or just by living life.

Everything we learn is a new thing for us. I mean think about it, we can’t learn something that we already know – although we might need reminders sometimes.

From the moment that we are born every experience is a learning experience. The only things that we are born knowing are our innate reflexes. These include the grasping reflex which happens when something is put into a baby’s palm, and the rooting reflex, which describes how babies turn their heads when something touches their cheek. Yet even these reflexes start to disappear as the months go by.

Although these instinctive behaviours are present from birth, we’ve got to learn everything else. From an early age we start to piece things together, about what to do when, how and why. We learn how to live and survive in this world. We learn many different things in many different ways.

Learning through reward and punishment happens when the ‘good’ things we do are praised and the not so good things are scolded. It’s like at school when you’re told off for calling out but awarded for putting up your hand before you speak.

We can also set learning goals and work towards them. Throughout life we constantly say things like “I want to learn how to bake or to drive or to play a sport or an instrument”.  Learning by trial and error occurs when we try different things until we reach our desired goal, like putting together a puzzle and trying out different pieces until one fits.

Learning by imitation and observation refers to when we copy other people’s behaviour. We are usually more likely to copy people that we spend a lot of time with, look up to, and care about impressing. Because what we learn through imitation depends on who we are imitating, it varies a lot between individuals. Even with things like making a cup of tea, there are ongoing debates about what order the things should go in the mug – the teabag, the milk and then the water, or the teabag the water and then the milk… Wait a sec – who says that the teabag has to go first anyway? That’s just the way I watched my mum do it.

Many of the things that we learn by observation are specific to when and where we learn them and from who. Sometimes it’s not always obvious that learning has occurred, but the more we are exposed to something the more the behaviour becomes ingrained in us.

Every experience we have in life changes our outlook. Although we may have different opinions on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do things because we’ve learnt them in a specific way, it doesn’t mean that it is the right way. Learning that there are other ways to do things is an important learning experience in itself.

We need to learn new things in order to progress though life. Imagine if we’d all stopped learning when we were children; the world would be a very confusing place for us. Things are constantly changing and we need to keep up. When we learn that there are different ways to do something that we thought we already knew, it may confirm a speculation that we had, or give us a completely new perspective. Either way it adds to what we know.

In order to get the most out of life, we need to be open to learning new things. It’s never too late to learn. Practise might make perfect, but the motto that I like to live my life by is L.I.F.E – Learning. Is. For. Ever.


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