Jan 08

The “new Language of Learning:” Lineage and Limitations

Here’s an abstract I just submitted to Gert Biesta’s conference, Theorising Education, in June.

It is relatively uncontroversial to describe teaching and education as means through which naturally-occurring, biologically-based processes of learning are directed and facilitated to achieve predetermined outcomes. Gert Biesta (2006) and others (e.g. Haugsbak & Nordkvelle, 2007) have labelled such understandings by using the phrase “the new language of learning.” This refers to a vocabulary or discourse that, for example, characterizes “‘teaching’ [as the] ‘facilitation of learning’ [and], ‘education’ [as the] ‘provision of learning opportunities” (Haugsbak & Nordkvelle, 2007, p. 2). The emergence of this language can be attributed to many sources –political, economic, and scientific– but it clearly has deep roots in the foundational role long granted to psychology in education (in North America, at least). Ramified in the genetic epistemology of Piaget, and in recent constructivist and neurologically-based discourses, this language has also been articulated with special force and economy in recent work in instructional design and technology (e.g., Spector et al 2007) and in the incipient field of the “learning sciences” (e.g., Sawyer, 2006). Typically, the classroom is described in these terms as one “environment” among many in which learning processes can occur, but also one that is deliberately designed to facilitate and even optimize of these processes. Unfortunately, the implications of this language for education in general and teaching in particular are not at all positive. Given that “the objective of education is learning, not teaching,” as one slogan has it, school and pedagogy end up appearing as sub-optimal or even as superfluous means for obtaining such “educational” ends.

This paper makes the case that any choice between natural processes of learning on the one hand and the pedagogical artifice on the other is a manifestly false one. It attempts to delineate the limitations presented by the language of learning by contrasting it explicitly with other understandings of social change and reproduction, above all those from human and social (as opposed to psychological) sciences. These alternative discourses would replace the terminology of “environment” (and an accompanying lexicon of behaviour, adaptation and motivation) with that of the intentional structuring, meanings and histories of a “lifeworld” for which educational elements such as “self-activity” and “developmental preparedness” would obtain (e.g. Friesen & Saevi, 2010). This paper also explores the possibilities presented by replacing “learning” (and its formal and informal variants) with more differentiated understandings of socialization, development and acculturation –phenomena that are historically and culturally embedded, and are not readily reducible to the instrumental logic of means and ends.


Biesta, G. (2006). Beyond learning: democratic education for a human future. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Friesen, N. & Saevi, T. (2010). Reviving Forgotten Connections: Klaus Mollenhauer and Human Science Pedagogy in Canadian Teacher Education. Journal of Curriculum Studies 42.

Haugsbak, G. & Nordkvelle, Y. (2007). The Rhetoric of ICT and the New Language of Learning: a critical analysis of the use of ICT in the curricular field. European Educational Research Journal 6 (1), 1-12.

Spector, J.M., Merrill, M.D., van Merrienboer, J., & Driscoll, M.P. (Eds.) (2007). Handbook of research on educational communications and technology. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Sawyer, R.K. (Ed.) (2006). The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 567–580.

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