Is ‘learning’ a noun or a verb?

This is in some ways a pointless question as it is of course both: the OED allows us both. I do however have significant concerns over how ‘learning’ gets used as a noun in the field of education.

Where learning is used as a verb, it always shifts the focus to the object being learnt. One is always learning something and where we use ‘learning’ as a verb, we face the inexorable pull towards the very purpose of our teaching: that thing that we think it is important for children to learn.

Yet when learning is used as a noun, we lose this pull. Learning itself becomes the object. We hear people talk of ‘her learning’ as if ‘learning’ itself were some thing that had an existence of its own. More worryingly, using ‘learning’ as a noun makes it easier to have a conversation about education in which no attention is paid to what is being learnt. This neat little trick is exacerbated when we begin putting adjectives in front of the noun: suddenly we’re having complex conversations about ‘philosophical learning’ or ‘mathematical learning’ which distracts us further and further away from the very thing being learnt.

In short, treating the word ‘learning’ as a noun rather than a verb has the semantic effect of turning a process into a product: the means of coming to know something becomes the end itself. It is indicative of the modern obsession with prioritising pedagogy over curriculum.

The same phenomenon can be found with a whole range of verbs: reading, writing and speaking all get this treatment on a fairly regular basis, though perhaps the worst sins have been committed in the nominalisation of ‘thinking’, where people obsess over what kinds of thinking children are doing without much care for the thing about which they are thinking.

As ever, we need to spend more time getting back to the things themselves: what pupils learn is what matters.

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3 Comments on Is ‘learning’ a noun or a verb?

  1. Jon Sparke // 16 May 2016 at 08:12 // Reply

    A colleague has just suggested to me that we should focus upon ‘learning’ not only as a verb, but as a transitive one. I thoroughly agree with him. The teacher’s role then, is to determine the direct object which the verb relates to.

  2. Learning, as any verb, also has a subject – a person who is learning. The verbal noun, used critically, reflects this. Similarly with thinking. Who is doing the thinking? What does she/he bring to the thought process? What is the person thinking about? Why are they thinking about that and like that? You see, it is relational – it is the dynamic between the subject who is doing the learning and the object that is what is being learnt, and the process is what enables or facilitates that learning (noun, verb, verbal-noun, gerund) – ie the dynamic – in the particular contexts that this might take place. The teacher’s role is, through a variety of ways in relation to the contexts (pedagogies), to help in the building of bridges between subject and object so that the former gains greater knowledge or skill or ‘understanding’ (verb or noun?) of the latter and the latter has an impact on the former. Now I may well be missing a few points here, but the main thing is that when I think of ‘learning’ (or thinking, or writing) I see it as a dynamic whereas I get the impression you see it as in some way objective. Our perceptions and understandings are different. We individually bring something of ourselves into the way we perceive and understand the issues. Not sure I am putting this across well, and I may well be interpreting you incorrectly.

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