The Purpose of Learning #43 #cong22


When we talk about learning we often refer to the narrow confines of the formal learning that we undertake in the school or college setting but, learning happens along a continuum that doesn’t start when we start school for the first time or end when we leave school or college. Instead, we are always learning whether to enable us to complete a task, to upskill for work or simply to expand our interests.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. How do you define your learning?

  2. How do you learn informally?

  3. What has been your most powerful learning experience?

  4. The answers to above questions might help you to clarify what the purpose of learning is for you?

About Pamela O'Brien:

Pam O Brien is a lecturer in the Technological University of the Shannon. She is currently undertaking doctoral research in the area of informal learning through University College Dublin and also works on research projects across primary, secondary and third level education in the areas of digital citizenship, computer science education and the integration of technology in the classroom.

Contacting Pamela O'Brien:

You can connect with Pam  on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn @



By Pam O’Brien

When we talk about learning we are often referring to the formal learning that we have all gone through i.e., the learning that happens in the primary or secondary school classrooms or the college lecture halls that we have been in. For many people this type of learning was a positive experience where they followed a specific set of rules and performed well in the tests and examinations that punctuated their time in school and culminated in sitting the Leaving Cert.

But, for many others the process has left indelible marks that follow them as they navigate life after the Leaving Cert. As the start of the Leaving Cert draws nearer every year the talk in the media, both social and traditional, inevitably turns to how best to ‘get through’ this set of examinations that marks the end of your formal education as a child. Regardless of what happens after school, the Leaving Cert still weighs heavily on many students, while they are going through it and for many years after. The purpose of all of the learning that we have undertaken in the run up to these exams seems to distil down to how we perform in those exams and the points that we achieve. But we all know people who don’t perform well in these types of situations. The people who don’t work well under pressure but who achieve great things when given the time and space to flourish. The people who don’t see the point in learning off information, just to spew it back verbatim to score highly on an exam, but who bring a different approach when asked to come up with creative solutions to problems. The people who won’t go to college after school, for a multitude of reasons, but who still get caught up in the points race. At the end of secondary school, despite all the learning that students have undertaken, both through the taught curriculum and through the extracurricular activities and learning that they undertake. they get reduced to a number! A number that often dictates the way that the student sees themselves as well as the way that others see them.

So, what is the real purpose of learning? Is it helping a baby to communicate with their family, a toddler to take the first shaky steps that signifies the beginning of independence, a child to make friends and thrive socially, that same child to think creatively and develop good problem-solving skills, the adult who needs to complete a specific task? The truth is that learning is all of these things and it happens all of the time, often without us even knowing. As parents, we are very conscious of helping our children to develop to be able to partake in society in a meaningful way but we don’t do this formally. As educators, we are aware of helping our students to develop socially as well as academically but again this is often undertaken informally in the school environment. As managers, we are responsible for helping our staff members to develop their skills to enable them to contribute more fully in our workplace. This can happen through formal organised training events or through more informal activities such as mentoring etc. So, when we talk about learning maybe we need to broaden the lens through which we look at it and recognise that the purpose of learning is not confined to completing the Leaving Certificate and achieving the 625 points that now seems to be the gold standard against which everyone is measured. Learning does not start when we walk in the primary school classroom door and end when we walk out of the second level classroom or third level lecture hall. Learning happens all the time, from the day we are born to the day we die, and the true purpose of learning is to allow us to function fully in society, which will mean different things for different people. Somewhere along the way we may have lost sight of that point …

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