Artifically Segmented Learning


Learning is not as neat, tidy, and segmented as our schooled culture would have us believe.

Dr. Kevin Currie-Knight is a Teaching Assistant Professor in East Carolina University’s College of Education.


This article was originally published in Tipping Points Magazine for the Alliance for Self-Directed Education on January 23rd, 2018.


Recently I had to learn some new tricks on a video editing software I use. How did I do it? First, I fiddled around with the software a bit (“I think this is how to do it; hmm, why isn’t that working?”). Next, when I got to something that didn’t work and couldn’t figure out the next step, I used google and youtube to get information. After that, I applied what I learned to see if it worked. When it did, I moved on. If it didn’t, I looked for more information.

This is how a lot of learning happens. I know a young adult who decided to buy a cheap old car and fix it up (without knowing much about how to do it). That’s basically how his learning happened too. If you take away the Google and Youtube step, it’s also how my toddler son learns to do a lot of things: tinker, look at others, try it, see if it works, repeat.

Photo by: Marie

In school, learning is segmented something like this: first you (1) receive information, then (2) do activities that apply that information, then (3) take a test or quiz to see if you’ve learned the information. The learning I’ve described above, though, doesn’t look like that. When I learn my video software (or someone else learns how to fix a carburetor or speak a new language) the learning and doing are intertwined, not succeeding steps. And the test of the learning is not a separate activity at all, but is usually “baked into” the activity. To see if you learned to use x word correctly, talk and see if others understand you. To see if you fixed the carburetor, or learned to put captions on the film, see if the steps you followed produce a working product.

There is some good research on how learning works in video games, showing how great video games are at this. No one sits and learns the video game first, then plays the game, then takes an assessment to see if they did it correctly. No. You play the game and learn while you play the game. Your assessment is simple: Did what you just tried do what you wanted it to do? If not, play the level again, maybe seek advice, and try something different until you find what works. The learning, practice, and assessment are inextricably linked.

One of the unfortunate byproducts of living in a schooled culture is that we tend to think of learning in an artificially segmented way: first, learning; next, application; of learning (the activity); finally, assessment.

Photo by: Amanda Mills, USCDCP

Maybe the worst consequence of this artificially segmented view of learning is that it makes the way learning happens in school appear natural, when the reality is that it’s starkly different from how learning takes place elsewhere. When someone suggests that kids can’t really learn outside of school, this is what I think they have in mind: since learning outside of school doesn’t look like sitting in a classroom and taking a test on the teacher’s lecture, it doesn’t count as learning.

The segmented view of learning might also lead to biases that things we can’t demonstrate on a test don’t count as legitimate learning. When we learn how to get along with members of a group, it’s likely that (a) we learned those rules without someone explicitly teaching them to us, and (b) probably can’t boil down what we learned on a written test. If we believe that learning must look like learning in school to be legitimate, we’d conclude that this wasn’t learning at all, and we’d be wrong.

School tells us that learning consists of three related but practically separate activities: get information, apply information, assess learning. But it only takes thinking about how you and others learn outside of school to realize how artificial that segmented process is. In the real world, getting information, practicing, and assessment are deeply intertwined, not separate activities.