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Photo by Laura Kriegel

Learning Happens... Even When It Isn’t the Goal
How learning is often a byproduct of doing, and doesn’t have to be the goal.

“Success often comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” The quote is often attributed to Henry David Thoreau. The message is something like a paradox: those who want success have more chance of getting it if they don’t focus on it. Success is a byproduct of doing good things, not the goal one should have when doing those things.

I think a similar thing can be said about learning. We often think about learning as something we must deliberately plan to do. But just as often, learning is a byproduct of doing things that required learning along the way.

a young person working with their hands

As he often does, Self-Directed Education advocate John Holt made this point eloquently. When talking about how learning generally takes place in schools, he wrote: “we do things backwards. We think in terms of getting a skill first, and then finding useful and interesting things to do with it. The sensible way, the best way, is to start with something worth doing, and then, moved by a strong desire to do it, get whatever skills are needed.” Do interesting things first. Learning will surely come from it. Let me illustrate with some examples.

My two year old son, Lachlan, is learning to talk, to recognize (and in a very basic way) draw shapes, and other things. He does not learn these things by sitting down and setting about learning them (at least, not that I can tell). He learns them by participating in the world around him in ways he finds interesting. In doing that, he “absorbs” the things that most interest him. He gains his ever-increasing vocabulary not because my wife and I give him lessons on how to say words, but because he hears people talk and tries (and tries again) to emulate. Moreover, he seems at this point to realize that talking is a way of conveying information and, wanting to convey information, he gradually learns to talk.

As chances have it, this is remarkably similar to how I am currently learning to “speak” in the “command line” language of my computer’s (Linux) operating system (basically, to run commands by typing them into the computer rather than clicking on icons). Here are what some of the more basic commands look like, so that you can get the idea of what I’m “up against.”

To install a program, I type “sudo apt-get install [name of program].”

To see a list of all programs on my computer, I type “dpkg –get-selections.”

To delete a file from my “Documents” folder, I type “rm Documents/[name of file].”

These are very basic commands, but you get the idea; it is a lot like learning a new language, because the symbols that each command uses aren’t obvious; they need to be learned.

Now, I could go about learning these commands in the way a conventional school might tell me to: sit down with a book, website, or something else and set about deliberately studying the commands, test myself, repeat. Certainly, that way can work and might work for some people.1 What I did instead is to learn on a “need to know” basis. When I need to know how to enter a particular command, I look it up, follow the instructions, and see what happens. If I need that command again, and can’t remember it, I re-look it up and follow the instructions. Every time I need a command that I don’t know or remember, I look it up. The objective is doing, not learning.

In the way that Lachlan gradually “picks up” words, I have gradually “picked up” quite a few commands. I know basic ones by heart, and I can figure out some of slightly more advanced ones by trial and error based on my knowledge of the more basic commands. Learning wasn’t really the conscious goal. Just like how Lachlan learns words, communication was the goal, and along the way, learning happened.

It’s also how most of us learn a lot of things. Most people I know who learned sports learned by a combination of watching and playing; the goal wasn’t to learn but to watch or play an interesting sport, and the learning happened as a consequence. Very few people who learn to play video games bother to read the accompanying player’s manual first; they too learn by participating. Even language, which certainly can be learned in a more deliberate way, is quite often (and effectively) learned through immersion, being surrounded by a language in authentic contexts and learning it incidentally (which is, of course, how we all learn much of our native language). In all of these cases, learning is something that happens “on the way” to some other goal; speaking, running commands on a computer, mastering a video game.

Of course, learning can happen the more conventional “first learn, then do” way. Some people I know prefer to learn certain things that way. My concern, though, is that because this is how things are done in conventional schools, we often wrongly think that it is the only or best way for learning to occur. And that leads to suspicions that self-directed learners (more accurately, “self-directed doers”) must not be learning because they do not look like they are learning (in the conventional way). Even if someone is learning math indirectly through some other activity (cooking, building, buying and selling), those who envision learning math as a deliberate “sit down and learn equations” process will miss the incidental learning that is surely going on.

A larger concern is that in conventional schools, the preferred method is to force everyone into the “learn first, do after” process. First, we learn math; then we put the math skills to use. But there are advantages to the method Holt advocates, of trying to do something worth doing and learning along the way. It’s often more exciting and intrinsically motivating. Learning through doing something of value to the learner also makes the learning more relevant. If we had Lachlan learn to talk by first learning to sound out individual phonemes and slowly building up to words as he masters each step, that would require a lot of patience and drudgery on his part. Learning to talk is more exciting when you jump right in, when communicating is the goal and learning what you need when you need it is just the tool to get you there.

a girl working in a woodshop
Photo by the NYC Agile Learning Center

This is something like what I think psycholinguist Frank Smith had in mind when he wrote about schools: “We must stop using the old and tired language of what schools should be achieving, of new and improved curriculum, objectives and tests, and start thinking about what schools should be like. We must talk of what people do and how they interact with each other.” We must, in other words, shift our focus from learning as the goal to doing as the goal (with learning as the byproduct).

Learning by doing has been a buzzword in education ever since John Dewey. Schools have ceaselessly tried to center curriculum around activity, get the kids learning through engaging activity. The problem is that there is a limit to how much schools can create learning through doing when everyone – students, teachers, and administrators – knows that the explicit goal of school (and the activity in it) is learning, and often coerced learning at that! One advantage of Self-Directed Education is that the focus really is on doing; there is no formal curriculum that becomes the “real” goal of all activity. The learner is free to do fun and engaging stuff and learning just happens along the way.

The surest route to success is to focus on something (the tasks at hand) other than success. I’d propose that, quite often and in the same way, the surest way to learn is not to focus on learning, but to do interesting things and learn along the way.



[1] I suspect that there are also certain things that must be learned in a “first learn, then do” way. Learning to drive a car or operate dangerous machinery, for instance, is likely not something one can start by doing and have learning occur incidentally. This, of course, is less to do with how the learning must occur and more to do with the possible safety consequences.