Learning is Personal and it’s (past) time to fully recognize this
In this article, I emphasize the subjective or personal nature of learning per my recent PhD research.


I have retained a deep interest in human learning throughout my life, reflecting on my lifelong personal experiences and, as a career educator, on the learning experiences and inclinations of my many students. I’m a parent, too, and through observing and nurturing my daughter’s learning, I was gripped by the power and mystery of this wondrous, invisible force.

I’ve also read widely about learning and long puzzled over a pronouncement from educator-author Peter Jarvis who writes in Paradoxes of Learning (1992), “all the social institutions cannot contain learning since it is fundamental to human being and to life itself.” As an educator, I naturally wonder how this squares with the conventional interpretations of learning I’ve encountered and how I might recognize and validate learning and human being for myself and others. Below, I share some insights from my recent PhD research into learning which, for me, helped confirm the potency of personalized/personalizing learning as a vital pedagogical gesture. Such gesturing, for me, begins with seeking to better understand some details of a student’s background and then modifying my teaching approach so they might be better engaged in their learning. I start with a reflection from my young life about a singular but important learning experience.

The Appearance of Learning: Childhood Pond/ering

From a time when I was very young, perhaps 3 years old, I recollect vague, hazy memories of being-in-world such as splashing in the water, petting a dog, and reaching out to be with and feel the embrace of my mother and father. These and other childhood memories seem rooted in a sensibility as strong as a need for food and safety, impelling me to engage with and explore the world and uncover its personal meaning. One vivid recollection when I was around 5 years old exemplifies this sensibility.

“It’s getting dark, Michael, 5 more minutes and we have to go. Look at you, you’re filthy. And put all the frogs you caught back in the pond. They’re not coming home with us.”

This pond, a swamp really, five to six kilometers from my home, is my prized “go-to place.” I beg my mother to bring me here after school, on weekends, anytime in spring, summer, or fall. There, aided by a dip net and magnifying glass, I pull off my boots and jacket and commune with the life of the pond. As my feet sink into the mud and I dip my arm in water up to the elbow, my senses are engulfed as I observe, hear, smell, and feel. I experience a pondering in which I am extended in all sensory ways. I have no preferential trajectory except that which calls me most strongly in the moment. There’s a wriggling tadpole. There’s a water beetle swimming upside down. There’s a painted turtle! Uh-oh, there’s another leech on my leg. Mom! Hour after hour, the pond enthralls me as I wade about, poking here and there in my quest to learn its secrets and make sense of it all. I feel so good, so buzzing with life that I don’t notice time whizzing by, pangs of hunger, or the mosquitos and deer flies using me as a pincushion.

Black and white photo of the author as a young boy looking at the camera and sitting on a log with a pond in the background
Figure 1: The author as a boy exploring a favored pond

To this day, I recollect how this experience tested my resolve, catalyzed cascading emotions, and helped propel me in numerous ways into a lifelong love of the natural world in its myriad expressions – swimming, hiking, camping, and heading into an early career in science. Despite my young age, this experience exposed the core of my being to the raw plasma of life, engaging all aspects of my living-being – my perception of myself, imagination, and intellect as well as my corporeal senses and sensibilities.

The description above reveals much about deeply personal learning through emotional states of excitement, of physically and psychologically engaging encounters, and of meaning ascribed to events as they unfold. This description penetrates into the very character or nature of life-wide and lifelong learning as it appeared and arose for me.

Such experiences of learning resonate with how French philosopher Michel Henry describes “modalities of life” – as aspects of reality irrevocably linked to self and one’s being. Henry asserts every life “is marked at its heart with a radical and insurmountable individuality” and “in every living being life comes to pass as a Self” (Henry, 2003).

Though I lacked the vocabulary to express this, this was true for me each time I waded into my special pond. I was animated and gripped by a gestalt of learning, the form of which captivated my soul, thoroughly engaged my emotions and intellect, and resonated with me, lifelong. This was and remains an affirmation of a life-force that, on examination, seems to impel each of us.

So, what is learning?

Human learning is innate or commensurate with our existence from birth or earlier and experienced lifelong. In its invisible grasp and with the help of bodily senses, organs, and tissues, babies become mobile, crawling, walking, and embracing the surrounding world with animated determination. As perceiving bodies, we touch and explore, listen and mimic, and discover – learn – the nature of the world through this engagement. The arc of this sense-based “learning journey,” within and without, opens into a horizon of being and knowing that, itself, seems boundless.

Each human life unfolds in this manner, with every experience helping create new synaptic connections distributed throughout the body. In this way, each person, young and old, participates in the creation of their unique subjectivity – their personhood. Curiously, despite this self-evident truth, we have devised an education system that largely ignores the inhering values of subjectivity and the associated learning potential, something I have puzzled over throughout my life and my 34-year education career.

Since the Enlightenment and the emergence of natural science based on objectivist thinking, scientists and the first analytic psychologists developed numerous abstract theories of human learning allied with rational empiricism (Kaufman, 2013). Today, learning continues to be framed in the language of prediction and measurement, emphasizing cognitive schemata and objectivist psychologism.[1] This may be seen in this recent definition by the American Psychological Association (2022) which describes learning as:

the acquisition of novel information, behaviors, or abilities after practice, observation, or other experiences, as evidenced by change in behavior, knowledge, or brain function. Learning involves consciously or nonconsciously attending to relevant aspects of incoming information, mentally organizing the information into a coherent cognitive representation, and integrating it with relevant existing knowledge activated from long-term memory. (2022)

The above, all-too-typical definition stops me cold. It doesn’t resonate with my reflections on my own learning, my observations and sensing of the character of my students’ learning, nor those I gleaned as a parent raising my child. I also perceive learning to be more expansive than as it is described above and not initially constrained to a “coherent cognitive representation.” In my recent doctoral research, I determined to look beyond such objectivist definitions of learning; an important place I discovered many highly personal and detailed insights into learning was through studying auto/biography.

Auto/biographical Insights into Learning

Auto/biographical reflection is concerned with constructing a coherent narrative through sharing personal insights and subjective experiences. Its use has been validated in counseling practices and also qualitative and quantitative research spanning various domains, including education.

In deepening my doctoral research about the nature of learning, I expanded a collection of auto/biographical excerpts I had retained for many years which I felt provided potent insights into learning experiences. With fresh energy, I reviewed additional memoirs and then chose examples depicting varying experiences of learning from joyful to painful. In this study, I listened to the ways learning and living were described-as-experienced and without attempts to explain it as is often the case when learning is framed through research. Following, I assign refracted essential and variegated characteristics and meanings associated with the descriptions. Through this revealing, I gained an inkling of the subjective appearances of learning and its relation to Being.

Below, I share a sampling from my PhD study of first-person auto/biographical excerpts describing and reflecting on learning experiences and an educator observation and reflection from renowned educator-author John Holt. (*to read more auto/biographical excerpts that I selected as part of my doctoral research access this link to view my PhD dissertation.

Reflection of childhood learning experiences described by author-disability rights activist Helen Keller:

As the cool stream gushed over one hand (my teacher) spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. (1905)

Reflection of childhood learning experiences described by actor John Lithgow:

Standing onstage at age 7 in my first scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most potent memories of my childhood. ...Poetry pours forth from Oberon and Titania as Shakespeare seems to swoon at the chance to write dialogue for fairy royalty. And there I stood, half-forgetting that I was in a play, drinking it all in — in the moonlit night, the pungent summer air, the cool breeze, the warm glow of stage lights, the distant shriek of cicadas, and the mysterious, half-lit faces of the audience hanging on every word. ...And age 7, I barely knew what any of those phrases meant, but their sheer beauty enthralled me. (2012)

Reflection of childhood learning experiences described by writer Susan Sontag:

When I was five or six, I read Eve Curie’s biography of her mother. I read comic books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias indiscriminately, and with great pleasure. ... It felt like the more I took in, the stronger I was, the bigger I got, the bigger the world got...I started writing when I was about seven. I started a newspaper when I was eight, which I filled with stories and poems and plays and articles. (cited in Sacks, 2018, pp. 130-132)

Reflection of young adult learning experiences described by Academy Award-winning documentary film-maker Michael Moore:

I looooooved the movies. I always did. ...At 17, I saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and then I saw everything else by Kubrick, and after that there was no looking back. I was hooked on the potential and the power of cinema. ...Two years later I opened my own “art haus” in Flint where, for just two nights a week, I would show everything by Truffaut, Bergman, Fassbinder, Kurosawa, Herzog, Scorsese, Woody Allen, Buñuel, Fellini, Kubrick, and the masters of cinema. Each film would get four showings, and I would spend my Friday and Saturday evenings watching all four shows. On the first viewing [,] I would sit close and enjoy the experience. On the following three screenings, I would sit in the back and study them, sometimes taking notes. This became my one-room, one-student film school. (2011)

Reflection of teen learning experiences described by (autistic, non-verbal) writer Naoki Higashida

(listening and writing) Spoken language is a blue sea. Everyone else is swimming, diving [,] and frolicking freely, while I’m alone, stuck in a tiny boat, swayed from side to side. Rushing toward me are waves of sound. Sometimes the swaying is gentle. ...When I’m working on my alphabet grid or my computer, I feel as if someone’s cast a magic spell and turned me into a dolphin. I dive down deep – then shoot back up, break the surface and surprise all the swimmers. The process can feel so free, so effortless, that I almost forget I was ever stuck in that boat. (2017)

Reflection of childhood and adolescent learning experiences arising through abuses described by First Nations students who attended Canadian First Nations Residential Schools:

Even our own language was considered ugly; we weren’t allowed to speak Cree language. I wasn’t allowed to be myself as a Cree woman. Everything was filthy, even our monthlies and that’s how I learned it at home and what I learned from the residential school, everything was ugly. And that’s where I learned a lot of ugliness also, I became a compulsive liar, learned to live in the world of denial. When I was younger, I learned how to hate, I hated my own mother, I blamed her for allowing us to be taken away even though at that time I didn’t realize she didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t until 1990 that she told us that “I didn’t have a choice. It was either that, or me going to jail. I had to let you kids go to school,” ’cause that’s when I disclosed to them both my mom and dad what I went through in residential school in 1990. (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, pp. 56-57)

Reflection of childhood learning experiences arising through childhood abuse described by poet rupi kaur:

believe them when they say
you are nothing
repeat it to yourself
like a wish
i am nothing
i am nothing
i am nothing
so often
the only reason you know
you’re still alive is from the
heaving of your chest

the art of being empty ( 2015, p. 33)

Reflection / observation of learning by author-educator John Holt:

On days when I have a lesson, I bring my cello to school, take it to a classroom, and give the children a turn at “playing” it. Except for the timid ones, who make a few half-hearted passes with the bow and then quit, almost all little children attack the cello in the same way. They are really doing three things at once. They are making the machine go. They are enjoying the luxury of making sounds. And they are making scientific experiments. They start off by working the bow vigorously back and forth across one of the strings. They keep this up for a long time. Just the feel and sound of it are exciting. Then they begin to vary their bowing a bit, trying different rhythms. After a while, they begin to move the bow so that it touches more than one string, or they move to another string. But it is important to note that the first few times they do this, they do not seem to be doing it in the spirit of an experiment, to find out what will happen. They do it for the sake of doing it. They have been bowing one way, making one kind of noise; now they want to bow another way and make another kind of noise. Only after some time does it seem to occur to them that there was a relation between the way they bowed and the kind of noise they got. Then there is quite a change in their way of doing things. ..They have to pile up quite a mass of raw sensory data before they begin trying to sort it out and make sense of it.

...A child is used to getting his answers out of the noise. He has, after all, grown up in a strange world where everything is noise, where he can only understand and make sense of a tiny part of what he experiences. His way of attacking the cello problem is to produce the maximum amount of data possible, to do as many things as he can, to use his hands and the bow in as many ways as possible. Then, as he goes along, he begins to notice regularities and patterns. He begins to ask questions — that is, to make deliberate experiments. ...And these are the vital skills of thought which, in our hurry to get him thinking the way we do, we may very well stunt or destroy in the process of “educating” him. (Holt, 1967, 1982, loc. 1064-1120)

What is Revealed through these Reflections?

I believe the auto/biographical excerpts above imply broad and diverse appearances of learning, experienced first-hand or observed, in which I interpret learning bound to subjectivity, emotionality, and relationality, much beyond the definition of learning by the American Psychological Association noted above.

I believe the meanings or essences arising from this study help reveal subjective experience or subjectivity as a critical determinant of learning. This characteristic is often overlooked or dismissed by an educational psychologism based on empirical rationalism and dispassionate objectivity traced to Enlightenment philosophy. This psychologism has significantly influenced many developments in modern education that have historically prioritized objectivity over subjectivity and diminished personalized approaches to nurturing learning.

How Might Educators and Parents Recognize and Better Personalize Learning?

During my career as an educator, I have come to experience and know the most about learning and honoring subjectivity through personalizing learning. In this, I have sought to create a relationship with a learner – face to face, or virtually – and subsequently enable them and me to better know the nature of their learning as it arises and appears in material and non-material ways, including honoring their ideas, feelings and aspirations. In opening myself to such learning – in contrast to how learning is often determined by definitions like the one I referenced earlier – I believe there is more opportunity for student learning to develop, naturally, and inspire subsequent learning.

Closing Remarks

The auto/biographical insights presented here help confirm the primacy of subjectivity, of personhood, and the dynamic forces shaping each person’s learning. To meet the promise of holistic personalized learning, educators need to be curious about the lifeworlds of their students – no matter their students’ background. John Holt, the patriarch of the unschooling movement, was masterful at this, as is revealed in the excerpt I included above.

There remains much work to do to better enable this. As Dr. Barry Prizant says about his interactions with autistic children, helping an autistic child does not begin with seeking to identify a problem and determining to “fix it.” Rather, he says, help begins by listening and paying close attention to what a child is trying to relate. “We need to work to understand them, and then change what we do” (Prizant & Fields-Meyer, 2015). To this end, through pedagogically sensitive encounters and inquiries, educators and parents can deepen their understandings of who their students or children truly are, observe how and where authentic learning is striving to emerge, and more richly nurture its appearing.


American Psychological Association. (2022). Learning. In APA Dictionary of Psychology.

Henry, M. (2003). Phenomenology of Life. Angelaki, 8(2), 97–110.

Higashida, N. (2017). Fall down 7 times, get up 8. Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

Holt, J. (1967). How children learn (50th Anniversary ed. (rev. 1982)). Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Ungifted: Intelligence redefined. Basic Books.

kaur, rupi. (2015). Milk and honey. Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Keller, H. (1905). The story of my life. Doubleday, Page & Co.

Lithgow, J. (2012). Drama: An actor’s education. Harper Perennial.

Moore, M. (2011). Here comes trouble: Stories from my life. Hachette Book Group.

Prizant, B. M., & Fields-Meyer, T. (2015). Uniquely human: A different way of seeing autism. Simon & Schuster.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). The survivors speak: A report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

[1] Psychologism is a philosophical doctrine or approach that attempts to reduce all concepts, principles, and knowledge to psychological facts or mental processes. This view holds that all human knowledge and understanding are ultimately rooted in psychological or mental activities of individuals, such as perception, sensation, memory, and reasoning (ChatGPT, 2023,

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