What is the nature of learning and what are the types of learning that really matter? If you were to think back over your life what are the learning experiences that really stood out as fundamental, meaningful or important? Chances are it is not necessarily experiences in school or college or any other formal educational experience that is at the top of the pile but more likely the more informal ‘life-learning’ experiences like time spent travelling, the birth of a child or raising a family, a relationship, hobbies or interests, a personal crisis, a course in therapy, a loss, friendship, time in nature etc.

We can break learning up into technical learning and what Abraham Maslow calls ‘intrinsic learning’. Technical learning in know-how. Learning vocabulary, how to drive a car, dissect a brain, ski, mathematics. However, these experiences tend not to involve a major shift or change in the sense of self – that is, growth or development. Intrinsic learning, by contrast, is learning that helps us ‘to become more fully human’ as Maslow puts it, to grow, develop and become a better person. Maslow writes:

“If one thinks in terms of the developing of the kinds of wisdom, the kinds of understanding, the kinds of life skills that we would want, then we must think in terms of what I would like to call intrinsic education – intrinsic learning; that is learning to be a human being in general, and second, learning to be this particular human being”.

Maslow goes on to conclude then when one starts thinking about education with this framework in mind that our current system of education starts to look very sick. How does learning Biology, IT, or Business help me to become a better human being? The answer is that it probably does not.

The question then we must start to think about is, if we value this idea of intrinsic learning, that a noble education is one which helps the individual to develop the best and highest qualities within them, then what kind of an education might bring this about?

We can perhaps say that such an education must have certain features and characteristics that are largely absent from the current model. It must be, for example, holistic. That is that we are bodies as well as brains, we have a feeling function, a sensing function, as well as an intellectual function. It must also be experiential and based on meaningful experience, which means topics, subjects and experiences that speak to the real existential concerns and needs of the learners. We must provide environments in which learners have the opportunity to reflect on and process their experiences, and ask fundamental questions of themselves and their lives. It is a peculiar thing that our formal education offers us little to no opportunity to practice one of the most fundamental aspects of being human – to make meaning of our lives.

This different approach would be a kind of existential or philosophic education that seeks to understand the process of life more fully, what our purpose is and how to develop the fullness of our humanity. Finally, this renaissance must put responsibility back in the hands of the learner, giving them the freedom to direct their own activity, according to what speaks most deeply to them.