The difference between learning and education

Posted on:

15th August 2023

When we hear the words "learning" and "education," it's easy to assume that they mean the same thing. However, there is actually a big difference between the two.

Let’s take cooking as an example. Imagine you have friends coming round for dinner and you want to impress them with a delicious meal. Cooking has never been a passion or interest of yours so you’ve never dedicated time to learning how to. But now you have this dinner event coming up, you suddenly have this new desire and motivation to learn. You can enrol in a cooking class or watch YouTube videos. You can also learn by experimenting in your own kitchen, trying out different recipes, and learning from your mistakes. This is a learning process which is more organic and natural and happens through life experiences and interactions.

Now sticking to the cooking example. Imagine you’re back at school and your next lesson is cooking. You have zero interest in cooking but as it’s school, you must engage with the content, regardless of whether you want to or not. This is education.

To help you understand the difference between learning and education, Christine, our Global Learning and Development Partner, shares her experiences and thoughts.

“When people ask me what the difference between learning and education is, I usually ask them back what they remember from their first day of school. Most people remember things like the clothes they wore, who they sat next to, and whether the teacher was nice. In Germany, kids get paper cones filled with goodies (“Schultüte”), so lots of people remember those. What’s interesting is that no one really remembers what classes they had that day, or which subject was taught. And that, right there, is the difference between learning and education.

What is education? 

Education is trying to get people to memorise information ‘just in case’ they need it. It’s a formal conservative process aiming to develop abilities, attitudes and other behavioural practical values in the society to which they belong. So basically school. I went to school for 13 years and passed all my exams. Ask me how much of that content I remember today - Hands down, very little. Why? Because most of it I simply didn’t need once I passed the respective class.

What is learning?

Learning, on the other hand, means adopting knowledge, values and skills through experiences in our day-to-day life. This happens automatically and continuously and can be intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious, for better or worse. This is the stuff we really care about, often because we have to. I didn’t learn the English term “cylinder head gasket” in my 8 years of English classes. I learned it when my car broke down in New Zealand and started billowing black smoke. That was almost 20 years ago, but I still remember it today. Just like I remember the dress I wore on my first day of school. Why’s that? There’s a theory that suggests what our brain stores are not facts but emotions. I remember the car breakdown because it was stressful. I remember that dress because I was super excited to wear it. Just think about the things you remember in your past, and what exactly you remember.​

What does this have to do with corporate training?

Firstly, we need to move away from the education system approach into a learning process. Rather than force content down people’s throats, we need to create training that is actually relevant to the job we want people to be trained on and give learners a chance to practise. Because that’s what sticks, especially when it goes wrong the first time. 

It's also important to assess whether people see a need to engage with a certain topic. If they don't, making the learning mandatory is not going to make it stick. Instead, we should try to create experiences that show them the need (e.g. their blind spots) to create an audience that wants to engage.

And secondly, we need to remember that learning does not just happen in the 90 mins that we’re in the classroom with a Learning and Development facilitator. Learning happens all the time. So we need to create learning opportunities (observations, guided practice, coaching etc.) wherever possible. The more closely the training environment mirrors the “real life” situation, the better. 

Learning and Development at Austin International 

In learning and development, we speak of 70-20-10, where only 10% of learning is achieved through structured courses, 20% is learning through others (e.g. peers, mentors, coaches) and the remaining 70% of learning are achieved through experience in the workplace. We need to make sure this is reflected in the way we approach "training" in the work environment by using our classroom time most effectively, creating useful on-demand performance support, and creating a seamless experience for learners between what they get from the learning and development team and their respective managers and teams.

The Learning and Development team have spent considerable time revamping the existing training courses with these concepts in mind. We aim to make our training interesting, relevant, practical, and fun. We want to create safe spaces where our learners (i.e. all of our people) can try, fail, and learn from their mistakes. We want to give them the chance to practise the real-world scenario in a safe-to-fail environment so that when they go out into the world, they feel prepared and ready. Hopefully a lot more ready than I felt when I finished school and was let loose in the real world!

And that is the essence of the difference between learning and education. It's about experiences, emotions, and the practical application of knowledge. As Christine aptly puts it, learning is not about memorising information just in case we need it; it's about adopting knowledge, values, and skills through our day-to-day lives. It's the stuff that sticks with us because we care about it as we've experienced it firsthand.