Can we learn without intending to?

Can we learn without intending to?

Some consider that learning requires prior intention, while others consider that intention is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for learning.

Intention, in the context of learning, can cover two aspects. Intention for oneself, when the subject sets out to acquire competencies, and intention for others, when the demand for development comes from a third party.

Whether learning is formal, informal, non-formal, or incidental, can we learn without intending to learn?


Can we learn without the intention to learn?

The world of work is full of examples of situations that can become real learning spaces.

Let’s take the example of meeting colleagues in the “cafeteria”: the initial intention is not to learn, but rather to create links, and yet… This physical space, located at the heart of the company, is a space for creating links, but also a space for debate, exchange and sharing which can sometimes be much more useful and instructive than an organised and formalized exchange. It is a space that allows the unspoken, the informal, the “off” to be “captured”. The cafeteria would be a sort of transitional space, devoid of any formative stakes (emotional, cognitive, formative), in which the actors exchange, share and sometimes learn incidentally, without having that as their initial intention.

Conversely, in the context of an organised and planned training session, and despite the numerous learning opportunities, there may be no intention on the part of the learner.  The subject may experience the training session as an injunction and consider that it will have no impact in terms of learning.

The question of the subject’s intention in learning thus raises many questions, without necessarily providing clear and precise answers.

Peut-on apprendre sans en avoir l’intention ?

“It’s the intention that counts”

Etymologically, the notion of intention means “tension, action of tending”, “application of thought”, or “effort towards a goal”. This notion seems to express a will, a setting in motion towards a precise and predefined objective.

The intention precedes and justifies the subject’s action. It also aims at achieving a specific and predetermined result.

In the legal framework, “intention” plays a major role in determining the degree of fault and the associated penalty. Indeed, the legal qualification of the action varies according to the intention of its author.

In everyday language, the expression “it’s the intention that counts” also seems to reflect the fact that the intention is a necessary and insufficient prerequisite for the realisation of the action, for example when offering a gift. It even seems to take precedence over the course of the action, as well as its outcome.

In the context of training, we can therefore question the place and role of “intention”. Intention, as the manifestation of a desire, can emanate from the different actors involved in a training session: sponsors, educational engineers, trainers and of course learners.

But is it only the intention that counts?

In adult learning, is a learning intention necessary for learning, or can learning take place in the absence of a clear learning objective?

Learning is based on the notions of intention and awareness. What if we focused the debate on the notion of reflexivity?

“Reflexivity concerns the return of thought to itself; if this notion differs from that of introspection (observation of an individual consciousness by itself), it is because it presupposes that the individual is able to free himself from his usual frame of reference and to call upon other reading grids than his own” (Wittorski, 2001).

Reflexivity can also be characterised as the ability of the subject to make sense of his or her experience. This determination of meaning, with the help of putting into words ways of thinking, doing, acting and feeling, promotes learning.

In training, questioning, debriefing and formative evaluations are moments that aim to encourage this review of what has been experienced, learned and transmitted.

It is this reflexivity process that allows the subject to have his or her experience recognized and valued within the framework of a Validation of Acquired Experience (VAE) session, for example.

In the framework of the work-based training action (AFEST), the reflective phase is a key phase in the learning dynamic.

In the end, isn’t it sometimes reflexivity that allows learning to manifest, in the sense of letting it appear, and not intention? In this particular case, it does not matter that there is an intention to learn. It would be the way we look at the situation that would make it learning. This would open up the field of possibilities and make it possible to open up the debate on intention, by focusing attention on reflexivity.

Peut-on apprendre sans en avoir l’intention ?

From intention to “reflective attention”

Choosing to focus on the notion of reflexivity, rather than that of intention, allows the learner to (re)find the power to act in the context of his or her learning. Learning would no longer necessarily be the result of a training intention, set by the subject or by others, but would make it possible to identify, a posteriori, as formative a situation identified as such later on. The field of learning would thus be increased tenfold and would be freed from the formal, spatial and temporal framework of training. It could also emanate from situations that would carry the seeds of learning just waiting to blossom. The subject, alone or accompanied by a mediator, would be at the heart of the training session, by developing his or her capacity to identify, in the situations experienced, what can be a learning factor, while having the power to create his or her own learning spaces.

What are your views on the subject?

Faty Drider, Educational Engineer


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