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September 17-23

The Nature of the Learning Process [1]

by Harvey Jackins

It is possible at the present time (1966) to outline the main features of the learning process in human beings and locate the main obstacles to learning in the usual teaching or learning situations. Some immediate remedies can be proposed and long-range ones outlined.


This discussion will not re-summarize basic theory in any detail. This is now available in other publications. It will suffice to say that we assume that human intelligence consists of an ability to respond to each new environmental situation with a new precise response, formulated from the similarities and differences of the present situation to and from past experiences, and an ability to file the new information from the present event in a form usable for evaluating and responding to future events.

Unintelligent behavior is the failure to respond intelligently. Unintelligence is responding with a not-new, rigid, pattern-from-the-past which is more or less inaccurate in meeting the present event.

Unintelligent behavior takes place when (a) the individual is undergoing physical or emotional distress or (b) when s/he is experiencing the “replaying” of the recorded residues of past physical or emotional distress experiences. These recorded residues are triggered into activity by similarities of the present events to the past distressing ones.

Intelligent behavior and unintelligent behavior in humans are regarded as completely distinct from each other. At a given time a greater or lesser share of a human’s total performance may be under the influence of each of the two kinds of behavior, but the two kinds of behavior do not shade into each other. There is not a gradual spectrum of unintelligent to intelligent behavior. Each kind of behavior is “on or off,” “yes or no” in its effects, although each may be dominating only a portion of the human’s total performance at any time.

It is assumed (and this is supported by all observations to date) that intelligent behavior or intelligence is the natural, inherent nature of a human being. Unintelligent behavior, although it appears to parasite upon (or attach itself to) certain primitive mechanisms latent in the physical make up of the human, is unnatural and uninherent. Unintelligent behavior is always acquired and moreover acquired only through experiences of physical or emotional distress. The unintelligent behavior effects of distress experiences are retained only when such experiences are not followed by complete release of tension and by re-evaluation.

(The release of tension is accomplished in specific processes, undoubtedly very complex, but dependably characterized by the outward indications of crying with tears, trembling with perspiration, laughter, angry noises with violent movements, yawning, and lively talking. We describe all of these processes with the term “discharge.” All of these tend to occur spontaneously in all interpersonal relationships, but are severely inhibited by cultural conditioning against them—the “don’t cry” enforcement, for example. The practice of Re-evaluation Counseling consists essentially in allowing, encouraging, and assisting these discharge processes to operate completely, exhaustively and profoundly. Re-evaluation, the rational mental process which follows thorough discharge, does so spontaneously once discharge is complete.)


Careful observation confirms that it is fundamentally natural, easy and pleasant for a human being to learn new things. This built-in eagerness to learn exists in all humans, though it is obscured in many. It may be explained in many ways but it certainly exists. A human being functioning in a human manner is continuously eager for new information, new insights, new experiences, new skills. Permitting this inherent attitude to operate is the key job in the promotion of learning.


Learning consists of evaluating new information in relation to information that we have previously understood. What has been called “rote” learning or “conditioned-response” learning or “remembering-it-long-enough-to-pass-the-test” learning is not learning at all in the meaning of our definition. This type of rigid-response conditioning is not desirable or useful in a human sense. The human is capable under certain severe pressures of doing a great deal of this kind of rote absorption but it is not really useful to anyone. The pressure for this kind of rigid response which dominates so much of our present educational procedures is damaging to the students involved and, at best, useless to society.


If learning is to be done intelligently, it follows that the learner must be able to be intelligent. S/he must be functioning in an intelligent, human manner if intelligent learning is to take place. This means that the learner must not be distressed, either by new distress or restimulated distress. A human being cannot learn in the real sense of the word if s/he is hurting, is overtired, depressed, frightened, embarrassed, ashamed, angry, confused or bored. A learner must be feeling good in order to really learn.

This is not an easy requirement to place before a parent or educator, but it is a minimal one. In home, classroom, factory, or office the learner must be feeling good and feeling good about her/himself for the learning process to have a chance.

If pupils are unhappy or uncomfortable, they can’t read; or, if they are pressured into rote reading, they will not understand what they have read.


Before teachers or parents attempt to communicate information, they need to be sure that their pupils are relaxed and feeling good. There is no use expecting to communicate information well until the pupils are in a relaxed, aware, eager attitude.

This may seem like an enormous job to classroom teachers. Many of their pupils arrive in class already conditioned to shut down and stop thinking just by the classroom situation itself. Many arrive still under the clouds of some upset from home, from play, from a previous class or from what happened in the halls. Nevertheless, re-awakening must first be accomplished or learning will not go well. Otherwise teachers will go through the forms of education without accomplishing useful learning.

In spite of the pressure of time, more will get done if time is first spent in arousing the students to a happy, receptive mood. Learning will then go rapidly. The terrible destructive pounding on locked minds which exhausts and discourages pupils and teachers alike in so many classrooms will be avoided.


How can this be done? By the use of the discharge and re-evaluation process to whatever degree is necessary. Severely distressed students will require much time and assistance to emerge to the level of easy learners. They cannot become good learners without this, however, and they can become good learners if they are given it. A classroom teacher will not be able to easily handle the most deeply distressed students in the classroom situation, nor be able to quickly bring them up to the level of the least distressed in learning ability. These need special attention and classes with similar students where, at first, all the class time can be devoted to untangling their distresses enough for them to learn. There are increasing tendencies in school systems to make some kind of separation of the “slow learners” but, except where the intuitive wisdom of some unusual teacher has operated, there has been little progress in converting the “slow learners” to fast learners. The separation is not enough. The problems must be solved as well.

Even in a classroom situation, however, and with the small amount of time that can be taken, a great deal can be done by the teacher to awaken and alert the intelligence of the students and make it available for the learning process.

The gifted teacher does many of these things intuitively. With the situation and the theory understood clearly, however, all teachers can begin to be much more effective, at least up to the point where their own distresses interfere.


Students need to know that they are loved or liked by the instructor. The relaxed teacher who has had a warm, secure childhood communicates this with a look or a tone of voice. The rest of us may have to enunciate clearly through clenched jaw muscles, “I like you, John; it is good to have you in my class,” but we can at least do that and the student will respond out of all proportion to our effort.


The learner needs to feel accepted and secure in the learning situation. The teacher who remembers to say, “The whole class did well on this last chapter and I’m proud of you all” will rub off some warmth on the ones who till then felt that they didn’t understand the chapter at all. They will then be able to pay better attention to the next chapter.


Learners need to feel that they are doing well. They always are, but this requires basic philosophical clarification for many teachers to understand. The point is that the learners are always doing the very best they can if one takes into account (which is the only realistic thing to do) all the tensions and pressures which drag upon them. If they are all doing the very best that they can do, then they are doing very well. If the teacher sincerely communicates to them that they are doing very well, this in itself relaxes the grip of the tensions upon them and automatically leads to their doing better.

Skillful teachers have known for a long time that students learn better when they are given lots of encouragement and praise. What we are saying here is why this is so and how it can be put into effect. Even the teachers whose own childhoods were long ordeals of fault-finding, reproach and discouragement can, with this knowledge, interrupt the fault-finding noises they have a tendency to make. They can deliberately heap praise on their students and begin to unhook them to learn freely.


New information can be understood by learners only if they can relate it to information which they have already understood. To try to force them to “learn” an item of information without it being related to familiar information is to create a distressing experience for the students. They will be bored at the very least and quite likely frustrated, anxious or even despairing.

This is basic: human beings cannot intelligentIy take in information that they cannot relate to what they already know.

Under pressure, they may make some desperate emergency connection such as, “This is like those other bewildering things that I have been told I’d better remember if I want to pass the test.” Some frightened children actually operate on this sort of tenuous connection to the degree that they get all A’s in school and even receive their PhD’s at the appointed time. Because the information has never been related well to anything except getting good grades and passing tests, the holder of this kind of a doctorate is able to do only routine work and cannot be a creative member of a research team.

If students are aware and alert on a particular day, they will need fewer reference points furnished by the teacher or communicator to evaluate new information to what they already know. They will remember a number of references from the past and will make additional reference points of their own. They will learn more easily and better even on their good days, however, if the teacher points out the relation of the new information to some already known material.


Students who are only partially aware and alert in the situations provided for learning will tend to become more aware and alert if the new information offered them is connected with furnished references to what they already know. This is so because the evaluation process is itself a rational operation. To be able to grasp and understand new information will arouse them, will pull their attention away from the distresses that were clutching at them and bring them up to an alert learning level. What the person in the instructing or teaching role can do is to offer such reference points and ask the learners for others if he or she wishes the learning process to function well.

A mother once told me that her small son had repeatedly asked her what a lumber yard was when they passed one on a streetcar ride. She said that she had answered him, “That’s a lumber yard, son” many times on successive trips, but that he never failed to ask again just as if he had received no answer at all. She said that, finally, on one such trip when she heard the familiar, “What’s that, Mom?” accompanied by the pointing finger, she suddenly realized that he had been given no answer in any useful sense, and this time replied, “Well, you know how people build houses out of boards, don’t you? Like they nailed the boards together to make that house across the street?” And when he said, yes, he knew about that, she then said, “Well, that place is what we call a lumber yard. It’s the place we keep the boards until we need them to build houses.“ At which point he said, “Oh!” in a tone of deep satisfaction, and never questioned her again on later trips.


If the first attempt of the teacher or parent to offer references from the new information to the learner’s present knowledge does not succeed, then the effort must be made to find other reference points. The learning cannot take place until these points are found. It is worse than useless to offer the same statements over and over again (often in a louder and louder voice). We see how useless and harmful this is when we see the tourist shouting louder and louder in his efforts to make the “ignorant foreigner” understand U.S. words. We will be appalled when we first face how much of this is turned on our children without it ever being noticed.


Though senseless repetition is of no use or worse, thoughtful repetition of information is almost always necessary for good communication. Any communication will tend to become confused, distorted, or misunderstood during the process of communicating. The confusion which enters the message and garbles it is called “noise” or “static” by communication theorists. It arises from all the interfering factors, actual noise or static, other mechanical factors which distort the signal, but in particular, from the reactive recordings which beset both the communicator and the listener. Repetition of the message several times will tend to eliminate the usual mechanical distortions, and thoughtful, varying repetition will help get around even the reactive recordings. To communicate more than once means to attempt to speak more precisely using better chosen words in a clearer tone of voice. It also means to offer a succession of new sets of reference points for the new information.


Learners must have an opportunity to think about the new information. In order to think very well about it in the conditions in which all humans find themselves today (inhibited by distress patterns), they must usually have a chance to communicate about it to someone else. This could be in a letter, in an essay, or in a silent prayer, but the easiest and most effective way is for them to talk about it.

This is why someone doing a good job of communicating information must stop at short intervals and ask for information back from the learners. The learners can then talk about the new information and expedite the relating of it to what they already know.

A specific question should be pointed in this direction: “What other animals does the armadillo remind you of? Have you ever heard of armadillos before?” Reports and recitations accomplish some of this in the usual classroom procedure, but because they are tied to the oppressive and discouraging phenomena of grades and “work,” they accomplish their good only incidentally. This is why the “each one teach one” procedure is such an effective learning measure for the very easy learners (and can be helpful to the “slow learners”). The teaching student in attempting to communicate to the learning student is powerfully assisted in the evaluation and the actual learning of the information himself or herself by the chance to talk about it to someone else. There’s an old saying that “you don’t really understand something until you can teach it to someone else” that bears on this point.

When the learner talks about the new information, the teacher must firmly resist criticising, correcting or finding fault with what the learner is saying. The words “no” and “wrong!” should be exiled from the teacher’s vocabulary. The teacher can wait until the learner is through talking and then re-state the information correctly. But “pointing out where he or she is wrong” or “correcting” the learner will only interfere severely with the learning.


The information must be presented in small increments for evaluation to take place. Too large a package of information is as bad as none at all simply because the evaluation process is jammed by the frustration of not being able to make references fast enough to keep up with the material.

The development of teaching machines (though not living up to the sweeping hopes of their sponsors) did focus attention on this necessity for small increments. The programming of the machine forced the developers to be aware of the problem’s existence. It was then easily seen to be a problem in all the older types of instruction as well. Any learner needs to learn just one small thing at a time in order to really learn it. Anxiety and haste for speed in instruction on the part of teachers (and often on the part of students) frustrates the learning process and often insures that little is learned through tackling too large increments of new information. A great deal could be learned in the same time if the information were divided into small, well-organized, step-like amounts. One cannot “learn to play the violin” as a unit task, but one can learn how to finger one note and then how to bow that same note and then do the same for other notes, scales, exercises and sonatas.


The only issue which should be before the learner should be to learn and to understand the information. To pass a test, to get a good grade, to be promoted, to avoid ridicule, to escape punishment, to please parent or teacher, to compete with one’s fellows; these are all poor motivations compared to the basic, often-unused one—the built-in desire to learn.

Almost all tests, examinations, grades, warning slips, and even honors, interfere profoundly with the ability of students to learn. The way these institutions now operate it is possible for learners to feel good about themselves only if they achieve a perfect test score or the highest possible grade. To receive less is to be officially stamped “wanting, defective” to some extent. This instills anxiety recordings which will consistently and chronically interfere with the ability of learners to learn.


A good learning situation should make it impossible for the learner to make a mistake. Disappointment is instilled and confidence is weakened whenever a mistake occurs, and further learning then becomes more difficult. Dr. Frank Laubach’s dictum that “no teacher should ever ask any questions to which a student can possibly give a wrong answer” arose out of the practical necessity of being effective in mass literacy campaigns. The principle is equally valid in all learning situations but the dead weight of reactive tradition obscures it in most of our classrooms. When the right question is asked the right way in a learning situation, the student will give the right answer. This should be the occasion for congratulations and approval, for the enjoyment of success by both the learner and the instructor. This in turn will make each of them more alert and make further learning go even better.


When introducing these procedures into a learning situation that has been handled badly for a long time, great emphasis and time can be taken for congratulations and approval. The instructor need not worry if the class temporarily drops a chapter behind in the text. Once their eyes are bright and their minds are working again from the approval, recognition and encouragement, they can wade through the lesson material much more rapidly than ever before and this time really learn it.


Touch can play a useful role in helping to convert an unlearning situation to one in which learning can take place. The student who is not learning is tense. Loneliness is an ingredient of almost all tension and one of the surest ways of contradicting this is to actually be in physical contact with another person. With primary grades, effective teachers have often resorted intuitively to taking children on their laps in order to introduce them to the learning process. An arm across the shoulders, a squeeze of the arm or a hug, all given with warmth and friendliness, can immediately penetrate barriers that thousands of words will not touch at all. “Get in touch” is an excellent suggestion relevant to the person to whom you wish to communicate.


Finally, it needs to be said that the learning process can and will accelerate if some of the right things begin to be done and the wrong ones interrupted. A good deal of the time and effort of most learning situations is wasted in dull repetition, in rote drills, in tests, grades and so on. As learning begins to proceed well, it will acquire a strength of its own and brush over many of the old obstacles like a stream cutting through a mud dam. It should easily be possible, for example, for children to learn all the mathematics ordinarily given to them in the first eight years of school (including the new math) in a year or less, to learn it well, to understand it and remember it and to retain it in a useful form forever.


A class such as this will be a great pleasure to both students and teacher. When communication is operating well in a classroom, tests and grades will be unnecessary. The teacher will simply ask the question, “Does everybody understand everything about the axioms of the real number system?” and if the students reply, “Yes,” then that particular topic of study is completed. Under present rigidities it may still be necessary for the teacher to put an “A” on each student’s report card or, if the particular rules do not permit all A’s, to have the students draw their own grades out of a hat, understanding very well that they are only cooperating with an archaic rigidity until it can be gotten rid of.

Learning, approached sensibly, fully utilizing just the things we already know about it, will become again the joyful process that it was for all of us in the beginning.

[1]  First published in 1966 as a pamphlet.


O Parents, Teachers, and all such Instructors,

Permit them learn.

Each mind is thirsty-eager.

If never blamed, nor scolded, nor negated;

No single “No!” nor “Wrong!” to leave confusion;

No disapproving frown to mar affection;

Each grows more thirsty and more eager always.


A little at one time is knowledge’s portion

And that related to things known already.

No more until the last has been digested,

Related, understood, communicated

Back in the learner’s words to the instructor.

Without this nothing justifies proceeding.


Once understood, new portion offered swiftly

Lest boredom’s tarnish dull the mind’s quicksilver.

Banish all tests, all grades, all kinds of ratings.

These only rate environment and teacher,

And much-confuse the learner about learning.


Love openly and well the eager learners

And twice as much the ones whose hurts prevent


Loved and approved, they’ll find ways to discharge.

Then let them weep and shake and laugh and temper

And treasure the keenness of the minds emerging.

Last modified: 2023-04-15 09:24:12+00