What If Learning Were the Purpose of Education?

By University Staff

teacher in the classroom

I began my career in higher education as an adjunct instructor. Like many of our faculty, I was a working professional who felt I had something to give back. In the process, I found that I loved teaching and, over time, it became my true passion. When the opportunity came to change careers, I jumped at the chance. I became one of those very lucky people whose vocation and avocation were joined and I have never looked back.

In the ensuing years, I’ve enjoyed many wonderful experiences in higher education. As I assumed more administrative responsibilities, I had fewer opportunities to teach—but I’ve never lost my love of teaching and learning. I remember many wonderful students and my heart always goes back to those first experiences. I assume the role as the University of Arizona Global Campus' President with that foundation and look forward to working with a dedicated faculty and staff to continue a great tradition of serving students and helping them learn.

There are times when something we read or hear changes how we see the world from then on. That happened to me with a book I read more than 20 years ago. Innovation in Professional Education chronicled the reengineering of the MBA program at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. The last chapter of this excellent book was particularly influential on me and is the title of this post: “What if Learning Were the Purpose of Education?”

We teachers want to assume that a direct link exists between our teaching and what our students learn. When you stop to think about it though, that’s a pretty self-satisfying view of our skills—and it’s wrong. The authors of the book write, “It is a mistake to assume that teaching and learning are the same thing. What you teach is not necessarily what I learn and what I learn may be other than what you teach.” They go on to conclude, “Our view is that education has tended to focus on teaching, often assuming learning rather than promoting it.”

If those of us in higher education really believed that learning is the purpose of education, we would not do the things we so often do. Consider, for example, that the lecture is still the predominant pedagogical practice in many large institutions. Many of us probably remember yawning (or sleeping) through an early morning section with 500 or so other students listening to a tired professor read in monotone from a stack of yellowed lecture notes.

I know I’m being a little unfair. A few of my professors were truly inspiring lecturers—even some whose delivery was less than perfect. I learned in some cases because they were passionate about their subject and that in itself was inspiring. Yet, I can’t help but think how much more I might have learned in a different environment. Based on what we now know about how human beings learn, we accept that the lecture by itself is one of the least effective methods of promoting learning—yet the practice is now an economic necessity. How would institutions organize instruction if learning was really the purpose of education?

Nobel Prize-winning cognitive scientist Herbert Simon wrote, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” The truth is that while learning often occurs in the company of others, it is ultimately a solitary event. The best we can hope for is to create the conditions that promote learning—by “influencing what the student does to learn.”

Good teaching begins here. Good teaching focuses on good learning. It derives from an intentional and conscious understanding and acceptance of students and the places from which they begin the journey. Great teachers create environments that excite students and make them thirsty to learn. This idea is true both in traditional classroom settings and in education at a distance. The challenge of building new models that best promote learning is our imperative.


Written by Dr. Craig Swenson, former University President of the University of Arizona Global Campus



Boyatzis, R.E., Cowen, S.S. and Kolb, D.A. (1995). Innovation in Professional Education: Steps on a Journey from Teaching to Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., and Norman, N.K. (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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