Key Terms


The whole point of the site is to make sense of the many and varied conceptions of learning that are at play in education, and so it doesn’t make much sense to suggest that a singular definition is possible or especially useful. That said, it appears that there is at least one point of agreement across discourses we have researched – namely, that learning has something to do with change. Beyond that detail, all other matters – including such core issues as what changes and how it changes – are subject to very different, often incompatible interpretations. For the most part, these notions are framed with metaphors, which are more often implicit than explicit. A preliminary sense of the diversity of the metaphors used to characterize learning might be gleaned from the following list: getting; progressingencodingconnecting; construing; adapting; participating; expanding the possible; living. Each main entry on our map includes an analysis of principal metaphors for learners and learning at play in the discourse under consideration.


Meanings of the word cognition are widely varied and dependent on who is using it to talk about what. In relation to “learning,” cognition is used in at least three distinct and sometimes-incompatible ways: Firstly, cognition is frequently used as a synonym to learning. Secondly, it is sometimes used to mean something like “thinking” – that is, as a process that is distinct from but complementary to learning. Finally, sometimes cognition is used as a label for a grander category that includes learning along with other processes that are not typically associated with learning (e.g., maintaining chemical and hormonal balances in the brain). For the most part, we don’t dwell on the matter since, across interpretations, cognition is consistently presented as necessarily associated with learning. However, when we encounter a discourse that uses the word cognition in a way that might be unexpected or misinterpreted, we flag it within the entry.


The word discourse is used in its most general sense on this site. That is, the phrase “discourses on learning” is intended to encompass any description of learning, whether implicit or explicit, written or spoken, formal or informal, or descriptive or prescriptive. We opted for “discourse” instead of “theory” (which was our original focus) because, from the beginning of the project, it was obvious that “theory” is subject to diverse and conflicted interpretations, especially across its unbridgeable meanings between the phrases “folk theory” and “scientific theory.” Owing to this diversity, we opted for a term that already reaches across scientific perspectives, broad philosophies, everyday wisdom, research domains, personal opinions, and professional practices. (For more detail, see Discourse Theories in the Socio-Cultural-Focused Discourses entry.)


“Education” is a conflicted and contested notion. Rather than reviewing its many interpretations here, we defer to the entries on the Defining Themes of Education and Major Educational Paradigms bars at the top and bottom of our map. The word is relatively new, dating back only to the mid-1400s. It’s derived from the Latin ex– + ducere “to draw out/lead forth,” hinting at a conceptual alignment with the Path-Following Metaphor. To that detail, the root ducere is encountered in many other English words, including conducive, conduct, conduit, deduce, dock, duct, induction, introduce, misconduct, produce, reduce, seduce, taut, team, tie, and tow. The more specific root of the word educate is the Latin ēducēre, which is a type of verb known as a frequentive – meaning it describes an ongoing, intensive activity (versus a single, terminal action). That is, built into the word educate are senses of extended commitment and sustained activity (of pulling someone out or along).


Unlike English, most European languages distinguish between two categories of knowledge. Examples include the ancient Greek gnosis and episteme, the Latin cognosco and scio, the French connaître and savoir, and the German kennen and wissen – each of which is commonly translated to English as some cognate of “know.” The category signaled with gnosis, cognosco, connaître, and kennen – all of which, along with knowledge and cognition, share the Proto-Indo-European root ǵneh- – has to do with subtle and intimate knowledge of, for example, personalities, ethics, spirituality, and wisdom. This category is associated the arts and such forms as poetry, parable, fable, myth, and allegory, which are understood as necessary because such knowledge cannot be directly or exhaustively expressed. The other category – signaled by episteme, scio, savoir, and wissen – has more to do with facts and skills. This category encompasses understandings of cause–effect events, everyday know-how, and practical competencies. It’s about the immediate and pragmatic needs of living, and it was originally associated with what has evolved into modern science. (Epistemology is derived from episteme.) Each main entry on our map includes an analysis of principal metaphors for knowledge and knowing at play in the discourse under consideration.


The word scientific does not have a standardized definition. Our working definition is developed around four criteria that are commonly associated with robust inquiry. Specifically, on this site, a “scientific discourse” is one that is …

  • explicit about its assumptions (including metaphors and imagery used to describe learning);
  • associated with a body of replicable evidence, none of which flatly contradicts the discourse;
  • open to revision (or rejection) in the face of new evidence or interpretation;
  • preferably (but not necessarily) consistent with scientific discourses that address related matters.

If a discourse is identified as other than scientific, there is a statement in its entry about what appears to be lacking. While our assessments are based on the writings we have been able to access and informed by the experts we have been able to consult, we openly acknowledge that it is impossible to be exhaustive in our reviews of available materials. On these matters, we welcome advice and direction, especially if it relates directly to conclusions reported within an entry.