Learning is becoming more like God.
I learned this principle some months ago in a presentation at Brigham Young University led by Russell Osguthorpe, who is the president of the Bismarck North Dakota Temple. Russ was my boss for five years at the BYU Center for Teaching and Learning while he was concurrently the Sunday School general president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has decades of teaching and research experience in the areas of teaching and learning, having also served as a professor of education at BYU. I share these details to provide context for the person who helped me understand such a powerful principle.
Near the beginning of the presentation, Russ asked participants to share their definitions of learning. The crowd was composed of students and professors of education. That group represented hundreds of years of experience and thinking about the topic of learning. And, incidentally, I never tire of the conversation "what is learning?” — because the purpose of life is to learn and the Atonement of Jesus Christ underscores all learning.
Answers to the question “what is learning?” involved many of the usual suspects. Learning is growth. Learning is improvement. Learning is any persistent, positive change.
However, I was surprised to hear a perspective on learning that I had never heard before. And yet it was so simple I wondered why I had never come upon the idea myself. This perspective was distinct from all academic and popular definitions of learning. I realized immediately that my views on learning had been so conditioned by secular academic research and definitions of learning that the definition Russ shared with us would categorically be undiscoverable in strictly academic contexts.
Learning is becoming more like God.
Think about that for a moment. Everything in your life can be described as learning or not learning on whether you are becoming more like God. Does mastering another language constitute learning? Yes, if in the process you become more like God, more understanding of others and more open-minded.
Does developing the skill to create beautiful works of art or music constitute learning, according to this definition? Yes. God is the great creator.
What about developing practical skills like using our hands dexterously to design, to fix, to build or to solve problems? Yes. God is the great designer.
Does solving problems indicate learning? Yes because God is the great problem solver.
Even loving others is a form of learning.
Is sin a form of learning? No. On its own, sin is not learning. However, repentance is learning because one draws closer to God; one becomes more like God through repentance.
Utilizing the definition “learning is becoming more like God” can help us place value judgments on what we are seeking to master. Would we take time to “learn” something if it did not draw us closer to God or help us to become more like him?
When I taught a Book of Mormon class at BYU, I had a student with an email address of something like “Master Chief Sniper.” For the uninitiated, Master Chief is the hero of the Halo video game franchise. I know that those games have brought billions of hours of entertainment to millions of people, in part because I’ve played the games. However, the skill of being a sniper expert on a video game likely does not constitute becoming more like God. The hours required to develop that particular skill, if anyone sought to advocate for its value, could likely have been spent in far more worthy pursuits (the “good, better, best” principle taught so well by Elder Dallin H. Oaks).
The purpose of this piece is not to advocate against any particular forms of entertainment or activity. Video games are simply a conveniently clear example of how we might apply the criteria of learning: Does this help me become more like God?
The discrete moments that make up the totality of our lives are limited. Are we seeking learning with our time and talents? Are we becoming more like God as we seek learning? If we are not becoming more like God with our chosen activities, we are not learning. We are doing something, to be sure, but we are not learning.
Those who seek true learning, to be more like God, fulfill his purposes as set forth in the Pearl of Great Price: “For behold, this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D., biblical studies, instructional tech) is a BYU teaching and learning consultant; founder of Creativity, Innovation & Design Group; and travel leader to Mesoamerica and Middle East. Taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.