Learn Your Way – PhD+ project

Learn Your Way – Project Overview

I wish to extend my PhD research through developing this project, Learn Your Way, to build out my dissertation into a reader-friendly, website-format including focused database development, as noted below. This format will help to optimize navigational efficiency and ensure this project benefits:

  • Educators & Administrators
  • Learners (of all ages and backgrounds)
  • Families
  • Organizations
  • Professionals involved in Curriculum Development, Learning Platform Development
  • Educational counsellors
  • Health care practitioners
  • Professional and personal coaches
  • Human resources personnel

Why this project, now? Significant forces are currently intersecting and influencing education paths for children, youth, young adults and adults. These include new insights from the learning sciences, including neuroscience, education and sociology, about how to optimize learning experiences for students of all ages and backgrounds. Additional factors include rising incidence of mental health issues and neurodiversity across student populations adding increased challenge to already-burdened educators. With the rise of AI-based education platforms educators must also discern how they might use AI in support of helping students achieve educational goals, at the same time they critically distinguish the nature of human learning from machine-based learning. This project will address these intersecting factors.

Education is the institutionalization of learning but learning is individual. Learning is broader than education. … learning is fundamental to human being and to life itself.

Peter Jarvis, Paradoxes of Learning


I am seeking additional funding (winter 2024) and I will provide updates here as the project is developed.

Michael Maser 

In this outline I provide some signposts and content to better define this project.


My PhD research into the nature of human learning blended my lifetime interest in the subject with professional experiences and observations enriched by the studies I completed, starting with a literature review of western conceptualizations of learning from the 1800s to the present. Since the mid-1800s, especially, positivist science, based in the belief that reality is best determined objectively, has dominated the development of psychology, education and sociology.

The first scientific pronouncements on human learning ironically reflected crude lab experiments focused on measuring responses to stimuli by birds, rodents and other animals. Despite their crude simplicity, the foundational precepts of these experiments proved enduring in shaping beliefs that human learning arises from a kind of inanimate conditioning without considering the human subject or self. These precepts reflected a limited and often misguided perception about how humans experience the world, uniquely, and how each person’s learning is shaped through these experiences.

Behaviourist psychology, often based on crude and simple animal experimentation, shaped narrow beliefs about human learning for decades.
Phenomenology founder Edmund Husserl

Phenomenology is the primary source of knowledge, the source that cannot be doubted. … Phenomenology is concerned with wholeness, with examining entities from many sides, angles, and perspectives until a unified vision of the essences of a phenomenon or experience is achieved.

Phenomenological researcher Clark Moustakas

My PhD research confirmed this.

Below, I frame this project through identifying three Key Elements: The Nature of Learning, The Subjectivity of Learning, and Personalizing Learning to Nurture Human Flourishing and Healing. Each of these will be elaborated with many additional details in the final work including database development of all elements to aid reference research.

By way of introduction, consider this personal learning experience (excerpted from my dissertation):

Pond/ering – A Childhood Learning Experience

“It’s getting dark, Michael, five more minutes and we have to go. Look at you, you’re filthy. And put all the frogs you caught back in the pond. They’re not coming home with us.”

This pond, a swamp really, five to six kilometers from my home, is my prized ‘go- to-place.’ I am four or five years old, and I beg my mother to bring me here, after school, on weekends, anytime in spring, summer or fall. There, aided by a dip net and magnifying glass, I pull off my boots and jacket and commune with the life of the pond. As my feet sink into the mud and I dip my arm in water up to the elbow, my senses are engulfed as I observe, hear, smell and feel. I experience a pondering in which I am extended in all sensory ways. I have no preferential trajectory except that which calls me most strongly in-the-moment. There’s a wriggling tadpole. There’s a water beetle swimming upside down. There’s a painted turtle! Uh-oh, there’s another leech on my leg. Mom! Hour after hour, the pond enthralls me as I wade about, poking here and there in my quest to learn its secrets and make sense of it all. I feel so good, so buzzing with life that I don’t notice time whizzing by, pangs of hunger or the mosquitos and deerflies using me as a pincushion.

To this day, I recollect with much fondness and in vivid detail my Pond/ering as a young boy. This experience tested my resolve in countless ways, catalyzed cascading emotions and helped propel me in numerous ways into a lifelong love of the outdoors, swimming, hiking, camping, an early career in geology and a 30+ year career as an outdoor and science educator. The experience exposed the core of my being to the raw plasma of life. In both cases, what I was learning engaged all aspects of my living-being – my perception of myself, imagination, intellect as well as my corporeal senses and sensibilities. In a nutshell, this description affords insight into the very character or nature of life-wide and lifelong learning as it appeared and arose for me.

My excerpt above points to how the nature of learning reflects essential characteristics unique to each of us. Of course, you need not take my word for this but participate in a personal reflection important to you: in deeply associating with a learning experience you hold in your memory, re-construct not the what of his experience but carefully unscroll the how of this learning experience as it appeared and arose for you, as I did above. Permit yourself to remember and note sensory details, your unfolding response, and the meaning of this experience in your life in-the-moment and later.

Our learning lives are suffused with myriad experiences, shaped by the how of our somatic, relational and intellectual beingness. I will unpack this further when I detail some of the insights I gleaned from my autobiography study and also my fieldwork research.

It’s been exciting for me to follow and unspool learning, as an educator of course but also one who has had a lifetime interest in the nature of human learning. From these perspectives, I had long perceived a mismatch between formal-schooling pronouncements about learning and my own experiences, including observing my students’ learning. In my literature study I traced the conventional roots of learning to the mid-late 1800s when the first pronouncements about learning were linked to laboratory-controlled experiments involving pigeons and rats and very rudimentary human studies. These experiments were valorized in the language of the emerging field of empirical psychology which was establishing itself as a field of objectivist science. What ‘mattered’ in this nascent field was what could be measured and quantified and repeated in controlled experiments.

Missing from early literature about learning, or discredited, was recognition of the personal – the subjective qualities that help define human learning. To help me better understand the basis of subjective learning, I investigated works of field-leading researchers and writers from psychology, education, sociology, philosophy, neuroscience, special education and indigenous studies. This field included John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Edith Cobb, John Holt, Maxine Greene, John (Jack) Miller, Loris Malaguzzi, Howard Gardner, Caine & Caine, Adele Diamond, Joseph LeDoux, Daniel Stern, Gregory Cajete and others.

An exciting avenue of research linking subjectivity to learning has recently emerged in neuroscience. This is seen, especially, in insights synthesized by eminent scientist and author Dr. Joseph LeDoux who hypothesizes (2020, 2019) the existence of idiosyncratic cognitive-neurological ‘self-schema’ reflecting each person’s unique history and character and prefiguring responsiveness to stimuli. LeDoux’s assertions align with those of Dr. Antonio Damasio (2010, 2000) about ‘the autobiographical self’, and other researchers like Dr. Adele Diamond (2012, 2018) who assert the neurobiological basis of social-emotional learning reflects idiosyncratic accretion of subjective experiences.

An image of activated brain cells (neurons). Scientists now hypothesize a neuronal cluster like this to reflect personal experiences, including learning.

A critical aspect of investigating subjectivity I drew on was the philosophy and research methodology of phenomenology, mentioned above. From its inception in the early 1900s, phenomenology has been elaborated to comprise a sophisticated scientific basis that, Husserl insisted, included objectivist science as a subset. Numerous, subsequent researchers and authors have broadened the reach of phenomenology to include psychology, health care, education and pedagogy, sociology and other domains. In my investigation of phenomenology I drew on the works of Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Buber, Michel Henry, Max van Manen, Stephen J. Smith (PhD supervisor), Don Beith, and others. Phenomenology, as a recognized research methodology, also provided the guidance for my autobiography study and fieldwork investigation into subjective learning.

Because of obvious overlap, considerations of learning intersect with notions of education and schooling; indeed, to some the terms are practically interchangeable. This makes a certain sense: people go to school to learn and educational institutions oversee approaches to schooling, managing everything from architecture to scheduling to curriculum design, testing and student control. Yet, as educator-author Peter Jarvis writes (1992), “learning is wider than education,” and, further,

all the social institutions together cannot contain learning, since learning is fundamental to human being and to life itself.

– Jarvis, P.; Paradoxes of Learning; p. 10

Understood in this way, learning is distinct from education. Education, on the other hand, generally overlooks or ignores how learning emerges subjectively or idiosyncratically for each and every student, favouring empirical-objectivist theories of learning. To this point, conventional education adopted tenets of industrialization to resemble assembly line standardization and efficiency in its practices starting early in the 20th century. This may be recognized through the processes of standardized curricula and administration, teacher training, mass testing, streaming and other processes. Sidney Pressey’s ‘Teaching Machine’ (ca. 1926), shown in the figure below, exemplifies the adoption of such processes and was the forerunner to the ‘Scantron’ era of multiple choice testing that continues to this day, reifying objectivist learning principles. Pressey’s machine, manufactured and distributed to thousands of schools, relied on crude, semi-automated processing of multiple-choice test answers selected by students pressing levers and turning a scrolling question drum.

A ‘Teaching Machine’ designed by American psychologist Sidney Pressey, ca 1926. (Smithsonian Institution display). The machine dispensed candy pellets when students correctly answered multiple choice questions.

Conventional psychology continues to frame learning in terms of prediction and measurement and abstract cognitive schemata, i.e. the language of objectivism. My research, drawing from less well-known domains of psychology, holistic education, neuroscience and phenomenology, challenges this objectivist framing to offer a new frame of learning oriented to personal subjectivity. I will further elaborate this foundation in this project and identify how the thrust of ‘Personalized Learning’ is making important inroads into K-12 and post-secondary education, adult education, career re-training, special education and indigenous education. In its nascent reach, personalized learning is being recognized as having potential nurture greater student learning than its conventional predecessor.

Project build-out will include narrative description and database categorization of learning typologies and domain milestones per my PhD review (e.g. psychologistic learning [late 1800s], cognition and learning (ref: Jerome Bruner), multiple intelligences theory (ref: Howard Gardner), neurobiological learning (ref: Caine and Caine, Adele Diamond, Joseph LeDoux), holistic, personalized learning (ref: numerous practitioners), neurodiverse learning (ref: Thomas Armstrong, Dr. Barry Prizant), etc.

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Subjectivity refers to the personal quality of self-experience denoted through self-presencing gestures and acts. A subjective act, such as self-reflecting, exists in a personal or idiosyncratic manner, and is distinguished from an objective act that is denoted or described via parameters external to the subject. Human learning has conventionally been studied objectively and categorized as an act lacking personal qualities. This reflects the roots of analyzing learning via empirical-analytical psychology traceable to the mid-1800s when the first studies of learning centred on measuring responses by pigeons and rats to crude prompts in lab-controlled situations. This led to the first categorizations of human learning as behaviourally objective n character and lacking in anything resembling self-agency or subjectivity.

But, if as Jarvis says, learning is fundamental to being and life itself, then learning must be re-cognized as a subjective act, and in this it is observed in humans as commensurate with living itself from birth or earlier and extending lifelong. With the help of bodily senses and tissues, our learning guides us into mobility, first crawling, then walking, and coming to embrace the surrounding world with animated determination. As perceiving and linguistic bodies, we touch and explore, listen and mimic, ponder and discover the character of the world and of our place within it through these manifold modes of engagement. The trajectory of this ‘learning journey’, within and without, extends to a horizon of being and knowing, that, itself, seems boundless whether people are consciously aware of learning or not.

New insights about subjective learning are noted in neuroscience in which learning is perceived as innate disposition that can be correlated to evolutionary traits but also distinct neurobiological correlates that indicate subjective presencing. An important correlate posited by researcher-author Antonio Damasio (1999, 2019) are lifelong, accumulated “autobiographical memories”; another posited by researcher-author Joseph LeDoux (2018) are idiosyncratic “mental schema,” reflecting personal experiences and cultural dispositions. Other researchers have also elaborated to this subject.

These are important scientific insights that contribute to knowledge about subjective learning. But there’s a rich realm of information illuminating personal insights into learning in a domain of knowledge that I tapped in my PhD research: that which exists through auto/biography. My study, inspired by sociologist Edith Cobb who had compiled an extensive library of these in completing her pioneering work into children’s lives, included excerpts I had retained for years and new profiles I studied. Like a complex puzzle that comes into focus, rich autobiography illuminates poignant, personal insights and intersections with contextual forces shaping and influencing one’s existence and guiding the evolution of a self. My study, including 15 separate excerpts including first-person experiences and reflections and first-person pedagogical observations, contributes to denoting a phenomenal gestalt of subjective sensible and meaning-laden nature of learning. (helped denote qualities of subjective learning that I further confirmed in my fieldwork study.)  

To this end the following sample of autobiography excerpts from my study help the reader grasp these qualities:

Unfolding Learning – childhood learning experiences described by author-disability rights activist Helen Keller: 

As the cool stream gushed over one hand (my teacher) spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. 

Helen Keller; 1905; The Story of My Life; loc. 263-264
Depiction of Helen Keller learning about water, from the film ‘The Miracle Worker’ (1962)

Unfolding Learning – young adult learning experiences described by Academy Award-winning documentary film-maker Michael Moore: 

looooooved the movies. I always did. … At seventeen, I saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and then I saw everything else by Kubrick, and after that there was no looking back. I was hooked on the potential and the power of cinema … Two years later I opened my own “art haus” in Flint where, for just two nights a week, I would show everything by Truffaut, Bergman, Fassbinder, Kurosawa, Herzog, Scorsese, Woody Allen, Buñuel, Fellini, Kubrick, and the masters of cinema. Each film would get four showings, and I would spend my Friday and Saturday evenings watching all four shows. On the first viewing [,] I would sit close and enjoy the experience. On the following three screenings, I would sit in the back and study them, sometimes taking notes. This became my one-room, one-student film school. (2011, pp. 398-399)

Michael Moore; 2011; Here Comes Trouble: Stories from my life; pp. 398-399
Filmmaker Michael Moore receiving Academy Award for his film ‘Bowling for Columbine’ (2003)

Unfolding Learning – observation of learning by author-educator John Holt: 

On days when I have a lesson, I bring my cello to school, take it to a classroom, and give the children a turn at “playing” it. … They start off by working the bow vigorously back and forth across one of the strings. They keep this up for a long time. Just the feel and sound of it are exciting. Then they begin to vary their bowing a bit, trying different rhythms. After a while, they begin to move the bow so that it touches more than one string, or they move to another string. But it is important to note that the first few times they do this, they do not seem to be doing it in the spirit of an experiment, to find out what will happen. They do it for the sake of doing it. They have been bowing one way, making one kind of noise; now they want to bow another way and make another kind of noise. Only after some time does it seem to occur to them that there was a relation between the way they bowed and the kind of noise they got. Then there is quite a change in their way of doing things…They have to pile up quite a mass of raw sensory data before they begin trying to sort it out and make sense of it. … (a child) is used to getting his answers out of the noise. He has, after all, grown up in a strange world where everything is noise, where he can only understand and make sense of a tiny part of what he experiences. His way of attacking the cello problem is to produce the maximum amount of data possible, to do as many things as he can, to use his hands and the bow in as many ways as possible. Then, as he goes along, he begins to notice regularities and patterns. He begins to ask questions—that is, to make deliberate experiments. 

John Holt, 1967; How Children Learn; loc. 1064-1120
Educator John Holt with young student; flanked by two of his best-selling texts

Overall, the qualities I denoted in this study, likewise confirmed in my fieldwork study, comprised the following:

  • learning is fused with a sense of emerging selfhood, arising idiosyncratically and often linked to deep, vital interests and personal meaning, or questing to create meaning.  
  • arising as an animated and embodied dynamic act of the sensing (affective) body and life-infused body.
  • arising through aspects of relationality (intersubjectivity, pedagogy) arising in some fusion with the surrounding environment, the “lifeworld”, including non-human living things. 
  • arising as an event of some sustained duration and temporality.  

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Sampling of recent reference texts illuminating new insights into learning

“It’s time for a new definition of human intelligence that … emphasizes the value of an individual’s personal journey. That extends the time course of intelligence from a two-hour testing session of decontextualized problem solving to a lifetime of deeply meaningful engagement.”

Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined (2013); by Scott Barry Kauffman, psychologist

Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, we need an educational system built on the understanding that all learning is personal and with the flexibility to engage learners where they are rather than where the lesson, curriculum, or pacing chart assumes they should be.

Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning (2016); by Dr. James Rickabaugh, Idaho Superintendent of Schools

Project Benefits

The conclusions arising from my PhD research – to be expanded upon in this project – help confirm the primacy of subjectivity or personal dynamic forces shaping each person’s learning. To learn is to experience learning arising with “a basis in life” (Michel Henry, 2003) influenced by personal biography, background, previous experiences, interests (attractive forces), dis-interests (repellent forces), sensibilities, dispositions, and biological characteristics (behavioral, neurological). Learning arises relationally and intentionally, motivating any and all students to attend to the “things” held in consciousness that create the context for the most significant learning to arise.

These insights provide a vital counterpoint to how most people have been conditioned to consider learning, formally, informally and lifelong. As noted above, society and the dominant culture of schooling have introduced practices for many decades oriented to impersonal, objectivist learning. These practices continue to dominate educational praxis and inform educator and caregiver training. This is unfortunate because holistic, personalized learning holds the promise of priming new generations to flourish and achieve learning breakthroughs that exceed conventional parameters. As supported by my research, countless stories of human genius and healing unfolding reflect this reality. Now, education is afforded the opportunity to support this as never before. The insights denoted in this project will also be complemented by numerous examples that will extend to internet-based approaches supporting personalized learning (e.g. YouTube, online courseware, Maker-DIY-Gaming communities, and countless others) and emerging AI developments.

Accordingly, this project will benefit:

  • Educators & Administrators
  • Learners (of all ages and backgrounds)
  • Families
  • Organizations
  • Professionals involved in Curriculum Development, Learning Platform Development
  • Educational counsellors
  • Health care practitioners
  • Professional and personal coaches
  • Human resources personnel

Learn Your Way Deliverables

Learn Your Way will contribute to nurturing human learning and flourishing as detailed below. 

Through an engaging website it will:   

• identify the key components of subjective learning arising phenomenologically, neuro-biologically, holistically and psychologically

• identify how and where personalized learning / personalizing learning is flourishing* 

• identify how personalized learning/personalizing learning is positively addressing the noted youth mental health crisis*

• annotate autobiographical examples of subjective learning*

• identify how and where recent developments in AI are effectively contributing to personalized / personalizing learning across all educational strata.* 

(* will be co-presented in database form)
(** all will directly reference Michael’s PhD dissertation where pertinent)  


The first steps in venturing in this new educational promise of holistic personalized learning lies in educators being curious about the lifeworlds of their students – no matter their students’ background. As Dr. Barry Prizant says (2015) about his interactions with autistic children, helping an autistic child does not begin with seeking to identify a problem and determining to “fix it.” Rather, he says, help begins by listening and paying close attention to what a child is trying to relate. “We need to work to understand them, and then change what we do.” Prizant’s assertion helps sound a fundamental chord of this project, namely, that through pedagogically sensitive encounters and inquiries, educators may deepen their understandings of who their students truly are, observe how and where authentic student learning is striving to emerge, and more richly enable its arising. The genius embedded in human learning asks nothing more of us.

The future of learning …. is personalized!

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