Transitions Coaching Blog

Thoughts. Reflections. Intentions.

The Difference Between Learning and Development

By Jennifer Tucker, Writer and Content Creator  |  August 1, 2023
Learning and Development

“It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that counts”

Years ago, I worked for an organization that was in a constant state of flux. We leaned heavily into people’s skills, knowledge, and unique talents because doing so helped us be nimble. I found myself in a role that was always shifting and expanding, giving me the opportunity to do things I never thought I’d do in my career. I loved it.

Until they asked me to lead learning and development.

I was leading corporate communications at the time, and bringing L&D under my oversight seemed to make sense. I knew how to decipher and relay complex information. I knew how to craft compelling messages and persuade. I (sort of) knew how to manage change and motivate people.

You can argue that those are all important skills to leverage in the context of training. But truly, I knew nothing about real learning and development.

Still, I happily accepted the challenge. We even managed to pull off some significant training initiatives that I believe were successful and made a meaningful impact. But almost a decade later, I’m just beginning to recognize that while I may have helped some people learn, I certainly did not help them grow and develop.

The difference between learning and development

Learning and development are two very different things, especially when you examine them through the lenses of adult learning theory and adult development theory.

Adult learning theory and adult development theory are two distinct frameworks that focus on different aspects of adult education and growth. One focuses on the process of learning and meeting the needs of adult learners. The other focuses on adults’ psychological and cognitive changes over time and how these changes influence their growth.


Adult learning theory is concerned with understanding how adults learn and emphasizes adult learners’ unique characteristics, needs, and motivations. When we apply adult learning theory, we think about things like:

Relevance & Practicality. Adults are motivated to learn when they see the immediate applicability of knowledge or skills to their lives and work.

Problem-Centered Approach. Adults learn best when they are actively engaged in solving real-world problems or relevant challenges.

Prior Experience. Adults bring their experiences to the learning process, which can be leveraged for meaningful and contextualized learning.

Collaboration & Peer Learning. Adults benefit from sharing perspectives, insights, and experiences in a collaborative learning environment.


Adult Development Theory considers the stages of development that adults experience over their lifespans and how these transitions impact thoughts, behaviors, and perspectives. Key theories in adult development include:

Psychosocial development. Individuals navigate a series of stages throughout their lives, each associated with a unique psychosocial crisis or challenge.

Moral development. Individuals progress through stages of moral reasoning, from basic obedience to universal ethical principles.

Cognitive development. Cognitive development and sociocultural theories explore how individuals develop thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving capabilities.

Another way to think of it is the difference between horizontal and vertical development.

Horizontal development (which might be equated to adult learning) adds more knowledge, skills, and competencies—it’s all about what you know.​

Vertical development (which might be equated to adult development) advances your capacity for complexity—it’s all about how you think. The outcome of vertical development is the ability to think in more systemic, strategic, and interdependent ways.

At Transitions Coaching, we take into account both adult learning and adult development because we know both theories are important.

We want people to expand their knowledge and learn new skills, but our emphasis is always on growth. Our approach is deliberately developmental because we know that translating knowing to doing is where organizations and the people inside of them experience the greatest impact.

Are organizations equipped to deliver development?

Examining the difference between learning and development may prompt you to pause. Your company probably has an L&D department, but how well are they meeting your needs as an individual and the needs of your team?

Organizations vary in effectiveness at delivering both the learning and the developmental growth employees need, and you’ve probably experienced this firsthand. Think about the last course or program you participated in. Did it feel like obligatory training, or did it truly feel like an opportunity to grow? Did you gain knowledge that you had an opportunity to put into practice? Did you truly expand your capacity to operate in today’s complex environment?

If you’re a leader, also think about how you approach your team’s development. Do you tend to focus on teaching skills or growing someone’s capabilities? Are you helping them pursue horizontal and vertical development, or are you paying attention to one at the expense of the other?

Ultimately, the effectiveness of learning and development in any organization comes down to perspective. The most successful organizations likely understand the fine line between learning and development and the importance of investing in both.

At Transitions Coaching, our approach is always developmental.

We understand that no one stumbles into their full potential. Instead, it’s a lifelong process of learning plus experimenting, practicing, and growing. Meet the Transitions Coaching team here and learn more about how we can help you discover and define what will bring you personal satisfaction and professional effectiveness.