Monday, October 13, 2008

The Learning Sciences

We didn't talk much about it today in class, but I am going to discuss implicit, informal, and formal learning in this posting so that I can get my thoughts down on paper.  Then I'll jump into our discussion of routine vs. adaptive expertise.

Implicit Learning:  This is learning that happens almost effortlessly and without any real intentionality.  A lot of this learning happens through observation and interaction with others.  Because this learning is not something that we consciously seek after (or are even aware of) it can be hard to articulate what has been learning (this makes me think of our discussion of "making the invisible, visible" from last month).  The text talked about how a lot of what we learn about culture and tradition happens this way.  For example, family traditions and ways of doing things are probably things that we learn implicitly.  Social attitudes and stereotypes are also often acquired this way.  One simple example of this might be the ways in which a family celebrates holidays.  A particular family might have a set of holiday traditions that they carry out each year.  A small child observing this will implicitly learn about what happens at Christmas time, but they may not be able to tell someone why, for instance, their family decorates the Christmas tree on the first day of December.  This has been learned unconsciously and without any real intention.  A lot of this learning might also be classified as "imitative learning".

Informal Learning:  This is learning that generally occurs outside of a formal educational environment and it is largely driven by the learner.  Informal learning is based in authentic contexts and is closely related to actual performances and practices.  There is no set of institutional practices, facts, or pieces of information that have to be learned; rather, the learner and "instructor" arrive at this understanding on their own, developing a personalized learning curriculum.  Like implicit learning, this is often observational learning; however, the learner is much more aware of the learning that is taking place (making it easier to articulate) and more intentional about pursuing that learning.  An example of this is the relationship that develops in the film Finding Forrester ( where the character played by Sean Connery befriends a young man and becomes a mentor of sorts.  There is no set curriculum, but the two of them work to improve the young man's writing.  Interestingly, there is also a great deal of learning for Sean Connery's character.  

Formal Learning:  This is learning that happens within a structured educational system or institution.  There is a set of things to be learned and information is often transmitted from the instructor to the learner quite explicitly (generally through language).  Additionally, formal learning  is generally decontextualized.  This is the type of learning most students are familiar with experiencing in schools.

Routine vs. Adaptive Expertise:  The biggest thing I took away from the reading and our in-class discussion was the idea that routine expertise is mostly concerned with efficiency--we learn to do the same things much more quickly and with fewer errors.  Adaptive expertise does not necessarily exclude efficiency, but there is an element of innovation such that what has been learned can be applied in a variety of situations.  An excellent example of routine expertise is the way that a factory worker might approach their work on an assembly line.  They probably don't look for ways to be overly innovative because that isn't what is rewarded; their concern is with doing their work more and more quickly.  Adaptive expertise can be seen in an entrepreneuer who starts a business in one field, using a set of business principles, and then applies those same principles to achieve success in completely unrelated fields.  They have "adapted" their expertise to be useful in a new setting.  

My experience as a student provides examples of both types of expertise (and it sounds like this is common among our class based on the discussion we had today).  As a high school student (and for about 1/2 of my undergraduate experience) I took a very superficial approach to learning doing as little as I needed to in order to get by with good grades.  I figured out how the system worked and then refined my ability to get the reward (the grades) with minimal effort.  I was becoming more and more efficient at getting "A's".  At some point during my undergraduate experience I changed my approach and "learned how to learn" (I think this is what we are talking about when we discuss "metacognitive approaches").  I started to understand how effective learners went about acquiring knowledge and I could apply that to a variety of settings (work, school, religious studies, etc.).  I wasn't just doing the bare minimum, but I was engaging in the learning process and using what I was learning as a student in a lot of different areas of my life.  

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