Friday, September 3, 2010

My Assumptions About Learning

I began a new semester of graduate work this week and will be participating in a seminar course exploring learning theory. It should be a nice experience--there are only six of us in the course, we'll be doing some interesting reading, and should have some lively discussions about what learning is and how it happens.

On the first day, Steve Yanchar, the faculty member leading the seminar, did something which I thought was quite useful. He spent about 15 minutes sharing with us what he believes about learning. Steve is one of the most unassuming faculty members I have worked with and it was obvious that this wasn't a case of academic showboating. Rather, he wanted to let us inside his brain for a few minutes so we could better understand his rationale for structuring the seminar in a particular way, one that aligns with his beliefs about learning. He also included in his syllabus for the course, a brief description of his "assumptions about learning." That sort of purposeful, intentional instruction is something I appreciate.

It also made me feel a bit guilty because I realized that I have never sat down and tried to articulate exactly what it is that I believe about learning. Really, answering the questions of "What is learning?" and "How does learning occur?" are the guiding questions for the seminar and I hope to have something a little more polished and thoughtful to say in December. But for now, I thought it useful to try and summarize some of the fundamental assumptions I hold about learning. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Learning involves growth and change. To say that someone has learned something implies that they have been changed in some way. At its core learning involves internal changes wherein knowledge, values, beliefs, or understanding have changed; however, learning is often detected when we observe outward changes in behavior (e.g. the performance of a new skill, the verbal explication of a newly learned concept, etc.). When a person learns, they are a different person in some way; they think, feel, or behave differently.

2. Learning entails some level of risk. Because learning involves change or growth, learners must acknowledge that potential for change exists. Admitting such gaps in knowledge, deficiency in skill, or inexperience is perceived as "risky" because learners often do not wish to appear to be "dumb" or "incompetent." Assuming that risk is a necessary part of the learning process. Until one does, very little learning will occur. Additionally, learning requires an individual to venture into the cognitive unknown where mistakes, failure, and miscues are part of the landscape. Trekking through this space where we struggle, stumble, and fall is a necessary part of the process.

3. Learning improves when learners can make meaningful choices about what and how they learn. Learning requires some sort of active choice on the part of a learner. And, meaningful opportunities to exercise agency increase engagement in the learning process. Consequently, learners are more willing to do the hard work that leads to learning (whether that involves lonely hours in the library, challenging academic dialog with colleagues or otherwise) when they can make some of the choices involved in that process.

4. Learning is improved when it is shared and celebrated. Learning is hardwired into us as humans. I believe it is one of the fundamental purposes of our existence. We are also social creatures. Thus, learning is an inherently social process. I don't wish to discount the necessity of individual study and scholarship; however, at some point the very best learning will always involve some sort of social interaction. Articulating ones learning to an audience deepens the learners thinking, exposes gaps in understanding, and invites the feedback necessary to refine and polish ideas. This "articulation" also includes performances, displays, etc. wherein learned behaviors and skills are shared.

5. Learning is not merely the acquisition of knowledge, rather it is an active and participatory process wherein learners construct new meaning. For a fascinating discussion of these two views of learning see Anna Sfard's work ("On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of choosing Just One"). While some of learning involves knowledge transfer, learning is more accurately described as the process of becoming a participant in some discourse, activity, or practice. Ultimately, one of the goals of learning is to become a useful and contributing member of some sort of community, be it a city, a professional organization, or family. As a participant in this process, learners have experiences that provide opportunities to change, grow, and adapt in response to those experiences.

I could go on, but it's 4:00 and the sun is shining. These are just some of the key beliefs I hold about learning. You?

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