Sunday 24 July 2011

What Is Learning?

What is Learning?

Thrown out casually during a teacher conference and then immediately forgotten, but it lingered with me.

I heard the initial “transmission of information” definitions around me and shook my head. Saying that learning is simply information transmission is like saying killing is a physical effort that ends a life; a very simplistic definition designed to make a complex idea manageable.

I caught a National Geographic special a few years ago in which a team studying the differences between great apes and humans made the sweeping statement that teaching and learning are the key difference between humans and apes. There is little else to distinguish us from our close cousins.

If it is so pivotal to the definition of our species, it deserves a better definition than “the transmission of knowledge.”

Learning (def’n): the enrichment of our mental facilities that ultimately gives us power over the physical world. We are able to know truth in a broader and deeper way because we can experience the world indirectly and abstract the world in order to understand it beyond our own senses. Learning allows us to preserve and enhance this discipline independent of our individual existences. We are the only species that does not have to relearn how to master our physical environment in every generation; more than that, we are able to amplify previous learning and build on it at an astonishingly proliferate rate. We are dangerous animals indeed.

This definition has a couple of challenges:

Firstly, the idea that knowledge and learning it is very powerful makes people uncomfortable. If you’re teaching and you just want to transmit information, you can simplify your practice to that simple goal. Accepting that learning and knowledge are powerful and potentially dangerous (giving the learner power over the physical world), a teacher would have to also accept some moral responsibility for imparting information, and many teachers don’t want to take that on.

Secondly, since our brains (hardware) became sophisticated enough to develop this viral learning (software), we have developed well beyond the constraints of our immediate physical environment. We have mostly deferred the costs of overcoming our immediate physical space to a macro/planetary level that we haven’t had to deal with directly yet. When I look at all the teachers who drive into my school alone in large SUVs in the morning, I get the sense that most teachers aren’t any more aware of these challenges than the general public; they are either unwilling or unable to consider a larger picture. The viral nature of our learning means the people teaching and the people learning are not learning hard truths with any real discipline. Learning how to overcome nature taught the first learners some hard truths, truths we forget when we are the billionth person to learn a hard won truth as a fact in a text book.

Calling learning the dissemination of information is a very dangerous thing indeed. This is the viral core of learning; when learning becomes knowledge transmission with no real context. The dangers appear thick and fast. Teaching becomes indoctrination and learning devolves into belief generation rather than a coherent, candid body of knowledge. Standardized learning does this in spades. Standardized tests force it, curriculum defines it, cutting knowledge into independent disciplines clouds it and grading validates it. Instead of developing a student’s body of knowledge in a coherent, interconnected, meaningful manner, the industrialized education system creates information overloaded human beings with limited (or no) understanding of what their knowledge is capable of.

This is disastrous for us as a society and a species, especially if you want human beings to live in democratic circumstances with relative economic and civic freedom. The fact that we don’t want to appreciate complexity will result in simple solutions, like simplified education, dictatorial government and poor economic choices. In those circumstances the urge to control the herds of the ignorant would become overwhelming for those in power.

Making learning easy is a disaster, it should be challenging, not pointlessly so, but contextually it has to be, ignorance is preferable to a passing on knowledge that empowers a human being beyond the confines of their natural world.

If learning devolves into knowledge transmission, we populate the world with dangerous fools.