Learning: linking up, or working out?

This post is part of September’s edition of the Working / Learning blog carnival.   This month’s host is Michele Martin of The Bamboo Project blog.  (And here’s info about the carnival in general.)

Cammy Bean is “auditing the auditor’s version” of a course on connectivism.   She referred to a post by Christy Tucker, “Does learning grow or is it built?”   The question’s based in part on Stephen Downes’s contention that understanding is “the process of making connections,” and that the “connectionist networks” are not built (like a model) but grown (like a plant).

Christy’s post, and the many comments, got me thinking about this build/grow concept.   It’s certainly true that whatever learning is, it happens in the brain — electrochemical processes leading to new brain cells, stronger connections, increased pathways — as in the old notion “the neurons that fire together, wire together.”

The drawback, from a learning-at-work standpoint, is that we don’t know and can’t do much at the level of the individual neuron, or even the level of a whole bunch of them.   I’m not saying Stephen’s wrong, but I’m thinking build-versus-grow is a bit of a distraction.

Especially since, as with most Metaphor Parties, we all bring our own recipes.

Just growing...I make an analogy with the musculoskeletal system (though to look at me, you’d conclude that must be pure theory on my part). Here’s what I mean:

You can just go about your ordinary activities, and even without strenuous work or deliberate exercise, way down there at the cellular level, you’re going to get new muscle cells and you’re going to strengthen existing ones. Eventually that has an effect on the larger, organized systems we call muscles.

In infancy and childhood, we’re not doing much directing of that process; we’re not activity choosing which set of muscles to work on.   Yet in a fashion that parallels things like acquiring language, we gain in our musculoskeletal ability.

Deliberately building

We know that we can, if not build, at least focus and concentrate our efforts.   We can set out to increase out physical ability — and it turns out that working enough with muscles has an effect on bone, too: strength training (working with weights) not only increases the capability of muscles (nice way to avoid “grows” or “builds,” huh?), it can increase the capability of related bones.

That’s why strength training is beneficial for elderly people: their bones get stronger — more so than if they continued only with everyday activity.

It’s just an analogy; the brain is far more complex.   I just see these potential parallels in the musculoskeletal system:

  • Whether you just happen to do a lot of physical labor, or you work out, in certain circumstances you increase both cardiovascular capacity and  strength.
  • Increased cardio and strength, in various combinations, lead to overall fitness and increased health (decreased anxiety, increased endorphines, lowered stress, etc., etc.).

The connection?  Learning may grow in a way we can’t do much about at the cellular level.   But, particularly in the world of work, it’s obvious that we can find ways to make concepts clearer, to organize information, to create sequencing or scaffolding that can help an individual learn better.

Can you learn French by being dropped in the middle of Aix-en-Provence with 5,000 euros and a suitcase?   Sure.   But you might learn faster by having someone who can model and demo (as Downes says).   You might also benefit from knowing that nearly all French nouns ending in <i>-tion</i> are feminine — something I only found out this year, despite years spent trying to improve my French.

I don’t mean for a moment that corporate training departments or learning organizations have the answer.   For one thing, there isn’t the answer.   For another, inertia is one of the strongest forces in the universe — and not just for the training/learning professionals.   How many managers and how many workers still see live classroom delivery as the preferred way to learn?   How many busy people resist formats that seem too open-ended because they’re unclear about the process or the outcome?

No answers from me here.   I’m glad to have even a small part in this wide discussion.

Both photos by tyfn.

One thought on “Learning: linking up, or working out?

  1. Kia ora Dave!

    I think we tend to muddy the water by talking about the intricacies of the function of the cardiovascular system, the connection of neurons, the firing of muscles, and the like, when we are trying to explain the working of the mind, brain, thinking/learning capacity, however you want to describe it – you know what I mean.

    You’d be as well to lecture a learner driver about radical propagation in hydrocarbon combustion, or the fundamentals of levers, gears and other machines, when trying to teach the learner to drive a four wheel vehicle.

    The fact is, we teachers and learners don’t really know how learning happens. But we do know the result of successful learning. This is recognised in assessments, by whatever means the design of those may be optimised.

    So we are stuck with a metaphor. An intangible model for something we recognise exists, but cannot be easily quantified, measured, observed or simply explained through analysis.

    To make sense of the metaphor, we have to define what we mean by ‘learning’. We have to define what we mean by ‘understanding’. We have to define what we mean by ‘knowledge’ and ‘concept’ and ‘skill’.

    Frankly, I don’t think we can move from these difficult-to-define notions until these are made explicit. This makes me feel a little inadequate here, since the metaphor that we may create for learning (which is accepted as taking place in the mind) depends on all of these things being clearly defined. Otherwise, how can we explain how learning happens?

    I am educated in Science. I have eaten, drank, breathed and slept Science. Consequently I believe in the so-called scientific approach to things. Science is built on models. When a model in Science is found wanting, it is modified or discarded and another model found. The whole of Science is built on this principle. If you don’t believe this, then you don’t believe in Science, and you are certainly not a scientist.

    The scientific approach to learning is to find models which best fit what we observe with learning and how we assess it. Assessment is a subjective discipline – we call the shots. So we have to couch our description of learning in terms of how we assess it.

    Is assessment something that is difficult to do? You betcha! Therefore, let’s start by defining assessment of learning, before we think of defining what learning is.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

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