Monday 26 March 2012

Meaning, Understanding and Learning

If educational engagements are not meaningful -  for both teachers and learners - then nothing in education really works: meaningless education is an oxymoron. Unfortunately, it is an oxymoron which we somehow succeeded in realising! Meaningfulness can be a precursor to deeper levels of understanding. Things mean something to us before we begin to understand them (think about falling in love). Indeed, it is in finding something meaningful that is often the spur to being driven to a deeper understanding (in the case of love, that can take a lifetime!). So the distinction between meaning and understanding is important to be clear about. The process that leads to understanding we call learning.

In current educational discourse, these terms get conflated. This is partly to do with the fact that in the learning process, information is sought or delivered (by learners or by teachers). Informally, we talk about the meaning of information being explained (by teachers) so that it might be understood (by learners). The problem here is that information is mistaken for meaning: we say, "the meaning is in the content." But only information is in the content. And there is a high probability of the information being meaningless to learners - particularly in the beginning.

Creating something meaningful through the presentation of information is a function of teaching. But for teachers to do this, there are pre-requisites:
  • the information must be meaningful to the teacher (amongst the many idiotic curriculum requirements in schools, this is often a challenge!)
  • teachers' enthusiasm for the meaning of the content is meaningful to the learners
  • Individual learner enthusiasm is available to other learners (facilitated through activity)
  • that the learners' concerns, their perspectives on life and their development are meaningful to the teacher
These are not trivial points, although they would appear to be obvious. But so many examples of educational practice fall foul of these issues. If curricula are dictated by government (or even institutions), there is a risk of meaninglessness in the teacher concerning the content. If students are disinterested in the teacher, nothing will happen. If the teacher is disinterested in their learners at the expense of the content, nothing will happen (for example, castigating them for 'lack of intelligence').

All these problems will result in control problems in the classroom. In university, this usually manifests in a lack of attendance. In school, where attendance is compulsory, disruptive behaviour is the only route available to learners. Both are expressions of the meaninglessness of the situation learners (and often, teachers) find themselves in.

But behind this are some fundamental questions:

  1. Should we achieve meaningful engagement through allowing learners to identify what is meaningful to them? (which would produce some sort of inquiry-based learning)
  2. Should we achieve meaningful engagement through allowing teachers to teach what is meaningful to them?
  3. Should we achieve meaningful engagement through focusing on effective classroom management?
  4. Should we achieve meaningful learning through abolishing the classroom altogether?
The risk of (1) is that what learners see as meaningful to them isn't meaningful to anyone else (including the teacher). Many PhDs suffer from this problem! The risk of (2) is that however passionate the teacher, learners may simply not be interested (and education systems are not flexible enough, or trust teachers enough to allow this to happen). The risk of (3) is that it puts the cart before the horse and imposes control through discipline and punishment rather than realises the natural control inherent in the learning situation. The risk of (4) is the atomisation of the individual, where the conditions for meaningful interactions are eroded away in a sea of individual preoccupations. 

The deep problem of education is that it requires a delicate balance of all approaches. But technology can help. With (1), the web allows for a rich discovery of resources which are of direct interest to the learner. With (2) teachers have powerful resources available to them (particularly now video resources) with which they can convey their enthusiasm in new and compelling ways. But (3) is more difficult, because technology, in not addressing the needs of communities, has been less effective at addressing the needs of coordination and control by teachers (apart from Learning Design - but that was a bit of a mistake). I think the technologies of the real-time web will address some of this. Finally, given this, (4) is a bit of a red-herring  - although atomisation is where much of our current technology has taken us. 

Given technical support for (1), (2) and (3), I think more effective coordination of learning can be achieved - the ultimate goal of which is more meaningful interactions. But, recalling my the earlier categorisation, that is only the beginning of the journey. Because if an engagement is really meaningful then interest takes hold to seek understanding. In that process, once again, technology is a powerful aid. Indeed, after a meaningful educational experience, technology works rather well (those who experience meaning in something are driven and motivated to seek understanding). 

Where we struggle with learning technology (and education in general) is in establishing meaningful interactions in the first place. This is because we have not grasped 'meaning' as a concept distinct from 'understanding', 'information' and 'learning'. In my next posts, this is what I want to explore.

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