Monday 13 August 2012

Explaining Learning

The issue guaranteed to cause the maximum amount of confusion amongst learning technologists is the question “what is learning?” As an 'educational cybernetician', I am comfortable in discussing issues of technology and organisation, and have tools which can help me (and my colleagues) make useful distinctions. But learning?

Typically, the response to this is to label ourselves: “I’m a  social constructivist”. Whilst this is used as a badge of defence against those who would advocate drilling their students with Knowledge (with a capital K) in the manner of the Nuremberg Funnel, or various rigid forms of assessment, most of the learning technologists we know don't in fact believe in Nuremberg funnels and call themselves "social constructivists". But you can find instructional designers who believe that the cause of learning is determined by the way facts are presented, still calling themselves 'social constructivists'. When everyone carries the badge, it is unlikely that one person's social constructivism is like another's. That's led me for a long time to ask "am I a social constructivist? If not, what am I".. particularly given that I don't like Nuremberg funnels - although I have to admit, it does appear that knowledge can be hammered-in like nails, given the right conditions! (I just happen to think that it's not a very nice way of treating people!)

So what exactly is a social constructivist? “We believe that we learn from each other," comes the response.  In other words, social constructivists see the cause of learning being social - adaptational in the sense of Piaget. This might be contrasted with the position of 'instructivists' who might see the cause of learning being material - inherent in the design of textbooks, webpages, etc. They too would cite some sort of biological adaptational change. But I can't see it's one or the other. The human experience of learning embraces both the design of our environment (including our learning resources) and the ways in which we are treated. In other words, instructivism and constructivism are fundamentally related by the fact that they both wish to attribute a causal factor in the emergence of new skilled performances.

What is unarguable is the fact that whatever learning is, it is characterised (and recognised) as change in behaviour. Attempts to explain these changes are used as justifications for particular interventions. Instructivism and constructivism are two attempts to explain change and  to suggest different types of intervention. Both types of intervention don't work as well as those who subscribe to the theories wish they did: but the failures of interventions are rarely put down to poor theory; instead it is put down to errors in implementation.

There are two things to learn from this:

  1. the way we explain things is causal upon the interventions we make
  2. the interventions we make challenge our explanations, but for some reason we do not seek to explain what actually occurs

The reasons for this are, I think, complex. They are by no means isolated to education - the whole of social science suffers from an inability to explain (this has been Lawson's argument in Economics, for example). What is interesting is the fact that the business of explanation is bread and butter to educational processes in every discipline; yet explaining learning itself sets up a strange loop where scientific and rational principals are not upheld.

I believe if the last 10 years of e-learning has taught us anything, then it has raised some big questions about social constructivism. Models like Pask's conversation theory were used (or possibly, abused) by Laurillard and others to advocate networked conversational learning using text: VLEs, social media and MOOCs are the direct inheritors of this thinking. But on the whole, it's a pretty miserable, somewhat lonely and alienating experience (cue all those who've had fantastic experiences on a MOOC to criticise me, but I would say "YOU ARE IN THE MINORITY OF LEARNERS WORLDWIDE!").

If the theory of conversational networked learning and the social constructivism that underpinned it were correct, then MOOCs would be everywhere and the lecture (and possibly the campus that hosts it) gone. But despite the best advocacy of those who push the technology, learners want to be on campus, with each other, chatting-up the attractive student on the other side of the room. Er... what a surprise! In human affairs, sex wins every time!

The problem (and the way towards a different way of looking at this) is I believe to identify the latent positivism that underpins both social constructivism and its 'opposing' theories. I'll expand on this in a later post, but in essence the problem lies in the identification of 'actual' causes - causes whose existence can be justified. I think we should be more realistic, and accept that among the many causes for learning are things which we can't even say are actual things (issues around sex, death, religion, attachment and loss are in this category I think), which can't so easily be shown to actually exist, but nevertheless exert an influence. In short, I think our theories need to account for absence.

But all this is not to say that the technological work has been wasted, or even been a mistake. Clearly it hasn't. But there has been little learning of what has actually happened has told us. No revising of theory, and I think such a revision would be less confidently 'positive' in its attribution of causes.

Here we should ask ourselves what the philosophers would call a 'transcendental question':
Given that:
  • students want to be with each other
  • they learn from each other
  • they also learn from well-designed textbooks
  • they enjoy beautifully-designed campus facilities
  • they don't appear (on the whole) to simply want to sit in an online forum
  • they do appear to value the input of good caring teachers
  • many value the technologies made available to them
    What is actually going on as they gain new skilled performances?
Adapting? How? To what?

In creating a new explanation for this, I do not think that the purpose of such an explanation should be to pinpoint the next intervention (and the next bid for project funding!). Instead I think it should help us understand what comes naturally in teaching and learning practice with technology. In the process, deeper understanding and appreciating of what works and what doesn't in education can help create a more humble and humane approach to the delivery and organisation of education, where common sense rather than half-baked theory is the guiding principle.

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