The Circle of Learning: An introduction

The diagrams below depict a model of learning, first from the perspective of the learner, then from the perspective of the teacher.

These diagrams model learning as something we would call a dialectic process. The word dialectic comes to us through a long and relevant philosophical history of thinking about thinking.

Learning: A dialectic process of self-change.

The idea of dialectic in the model is one that was developed by the German philosopher Hegel. It describes a process of arriving at “truth” that could be thought of as learning. Simply put, we begin with a thesis (our understanding), encounter an anti-thesis (some contradictory notion), and then resolve thesis and anti-thesis together into a new synthesis (revised understanding).

In the above model, starting on the left side, we see someone comfortable and content with what they know and believe – their current “thesis.” Then someone comes along and or something comes to mind in a way that they hadn’t noticed or previously taken into account. This is the “antithesis.” It calls into question their current thesis. To get back to feeling comfortable again, with an integrated sense of knowing, they will need to generate a revised thesis that accounts for the new thing – a “synthesis.”

For example, say a boy sees a flower and learns that it is a tulip. He might develop the thesis that the word tulip refers to all flower-things. His meaning of the word tulip is his working thesis. Now when that same boy holds out a rose, calls it a tulip, and we correct him, he is confused. Here, the presentation of this other “tulip” as a rose serves as an antithesis that calls his thesis into question. He will need to figure out how roses and tulips are the same and different. To do that he will need a revised understanding about categories of things – a class of objects (called flowers) that allows for the sameness and difference of roses and tulips. When he does, he has made sense of his thesis and antithesis in terms of a new synthesis. Importantly, having made this synthesis through language, it will thereafter affect how he perceives and conceives the world of flower-things and all the bits that relate to flowers. This synthesis will become incorporated (literally embodied as tiny changes in neural tendencies) as his revised thesis, moving forward. He is likely to have multiple turns around the circle before he gets to a robust understanding about flowers that works well for thinking with and communicating to others.

In this way, the Circle of Learning is dialectic. We begin with a sense of what we know; including our present thesis of whatever that knowing entails. Then we run into something that makes us say “Wait. What?” The something that triggers us to think “Huh?” is an antithesis that challenges our current thesis about how things are or should be. When we make it around the circle we get back to ourselves by formulating a broader understanding. That broader understanding is the synthesis of what we knew before (the thesis) and what we were confronted with (the antithesis). The synthesis becomes our new working thesis for another turn around the circle.

This process of moving from thesis to antithesis and synthesis defines what we mean by dialectic. When the thesis in our mind encounters a provoking antithesis, a higher-order synthesis is that which can consolidate what-we-thought-we-knew with what-called-that-knowing-into-question. In the above example, the higher-order synthesis is a new understanding of the class of objects called flowers.

But learning is much more than making sense of the outer world. In learning we are also always revising the sense we have about our place as learners with others in that world. This means there is always another dialectic at stake that accompanies the one I just described. I am talking about the theses, antitheses, and syntheses we have and make about ourselves as learners. Learning something about the world comes with learning something about ourselves. How will the child revise his self-understanding to make sense of himself as someone who could have thought something wrong? The thesis the child has about himself has to survive or be revised according to his encounter with an antithesis that challenges his thinking. The synthesis that emerges to make sense of the self as a learner is an ever-present sidebar to learning. Ironically, this sidebar is more critical that the thing learned.

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