Learning: The details

School and classroom life have long suffered from piecemeal approaches to teaching and learning practices. Missing has been a comprehensive theory of learning (and of not learning) that fully accounts for human knowing as always storied in relationality, steeped in affect, and radically embodied. The following model offers a conceptual framework for just such a consolidating theory.

The Model Explained

We begin with the dynamic learning self in the upper left of the diagram.  Concentric circles with arrows pointing inward and outward depict both the deepening and broadening of understanding in learning. The circles’ lines are dashed to show that the boundary between the self and the world is semi-permeable.

Broadly speaking, in learning, humans take discernible aspects of their external world (the given) and create a personal sense of these (the made) according to what their prior understandings allow. Sense-making is about closing the gap that appears between what we previously thought we knew and the new bit that calls previous knowing into question. The gap cannot be forcibly closed. Sense-making is an emergent life phenomenon, vulnerable to failure if forced.

When a learner faces an unbridgeable gap, then the teacher might help by combinations of two approaches: (a) decreasing the gap’s expanse and working up to it through a progression of “engineered” micro-“a-ha’s” or (b) taking the pressure off and allowing the learner as much time as needed to explore an environment specifically designed to intrinsically point student attentions. A good exemplar of the first approach would be JUMPMath and of the second approach would be the Montessori method.

In either approach, we are wise to acknowledge that the transitional space for working out new understanding exists somewhere between the reality of the given world and the conjuring imaginative play of a fitting-enough made-up one. The idea of such serious play is more obvious when we watch children pretending at being grown-ups. They are literally engaging imaginative play about things that matter to them. Fantasy and creativity have a big role in that play as they try on for size what might fit and feel right. In pretending, they are safe to make sense of experiences encountered in the real world, to engage false starts, to change their minds, and to thoroughly explore what this world has given them and what they might make of it. It is this attitude that we want to foster in the classroom, making it a sacred place for serious play at engaging the curricular objects given them of an adult world.

Two phases in learning: The centrifugal outward excursion in the world and the centripetal return to a revised self.

Learning is about encountering the strange and making it familiar. The elliptical swirls and arrows in the model indicate the movement of learning – from self to world and back again.  It entails a centrifugal moment of stretching beyond oneself to notice some dissonant and strange thing. One thinks: “Huh?” Having thus noticed, the centripetal pull to self asks the learner to take that strange thing and see it in a way that works comfortably enough with what he or she already knows. Making a new connection physiologically and psychologically comes with the felt reward of an “a-ha!” Our face lights up and the world within us deepens to accommodate a larger externally accessible world.

Importantly, moving around the circle of learning requires all of capacity, trust, and meaning. That is, noticing and making sense in the terms presented must exist in the realm of the possible for the learner. The learner must trust enough in the situation (him or herself and/or those mediating it) to be open to the possibility of something new to know and the possibility of making sense of it. And the learner must want to do so. It needs to matter to the learner to notice what is being pointed out and to care to make sense of it in his or her own terms.

Noticing the huh? The centrifugal moment.
To learn anything, one must first have the capacity to discern a dissonance, an anomaly – something standing out against a contrasting backdrop. Capacity is more than natural ability or determined perseverance. One can think of it as endowed potential where endowment speaks to more than the learner’s inborn attentive proclivities but how these have intersected and been shaped according to familial and sociocultural experiences. Capacity to notice asks whether the learner has sufficient and fitting-enough prior knowledge and familiarity to perceive that which is given in terms of whomever is adjudicating what it would mean to see and to know.

In the face of an expectant world asking that sense be made, trust (in oneself and others) puts a rider on capacity. If the learner dare not look, then nothing new can be noticed. This is the point of the current literature on growth and fixed mindsets.

And of course, the learner must anticipate that the thing to be learned and the very act of learning will be meaningful enough to warrant and hold his or her attention and effort.

Formulating an a-ha! The centripetal moment.
Perceiving a dissonant anomaly is no guarantee of being able to enfold it into one’s understanding or to adapt that understanding into some revised form. The creative moment of understanding cannot be forced. Again, it depends upon: capacity (it must be within the learner’s reach); trust (either in one’s capacity to make sense or, where sense is elusive, that failing to make sense is not a failure of self); and meaning (as that intrinsic pull to engage this newest conundrum). The teacher can help by titrating degrees of strangeness such that the sense to be made is within the learners’ tolerance for persevering with it, that the learner feels safe in the effort, and, given that affect is cognition’s mental fuel, that there is intrinsic value moving the learner to engage the learning.

If we break down the centripetal moment further, we can note two subphases: realisation and articulation. Whereas realisation offers that sense of “oh, now I get it,” articulation adds detail and the substance of sticking power. In realisation, unconscious and nonconscious processes, quite literally, work behind the scenes. Sometimes this happens after frequent exposure to the conundrum, sometimes we awake from sleep with the a-ha in mind, and some times we seem to “get” things, right away. An athlete might awake with the sudden bodily sense of how to perform a physical task worked on before. An artist might awake with a vision to draw; a musician with a tune that works; a writer with the words at hand; and a learner with a conception understood.

However, in each case, like a dream that one remembers upon waking, the “a-ha” that remains unarticulated is apt to disappear as quickly as it appeared. This is because in articulation the learner goes one critical step further. He or she works out and expresses the “a-ha” in some tangible communicable form. It’s as though one tests one’s “a-ha” against the world and works out the kinks. Some students will become thoroughly engrossed in this process, especially when it promises further “a-ha’s” in the doing. Other students may not know where to start, balk at the seeming tedium, and complain about having to work at something they already “get.” The criticality of articulation to complete the formulation of what one understands cannot be underplayed. It is the tangible enaction of the “a-ha” into some communicable form that adjoins the sense one made with the world of one’s understanding. In articulation, one’s understanding becomes retrievable insofar as it becomes connected to so many other knowns in mind and world. Such retrieving is in essence a more fluidly accessed re-membering as the literal refiring of the neural networks laid down in the full formulating.

Tracing a loop around the circle

To recapitulate: In the first phase of learning, we notice the given – something not previously noticed.  It is strange to us, but not so unfamiliar as to go hidden.  Still, we don’t quite know what to make of it.  It is ambiguous.  

For example, we might be stopped at a traffic light, beside a very large truck, and for a split second think that we are moving backwards.  Huh?  Our “a-ha” comes when we see that the truck is inching forward.  In this case, thanks to our prior experiences in the world, we can resolve the ambiguity rather swiftly. The sense we make here profits from and adds to other similar experiences of relative motion, strengthening and refining what we already knew. A teacher might be able to simulate such a situation in the classroom and then use the sense made there to help students understand the apparent motion of the sun around the earth.

Most of the time our noticing and sense-making is so brief that we aren’t even aware of any time-lapse between experiencing something ambiguous and reconfiguring it into the familiar.  In fact, we can be so accustomed to our familiar that we overlook it when things are not as we assumed. Part of good teaching entails in helping students notice the subtle things that matter.

Other times, an ambiguity can be so striking that to make sense of it requires a dramatic revision of what we know.  We may have no problem with rounding the first part of the circle of learning, but making sense of the thing noticed is another matter entirely. In these cases, we may have swung too far out in our noticing and now we are overwhelmed by what we experience. Part of the art of teaching is knowing to titrate just how strange the newness we present must be. In the example of relative motion, the jump to the apparent motion of the sun around the earth (if given without prior experiences in relative motion) might be too great for many students.

Depending on individual histories and the demands of a learning situation, the inability to make immediate sense of something conflicting, unexpected, and/or ambiguous can trigger a spectrum of emotions as disparate as delight, surprise, wonder, curiosity, fear, anxiety, and dissociation.

For example, the novelty of a cockatoo moving to a musical rhythm is likely to be amusing. And while playing peek-a-boo with a trusted caregiver might engender infant delight, the same game with a stranger is apt to bring tears. Or, if a child is confronted with an unfamiliar word to read and has learned that errors disappoint the adults around him, having lost trust, he or she is more likely to feel fear and panic. And if, as adults, the thing to learn is that our well-intended comments are injurious to others, then acknowledging this might threaten us with feelings of guilt, shame, or even self-loathing. Moreover, if our identity is built on a self-understanding that we must be a good caring person, then such guilt, shame, or self-loathing may be too high a price to pay for admitting the lesson to be learned. Instead, we might choose a preemptive refusal to notice; that is, we refuse to acknowledge (especially to ourselves) that our comments could be hurtful in the first place.

The important point here is that the emotions that arise in the learning encounter are never separate and ought not be thought as such. And those emotions are never random. They have everything to do with histories, past experiences in similar situations and what we learned from the people that mattered then about what counted to know, do, and be, and how to cope with not knowing, doing, or being in particular ways. Importantly, they have been the people in our lives who, from the beginning (in their absence and presence of whatever capacity), have imbued the very nature of learning and the things learned with emotional meaning – even if that meaning is an escape to neutrality. Our body is the primal repository of these remembrances. They cannot be turned off and on, at will. The science of neuronal networks and brain activity affirms this to be so, even though we may never be consciously aware of how our bodies are governing what comes as possible and impossible to us.

For all of these reasons, any theory of learning meant to guide teaching, must have at its core an appreciation of human nature that – rather than separating cognition from, for example, emotion, behaviour, and classroom relationships – understands these as fully integrated.

Some key principles that follow from the biology of learning

First, it should be clear that learning is literally a biologically creative process of self-revision. And, the sensation of learning is the felt experience of this process. This is because all memories consist in patterns of neural network firings. And, learning entails making and revising these patterns of neural connectivity in order to accommodate that which strikes a person as novel or persistent. We learn, that is we self-change, in order to preserve our viability and vitality in the face of the dynamically shifting world of our experience. The biology of learning is a biology of self-making in response to discernments of things that matter and that contrast against the expected.

It follows that the more we must change our own knowing to accommodate newness, the more difficult and potentially threatening and/or exhilarating it may be to make sense. After all, the things we know are never known in isolation. Our knowledge, any bit of it, will be fully enmeshed within an entire network of knowing – and this is as true physiologically in our brains’ and bodies’ neurological patterning as it is experientially in the sense we feel of ourselves in a coherent-enough identity.

The older we get, the more enmeshed, organised, and interdependent are our understandings and the more our emotional histories play into and shape our capacity to risk tearing apart what we thought we knew in order to revise the sense we thought we had. To be worth the effort, that revised sense had better be “good.” The problem is that we won’t know until we get to the other side. It can be a bit like the flying trapeze. We don’t want to let go of one swing without assurance of another in graspable sight – or a safety net to catch us should we fall. The question of trust figures centrally in all such endeavours. Teachers and generous witnesses can provide the safety nets all the while adjusting the swings so that the leap of faith does not ask us to cross an unmanageable expanse.

The given and the made in learning: Implications for teaching practice

The model and theory, based as it is on current understandings of mind and body in the world, presents knowledge as paradoxically both objectively given and subjectively made in any learning encounter. We can further think of noticing as a disillusioning encounter with something given to us by the world. The centrifugal moment is a movement into a world of givens with which to contend. On the other hand, the centripetal return to self is all about using the creative aspects of self to fathom one’s best sense of what is. This sense gives us traction to press onward. It is from this present sense that we are able to engage the strange at all. In this way, the sense we make is always illusive, however foundational though it might seem. It stands vulnerable for an upgrade against a world ready to disillusion. We may need pause to consolidate our knowns before attempting to lean out and put them to the test again.

It is useful to appreciate how the paradoxes of the given and the made, objectivity and subjectivity, and disillusionment and illusion in learning are at the heart of long-standing struggles over traditional and progressive practices in education. For, if we believe that knowledge is given, then teaching must be about giving students what we (society, culture, government) want them to know. But if we understand knowledge as made, then teaching will be about creating conditions so that students can make what we (society, culture, government) want them to know. The point of the model is that knowledge is, at once, both given and made. The implications of this understanding – especially when it comes to appropriately fitting teaching practice to the circumstances of students in learning – are great and many.

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