30 September 2012

What's learning? A way to approach the question, in response to Steve Wheeler


The other day, Steve Wheeler in his blog asked the question What is learning? and invited his readers to comment. To explain why he asks this question, he mentions the existing, bewildering variety of learning theories - including Connectivism, discusses that learning needs not be fun necessarily, quotes Dewey in support, and finally wonders if learning has changed in the digital age: We now see the emergence of a number of new theories that attempt to explain learning in the 21st Century. [...] One of the characteristics of learning through digital media is the ability to crowd source content, ideas and artefacts, and to promote and participate in global discussions. That's why I want to ask the questions: What is learning? Does it differ from learning prior to the advent of global communications technology? Does learning now require new explanatory frameworks?

Related to this is a 4-year old blog post by post by George Siemens in his Connectivism blog entitled What is the unique idea in Connectivism? I recently put this on my networked-learning-learning networks Scoop.it pages, because it is still relevant and bears upon Steve's question. In a tweet, Alejandro Armellini (@alejandroa) asked me to expand on the comment I added to the Siemens' Scoop ([The article] is useful not in that it delineates connectivism very precisely, although I like the above definition, but in that it traces its historical roots and list its distinctive characteristics), asking me to expand on the usefulness of George's definition of Connectivism, adding that according to him (Alejandro, that is) in it Knowledge and learning are defined in a debatable way, ditto Connectivism. Finally, just recently I spotted a blog post by Mark Wade, published in May this year, in which he attempts to critique Connectivism, arguing that it isn't genuine learning theory (also Scoop.it-ed here).

These are different question, wondering what learning is, how Connectivism should be defined and whether Connectivism is indeed a learning theory. Yet they are related because they are all about whether and how learning and the theories that acount for it, have changed in the digital age. To Steve Wheeler this seems to be an open question, which prompts him first to investigate learning per se. For George Siemens the question is answered and Connectivism tells us how it has changed; contra Mark Wade, he portrays Connectivism as the learning theory for the digital age. In this post, I will not try to solve the question Steve asks nor will I attempt to analyse whether Connectivism is the learning theory he is looking for. The questions are too difficult, have too many ramifications to be able to answer them in the context of a simple blog post. However, I will make some observations that may help to arrive at an answer.


1 Asking what learning is, presupposes that our everyday 'folk notion' (folk as in folk psychology) of learning somehow maps onto a scientific equivalent, if only we were able to pinpoint its proper definition. This might happen but more likely than not the notion of learning that serves our everyday talk, is not sufficiently precise and specific for scientific discourse. For those who still remember their secondary school physics, the term 'force' in Newtonian mechanics has a very precise definition (Force equals mass times acceleration), which is radically different than the term in, say, 'may the force be with you'. I believe that conceptual clarficiation is a hallmark of scientific progress. Therefore, it may be entirely unproductive to even ask the question 'What is learning?' if we do not try to unwrap it.

2 In a very insightful book called How we learn; learning and non-learning in school and beyond  the Dane Knud Illeris points out that de notion of learning may be understood in at least four different ways (Illeris, 2007, p2-3). Two of those are not so interesting from a theoretical point of view, yet failure to recognise them as ways in which some people understand learning leads to confusion. For some people, then, learning refers to the outcomes of learning processes, to that what is learnt. For some others, learning is equivalent to teaching in the sense that what is taught is learnt. Obviously, these are everyday notions we should ignore as objects of theorising about learning, although the objects of learning and the ways in which we may help people to learn (by teaching them) could of course enter learning theories.

Then there are two other, more interesting ways to understand learning, still according to Illeris. First, learning could refer to the mental processes that go on in someone's head, which lead that individual to show behavioural changes. Second, learning could refer to the interaction processes between individuals and their physical and social environment, processes which in turn lead to the mental processes just referred to. Although both ways to understand learning make sense, they are very different.

3  Scientific concepts and scientific theories grow hand in hand. When theories get more accurate, the concepts that feature in them become defined more precisely but they also become more specific, ignoring parts of the original concept. This suggests that the term 'learning' has different meanings in the different learning theories we have. Indeed, this is what Knud Illeris suggests. Learning qua mental activity belongs to the realm of psychological theorising, with such theories as behaviourism, instructionism, cognitivism, constructivism. Learning qua  interaction process is much less easy to pinpoint in terms of an overarching discipline. But such fields as sociology, social psychology, game theory, network theory, artificial intelligence, computer science seem relevant.

I surmise Steve's question is referring to interaction processes. Even though we have numerous contrasting if not conflicting ideas on how people learn qua mental process, Steve's question is not about that. He wants to now how learning qua  process of interaction with the physical and probably mostly the social environment needs to be accounted for differently in the digital age. I also surmise that Connectivism as introduced by George refers to interaction processes. He says, the interaction processes have changed, and we need to talk networks in order to understand how they have. Whether Connectivism as an account of this new approach that learning qua interaction in digital age demands, stands up to scrutiny is another matter. Mark Wade for that matter says no.

4 Two final remarks. What George refers to as Connectivism, many others refer to as 'networked learning'. Even though details may differ, possibly significantly, the idea that online social networks should and do already play a crucial role in learning qua interaction, has been in the air ever since Peter Goodyear in the late nineties started talking about networked learning.

Second, it is good to notice that there are significant differences between George Siemens's ideas as he phrased them in 2004 and the ideas of Stephen Downes, even though there are similarities too. Stephen recently wrote: Knowledge is, on this theory [of Connectivism], literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience". This seems to touch upon learning qua mental process. Indeed, he seems to want to ignore mental processing entirely, suggesting they are not relevant, epiphenomena of networking at best. I will leave the analysis of this claim for another occasion (or someone else).

Illeris, K. (2007). How we learn; Learning and non-learning in school and beyond (English ed., p. 289). Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge.

6 September 2012

Reaction to two comments on 'about formal and informal learning'

This blog post is a reaction to comments by Jay and Nick to my original post on formal and informal learning. Thank you for your reactions, as they helped me to refine and extend my thinking on the issue. I knew I was getting into murky waters and your reactions pay testimony to that. You raise a lot of issues in your reactions and consequently there is a lot to be said in response to that. However,  I will focus on two items only, not to wiggle my way of of a thorny issue, but because there's only so much you can do in short post. Your other remarks do not go unnoticed, however, I hope to tackle the most important aspects of your reactions. To be sure, I certainly do not want to create another shouting match, as that doesn't solve anything. And that is of course what I try and tried to do. Let me explain.

First, I too have worked with, thought about and written about the formal-informal distinction, and at some point of time my reaction was to give up on it as something not particularly useful:  better ignore it and avoid not very fruitful discussions by saying something like there are all sort of shades of grey. However, that solution turned out to be unsatisfactory as many people persist in using the distinction as if it were a clear one (including myself, I noticed myself). Apparently, we want to express a difference but are unable to do so with clarity. The distinction has to do with learning at schools and similar, and learning outside of them.

Second, I realised that there is a difference between a concept that is defined as a continuous variable - the shades of grey (the wavelength of light; intelligence before the theory of multiple intelligencies) and a concept that has a variety of dimensions (colour, which is characterised by wavelength but also by saturation; intelligence if indeed there are multiple intelligencies). The formal-informal distinction is one of the second kind, not of the first kind. For instance, if formal learning is school-like learning, then what if there is a course but no curriculum, assessments but no diploma, teachers but no tuition fee? You can vary on all these dimensions and more. This is not a contrived example, note that xMOOCs are almost defined by these duplets. In discussions about xMOOCs, bundling courses to form a kind of curriculum, certificates as pseudo diplomas and even small fees are raised as possible innovations. To give these discussions proper credit, a linear continuum won't do.

Third, I realised that people started to amalgamate accounts of how we learn (learning theories) with the formal-informal distinction. Nick's idea that we only learn informally is an example of this (I do agree that at school people learn very little of what they are supposed to learn there, certainly in view of the enormous amounts of money that go into educational systems; I also do not know how to solve this, but we cannot afford to let them not learn the little that do learn). So I realised that the formal-informal distinction needed to be decoupled from our accounts of how we learn.

These are the reasons I came up with the idea to define formal learning as learning with a social contract. This way, theories of how we learn are definitionally independent of the way we organise our learning, the learning environments we create, the interventions we plan. And this allows us to ask such questions as How does formal learning (defined my way) fare in the face of current learning theories?, and What forms of informal learning should we consider in the face of existing learning theories?, and indeed, Are all forms of informal learning under all circumstances more efficient and effective than formal learning?.

With this proposed solution, the problems are not over of course, because we now need to distinguish learning theories, identify their claims, derive what consequences they have for learning environments and interventions, etc; only then  we can try to answer these and similar questions. To give an indication of the problems ahead, Siemens and Downes claim Connectivism to be a (novel) learning theory (even an epistemology), but is it? Personally, I am interested in networked learning, something like Connectivism but without the claim that it is a learning theory, let alone an epistemology. Can you have formal networked learning? All sorts of people seem to think so as they are happy to discuss the creation of personal learning networks for their pupils. Should all professional learning be a form of networked learning? No, I guess, but what lines are there to draw?

Finally, a few words on definitions to further contextualise what I try to do. Definitions come in two kinds, depending on what you try to achieve. You may either try to capture as precisely as you can the common way of using a particular concept (often called real definitions). Or you may deliberately deviate from existing usage and try to improve discourse (stipulative definitions). The former is impossible if common discourse is vague and ambiguous, as is the case with the formal-informal distinction. The latter is doomed to fail if your stipulation does not improve on common usage. I have tried to avoid both pitfalls by framing a definition that captures at least a large part of common usage, as well as one that offers significant benefits for our discourse on learning. But the verdict is of course out on whether I am right or wrong on this.