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What is learning?

Mahanga Beach, Mahia

Part of the work I will be doing this year with my e-fellowship will be about developing student agency in the classroom, especially within the confines of traditional schooling system and the NCEA.  I decided to start at the beginning and look at learning and what it encompasses, although we are teachers and it is our core business it is good to re-visit the theory.  I came across the following quote while I was on school camp last week;

"The most accurate word in western culture to describe what happens in a learning organization …is “metanoia” and it means a shift of mind…For the Greeks, it meant a fundamental shift or change, or more literally transcendence (“meta”- above or beyond, as in “metaphysics”) of mind (“noia,” from the root “nous,” of mind)….To grasp the meaning of “metanoia” is to grasp the deeper meaning of “learning”, for learning also involves a fundamental shift or movement of mind…. Most people’s eyes glaze over if you talk to them about “learning”…. Little wonder-for in everyday use, learning has come
to be synonymous with “taking in information.”…Yet, taking in information is only distantly related to real learning…Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we recreate ourselves. Through learning, we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Thorough learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life."

Peter Senge (1990, p. 13-14)

Although the start of the definition breaks down the meaning of metanoia, which is important when understanding what learning is, I was more interested in the point he makes about peoples general perception of learning - ‘learning has come to be synonymous with “taking in information.’ As an exercise I asked some of the boys on camp (in small groups of 2 or 3) about what they thought learning was - the most prevalent answer was gaining knowledge and being shown how to do things - there was no mention of heuristics or autonomy. Some discussions I had with staff were initiated with comments regarding the lack of rote learning being to blame for the inability of these decile 3 low ability learners to listen to instructions. Although some would argue that there is a place for some tasks to be learnt in this way, these examples highlight the fact that our knowledge of learning has been socially constructed by what we believe, what we see and notice, and then applying this to how we make sense of the world. If we tell students that learning is about remembering facts and getting them correct when we decide we will test them then, it reinforces that learning is about knowledge and the building of that knowledge for a purpose.

However I think that learning is more about doing than knowing - we now have the ability to know anything at the touch of a button, but actually being able to do something with that knowledge is the important part. Senge touches on this when he writes ‘Through learning, we become able to do something we never were able to do’ You may never have been able to work out the square route of 76, and by practicing it you will be able to do it, but most people now have the ability to work out this question by typing it into their phone - many of the students I taught in my first year of teaching maths asked ‘why are we doing this?’, and I had to be quite inventive in what I was telling them - but I was also questioning myself - ‘why are they doing this?’ I had never had to use the concepts they were applying in maths - of course it demonstrates they have the ability to solve an equation and sit still for an hour - but how authentic is that style of learning?

We need to ask un-googleable questions to demonstrate what real learning is about, it is about the quality of change in your thinking rather than the change in the quality of your knowledge. Through this we will be able to ‘create, to be part of the generative process of life.
Education and learning should be an exercise in freedom, liberating you from a previous stage in your life, transcending barriers that are enforced by society and therefore the act of learning should be in improving on the way you do things that apply to your situation, learners need to have agency and authentic opportunities in a collaborative environment - in order to change these views we need to find other ways of assessing learning to challenge the socially constructed view of learning. And now my journey begins.....

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.


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