Evolution of Learning

As I indicated in my last post, I think I do a lot of learning informally in my daily activities.  I recently had an unsatisfactory interaction with a sales rep for a home repair company–my house got hammered with hail almost a year ago and with all the damage in the neighborhood, it’s been tough just getting a vendor’s attention.  Anyway the upshot of the encounter was “I’ll never deal with that vendor again.”; i.e., I learned something.  I recently sewed a button on a pair of shorts where the thread had come unraveled.  Apparently I sewed it a little too tight because before long the button itself disintegrated around the thread holes.  Note to self: go easier next time.  Some time ago I had begun to play “by ear” on the keyboard a number of songs I learned over the years.  All of these are examples of learning.  None involved teachers or experts; none were driven by anything more than just my daily encounters.  I believe I do a lot of learning that way.

Yet when I think of learning, I immediately think of school and teachers, our educational system.  It’s major goal is to help us to learn to become productive members of society.  That starts with cognitive symbol manipulation: reading, writing and arithmetic.  This is something we are less likely to learn on our own; in any event, it is easier to learn from someone who has already mastered it, not to mention that the symbols are a means of shared communication so that just making up our own generally wouldn’t have the same effect.  For much of human history, parents served as teachers for this learning.  But then we invented factories with assembly lines which proved to be very effective for producing goods efficiently.  And the factories required an educated workforce as well as consumer population.  So we applied that approach to cognitive learning.  And thus the classroom became entrenched.  But not all students start at the same place, move at the same pace, or want to go to the same destination; i.e., they are not interchangeable factory widgets.  That’s okay; we can just teach to the “average learner” and handle outliers in the interstices.  The economic benefits are enormous: one teacher, with maybe a helper or two, can handle a class of 30 or more students.  So the paradigm shifted from learning to instruction, from satisfying our natural curiosity or improving daily encounters to responding to what someone else determined we needed to learn.

Now again I am not arguing that schooling is bad, although Neil Postman, a writer who taught at Columbia University, appears to have in Teaching as a Subversive Activity: “Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly, they sit and listen to the teacher. Mostly they are required to believe in authorities, or at least pretend to such belief when they take tests. Mostly they are required to remember. They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true. They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions, although they are permitted to ask about administrative and technical details (How long should the paper be? Does spelling count? When is the assignment due?) It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used. Examine the types of questions teachers ask in classrooms, and you will find that most of them are what might technically be called ‘convergent questions’, but which might more simply be called ‘Guess what I’m thinking’ questions.”

That caught my eye when I first started teaching because I thought it fairly accurately reflected how I remembered my time in school.  Equating learning with formal schooling, I was eager to complete my PhD and be done with learning. Then I quickly discovered on my first job that my PhD training didn’t teach me everything I needed to know. We were asked to draft an “operations plan”.  I didn’t do much formal planning in college or graduate school.  My colleagues were familiar with engineering plans which had been honed to a fine art in the industry.  But no one knew what an operations plan looked like.  Operations meant doing, not planning.  We spun our wheels for many weeks until one day I just sat down and drafted what I thought one might look like.  There was not textbook to consult, no experts on the topic, I just plain made it all up.  It wasn’t really very good but it was enough to get us started and together the team then crafted what turned out to be a very valuable guide for introducing computers into company operations.  We learned what would work by carefully analyzing, experimenting, developing ideas, persuading, and assessing results. Learning was not only required, it was exciting!  I resolved to reconsider my perspective on learning.

So what about you?  What do you think of when you hear the word “learning”?  How do you remember your days in school?  Would you agree with Postman’s characterization?  Are you still learning?  In what ways?  Do you still have interest in learning?

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