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Language: "New" Approaches to Learning

If we are to understand learning, I believe one important strategy is to think about how we learned the things we value the most. Of course, there are some challenges with this. Values can be illusive and are context driven. The phrase "thinking about" can also provide a challenge - is this mere recollection of some important past events, or is this thinking a means to improve our lives. And if it is a means to improve our lives, then what improvements are we talking about, why are we talking about them, and how do we make them happen. Thinking is obviously necessary, but not in itself enough. Lisa Galarneau has written an insightful entry called "New" Approaches to Learning, and what I think is most important about the title of this entry are the quotation marks around the word "New"...


"New" Approaches to Learning - Key Questions Raised
Lisa poses three questions about learning that are critical:

1. In our attempts to make learning more relevant and accessible, are we really just re-learning stuff we already know?

2. Has our language of abstraction and jargon completely obliterated common-sensical and ancient approaches to learning?

3. Have we known the best way all along? / Have we really just forgotten?



In our attempts to make learning more relevant and accessible, are we really just re-learning stuff we already know? My unhelpful and simplistic response to this is, "Yes, we are." A response like this is unhelpful because it limits possibilities for the idea of "re-Learning." In other words, while there may be a repetitive aspect to it, perhaps there are also variations taking place in this "re-Learning" that lead to new insights. At the same time, I would say that our obsession with ideas about "accessibility," especially in the sense that more accessibility is often equated with something that is better for us, is amiss. Accessibility begs the question, "What should we be making accessibile and why should it matter?" - a question that naturally leads us into the realm of relevance and identity, both of which have private and public domains.

I suppose itís good that weíre rememberingÖ itís just sad that it took us so long. And itís sad that we have to convince people that the old ways are really good and proven ways to learn and not some newfangled approaches that will soon be yesterdayís news." Lisa Galarneau

This resonated with me. When I look at the writing I've done I would have to say that there is little "new" in it in the sense of something that hasn't already been talked about it. But much of it is "new" to me in the sense of finding my own way in the unavoidable lifelong pilgrimage of learning that we all experience by default. Ideas about narrative came to me not through books but through interaction with my students a long time ago and eventually became something that I now constantly explore. Without recognizing the tension between what I was told to teach as an educator and how I saw my students as unique individuals on their own journey, connecting that back to my own educational experiences, and attempting to reduce that tension in my own work, I wonder if narrative would have become important to me.

Ideas about memory and remembering are vitally important to learning. In Memory: Therapeutic Forgetting? I wrote responded to the psychological notion of memory with the idea of "therapeutic remembering." One of the greatest weaknesses in our thinking about memory is that we sometimes assume that memory is dominated by the brain/mind. It isn't as Candace Pert clearly demonstrates. A complimentary and vital perspective on memory has been developed by Timothy Findley, which I have yet to write about.

Has our language of abstraction and jargon completely obliterated common-sensical and ancient approaches to learning? Let's take one common and popular phrase and have a look at it. The phrase, "Learning by doing", it seems to me, is innovative only in the sense that it captures something we must have forgotten. There are many phrases like this: authentic learning; learning is social; learning is individual; learning starts with what we already know; learning how to learn; and so on. Each of these phrases points backward toward the past as an attempt to reclaim something we already knew, but forgot. If we were to collect all these phrases we would wind up with a very long list of notions about learning that may or may not have value in the sense of actually making use of them to build a better life.

In October of 2003, I wrote an entry entitled Learning How to Learn Learning in response to the confluence of adjectives that are designed to focus the word "learning" in specific ways. Often, the adjectives are used as a gateway to providing a method or process that can be used to move learning along a certain path. In addition, these adjectives are often a means to counter-balance a perceived weakness or bias in an exisiting, or status quo, approach to learning.

For example, take the phrase Learning by doing. I must admit that my response to this phrase is simply, "So what." Do we even need to say that learning has something to do with doing? And if we have a need to say it, then why? Perhaps academics and educators having spent to much time in theoretical abstraction find it useful to reclaim this domain of learning as their own. Often what they are really saying has little to do with learning, and far more to do with educating by doing and training by doing. It's an unfortunate sign of our times that ideas about learning are often closely, and incorrectly, associated with ideas about education and training.

The phrase learning by doing also leads us to questions about relevance and identity. Learning by doing what? And why should I, or anyone else, believe that this "doing" matters? It isn't hard to see that a lot of "doing" in the 20th century was not necessarily beneficial to humankind even though this "doing" was obviously deeply interconnected to learning, and less connected to education and training. At the same time, we can (and need to spend more time "doing" this) cull together the lessons from these mistakes as well as spend far more time capturing and communicating the postives in our world.

I really don't think we need more lists of learning is's, learning as's, learning by's, and learning whatevers. Nor do we really need more adjectives + learning = theories unless our interest in learning as abstraction. I've done my own share of this and the phrase has always been something far less than the thing I've tried to aim it at. The reason for this is that while I have thought about building the logical context of my own "learning whatevers" I have often not thought enough about the practical reality of them. This is one of the reasons I began to focus my work on building environments rather than methods and models quite a while ago. It was at this point in my career that I consciously decided to let go of my own assumptions about curriculum, instructional design and especially evaluation.

This shift required a broad understanding of narrative. Ideas about storytelling are useful, but "telling" isn't enough. John Seely Brown states:

Why storytelling? Well, the simplest answer to your question is that stories talk to the gut, while information talks to the mind. You can't talk a person through a change in religion or a change in a basic mental model... It doesn't seem to work if you just try to tell them what to think. They have to internalize it. They have to own it. So the question is: ... how do you get them to live the idea?

While I doubt John meant this as literally as I am about to interpret it, there are some important caveats to be made about the above quote. The notion of equating stories with something in the gut and information with something of the mind is incorrect and dangerously misleading. Information is not something exclusive to the mind, nor is a story something exclusive to the emotions. It's how to the work together that matters. The question, "How do you get them to live the idea?" is important. I would rephrase the question to, "How can people find ways of integrating power narratives into their own living?" since it leads us away from the "how to you get them orientation.

The problem to my thinking is that we start at the wrong point of entry. If stories and narratives are so powerful, and I believe they are, then shouldn't they literally be one critical point of entry into learning. Not discussions, ideas, theories and research about the power of storytelling, but the actual stories themselves. Isn't it somewhat odd that there are so many people talking about the power of storytelling, without ever telling a story?

This is an issue Lisa clearly picked up on in her entry and eloquently integrated her own story with a some connections outward to more theoretical approaches.

Iím having dinner with my new friend (his name is Piripi) on Thursday. Heís offered to make me a piece of tribal art and teach me a bit about Maori culture. So Iím inviting some English friends over and weíll have Mexican food and listen to Piripiís stories. I canít wait. Lisa Galarneau

I'm hooked. During my visit to New Zealand a couple of months ago I had the great pleasure of viewing a Maori presentation. Unfortunately, that was the only experience I had with that culture - and I must admit I was horrified to find inane and ignorant comments being made in the audience about the "primitive" nature of the culture (yes - they were fellow North Americans). I can only assume that they failed to realize how primitive and lacking they were underneath the facade of modernity. They seemed to wrpped up in their own story to hear anyone else's.

One of the things we need to do is to ensure that we understand story as being subordinate to narrative. That is to say, we can tell stories without ever forming a narrative.

Have we known the best way all along? / Have we really just forgotten?

I'm unsure about what the best way is, but when I explore the lives of people like Erik Weihenmayer, Dan Eldon, Jean Vanier and many others I somehow sense that I am in the presence of "the best ways." Perhaps organizations like The Foundation For Better Living help us to reclaim aspects of life we have forgotten about or have become isolated from. I feel that I am being not only reminded about aspects of my own life through these stories, sometimes literally and other times figuratively, but also there is a sense of a call to action.

If am seeking narrative as a source for learning, then I must somehow be exploring and relating the context of other people's lives into my own, however these experiences are communicated to me. Finding experiential connections that form the basis for taking action to change, update, improve my own life and those around me is the critical and most illusive link. Of course, if I have these experiences inside a curriculum this becomes extremely difficult. The onslaught of information, schedules and assessment makes it next to impossible to simply have the time to pursue this regardless of how motivated I might be. Further complicating this is the fact that inside a curriculum I am subserviant to its demands and if I discover new insights and a relevancy emerges it is unlikely that I will have the freedom to do much about it concrete terms. The absence of narrative in learning creates a sense of isolation and separation in education largely because a curriculum does not really respect how we learn the things we value the most, but how we get educated in the things those that created it value the most. And shoving all the technology in the world, regardless of the hopes and aspirations we attach to it, into this system will not change it in any meaningful way.


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Wow, that's really excellent. I was a year old when that book came out and haven't read it, I'm afraid! But now I'm curious!

Nice quote. I pulled my copy of Future Shock off the shelf to have a look and found:

"If learning is to be stretched over a lifetime, there is reduced justification for forcing kids to attend school full time. For many young people, part-time schooling and part-time work at low-skill, paid and unpaid community service tasks will prove more satisfying and educational."

What's also interesting is that this was written in 1970, and it seems to me we are still wrestling with similar issues in a different context. This speaks very well to your use of quotation marks around the word "New":-)

I saw a really great quote today from Alvin Toffler's Future Shock...

"The illiterate of the 21st century are not those who cannot read and write, but rather those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn"

Ain't that the truth?


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