Kathy Sierra's A Crash Course in Learning Theory is intended to provide an overview of the most important elements of learning theory used in her work. The article is an aspect of what is referred to as a "learning blog" in which "secrets" are given away in "teaching people to do what you do." PDF Summary of A Crash Course in Learning is also available.
When I see the word "theory" in close proximity to "learning" I tend to move on to something else. Admittedly, this is not the best response but it is a fact that we have already built mountains of theories about learning. Theories of learning also tend to originate from a small group, that is, the research community of academics. Thus, explorations of learning are biased and stunted by research methodology. In any case, let's have a look to see what a crash course in learning theory might be...
Learning: What is the Perspective Being Discussed?
It is far more important to build a wide variety of perspectives on learning from as many different viewpoints as possible than it is to build yet another theory of learning. The first process invites creative thinking and keen observation of everyday life, the second is more focused on the analysis and reduction of controlled and often artificial experiences into abstract representations.
The perspective being adopted in A Crash Course in Learning seems to be generally focused on cognitive science. That is, most things in learning eventually come back to ideas about the mind and the brain. This is not wrong in any way, but it is limited. Here are some key phrases I found in the article that reveal the perspective on learning being addressed:
Teaching as a Means to Build Audience: "Teaching people to do what you do is one of the best ways we know to grow an audience--an audience of users you want to help." The idea of teaching is closely aligned with the notion of helping, in this case, helping people to do what you do. This implies that the teacher is an authority that makes decisions on what content people need - a fundamental mistake in education systems.
Content as the Source of Learning: The idea of building an audience (marketing and branding) is captured in the notion of a learning blog, "But I assume (since you're reading this blog) that you ARE into helping your users kick ass. So to make content that's worth your time and attention, I try to make this a learning blog."
Learning is Something That Can Be "Delivered": "And although it's geared toward blogs/writing virtually everything in here applies regardless of how you deliver the learning--you can easily adapt it to prentations, user documentation, or classroom learning." Teaching and learning are not the same things. People do not learn simply because they are in close proximity to teaching. The phrase deliver the learning really seems to refer to something closer to teaching, or perhaps instructional design.
So in helping people, there is a clear sense of a prerequisite in "delivering the learning." That is, there is a clear presence of instructional design and the word learning here is heavily immersed in this perspective.
Learning as Theory
The idea of a theory is to explain why things happen they way they do and/or to provide a consistent framework to describe specific kinds of phenomenon. In more general terms, a theory is a model of reality and therefore makes the assumption that what it is describing actually exists. Neil Postman clarifies the end effect of theoretical thinking:
... all theories are oversimplifications, or at least lead to oversimplification... That is the function of theories - to oversimplify, and thus to assist believers in organizing, weighting, and excluding information. Therein lies the power of theories. Their weakness is that precisely because they oversimplify, they are vulnerable to attack by new information. When there is too much information to sustain any theory, information becomes essentially meaningless.
- Neil Postman in Technopoly : The Surrender of Culture to Technology
From this perspective, any theory of learning is an oversimplification - a means to organize, weight and exclude information in order to assist believers in that theory. Perhaps one of the most revealing ways to demonstrate this fact is to notice the absence of the personal experiences of the theorist who lays claim to a theory, and the even more noticeable absence of actual learning experiences. Instead, we read abstractions, concepts, statistics - we view models, processes and methods - we build a unique vocabulary around words like teaching, curriculum, instruction, instructional design, educational technology, evaluation, assessment, learning styles, lifelong learning and so on. There is a neurotic quality to this. Theories have an immense capacity to avoid the confluence of everyday life, and in doing so avoid meaningful connection the practical realities of people's lives.
The Brain and Learning
Candace Pert explores the physiology of learning and notes that, from a scientific perspective, the mind cannot be understood or treated separately from the body. To emphasize this fact she uses the term bodymind. Richard Restak reaches out from the physiology of the brain to explore how everyday life experiences can impact the physical structure of the brain. Both of these scientists are consciously extending their traditional scientific discipline in new and dramatic ways. Both of these scientists refer to the authentic experiences of people and do not limit themselves to theoretical approaches.
It is safe to say that is the cognitive functioning of the brain cannot be adequately understood in isolation. This means that learning cannot be fully appreciated through the lens of traditional cognitive science. A theory of learning built on cognitive science alone will lead to isolation and exclusion, not to mention the obvious abstraction that follows. Here is a quote that reveals the contradiction that follows from theory:
You can't create new pathways in someone's head... your job is to create an environment where the chances of the learner "getting it" in the way that you intend are as high as possible.
- from A Crash Course in Learning Theory
An environment that is constructed so that the learner is "getting it" implies a one-way push of the teacher's content into the mind of the "learner" in a way that the two understandings are somehow more closely aligned. This represents the apparent "two-way" model being used as a "push" model;
There is a false assumption that learning is primarily something that happens in our head. Of course, our "heads" are literally involved, but we do not learn with our heads alone, no matter what "environment" or presentation tools we use.
There is a mercurial view present that the brain is the person - "Learning is much more effective if the learner's brain knows why what you're about to talk about matters. "
These kinds of assumptions about learning flow throughout the rest of the article. For example, we read that "learning is co-creation" and that means that "the learner's brain constructs new knowledge." Is knowledge "constructed?" Knowledge is something less than meaning. Knowledge is an abstraction, which means that two or more people have co-created in an abstraction. This problem is compounded with, "We are all visual creatures, and the brian [no - I'm not a visual creature, sorry] can process visual information far more efficiently than words." The fact is that the experience we are having is via symbols, and while there is a difference in the way we process words and visual images, they are both a form of intermediation and not the actual things they attempt to describe.
Learning cannot be reduced to mere symbol manipulation or content manipulation methodologies - nor can it be meaningfully captured by any theory.
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