learning for life, part II

This semester I was teaching with a historian, enjoyable because I got to see things from a perspective I have really no training in whatsoever. We could truly “team teach,” each lending perspectives from different corners, including history and science, but also education and technology and religion and science fiction. It struck me, though, when on the first day of class he stated that “all learning is done through narrative.” He went on to describe his own teaching philosophy, that the understanding of major themes and concepts comes through the understanding of the story that’s being told. Generally, these are statements that I like to engage, churn a debate around, reconsider the ideas, because this is what I think learning is. But in the spirit of team teaching, and since it wasn’t really a substantive point for anyone besides myself, I just listened and have let the idea stew for a few months.

My main contention with a statement that all learning is the retelling of story is that learning over a lifetime (or even a semester) should be a potluck of stories, and these servings should all fit onto one plate, coherently. This breaks down at some point: the jello melts into the meatloaf and the extra olives you served yourself start rolling around aimlessly. These various entrees need to find a way to connect to one another. Moreover, there are pieces of information, stories, and the like, which we already have in our head that are wrong; and there will be future stories that we’ll be told or we’ll tell ourselves that we’ll realize later we had wrong. There has to be some kind of change that takes place, not to the individual narratives we’re told but to how we’ve lumped them together on our plates. When the jello melts, we realize that this wasn’t such a good idea, and we may decide to start over.

This process of starting over describes my own interest in learning research. There are plenty of examples in which learning is not really so much an addition of an idea, concept, or story, but a deconstruction of what we already know. Some learning only comes to fruition when other things we “know” get out of the way. Physics is ripe with examples of this: We keep intuitively thinking that things move only when they’re being pushed, and that the push is indicative of motion and vice-versa. We’re either born with some of these ideas, or we see enough examples of this all the time that it gets hardwired into our psyches, and no matter how many times a lecturer tells the story of Newton’s laws of motion, we’ll still hold onto those deeply engrained notions.

Like I said, my stewing has been on the stovetop for a few months now, especially as I’ve been thinking about this “learning for life” talk. I never really thought that one view of learning was completely wrong and another completely right. (Although, truth be told, I tend to think that my own ideas are more right than others, but I come around eventually . . . maybe because eventually I always want to be right?) Then, just in the last few days, I’ve been thinking harder about some geology that I’m supposed to have some understanding of, because I’m supposed to be leading some teachers out into the desert to investigate some of the stuff. There is a lot about geology that confounds me, not because I don’t understand the words or the pictures, but because I have a hard time understanding the story. Right: the story. I read all of John McPhee’s Basin and Range and enjoyed and learned and embraced all of the description of the study and formation of the basin and range (basically everything in between the Wasatch Range on my right, and the Sierra Nevada Range on my left, as I’m facing north), but there were still pieces in there that didn’t fit or that I couldn’t picture. It turns out there was one piece of the story that I hadn’t glued in the right place, and when I heard a talk last fall that piece was inadvertently revealed and the entire story made sense. Actually, now that I think about it again, I realize that I had had a wrong idea that was getting in the way of the right one. All the ranges within the basin seem to me to be sticking “up,” when in fact the process is such that other stuff gets thinned out and falls down, leaving these folded things upward. In my mind for the longest time I couldn’t figure out how the spreading of the basin would lead to these ranges getting pushed up. It turns out they weren’t pushed at all.

So, that bit of “learning” was a combination of a change in my thinking, replacing an idea that was messing up any progress in my thinking with an idea that then worked. In particular, the new idea worked with the whole story. So, yes, there is narrative there. We just have to be careful that our own story’s details don’t interfere or obscure the real plot line. I’m hesitantly considering this as I think that I’ve finally understood the story of salt and arches in Arches N.P. It’s a long (geologically so!) story, but basically one in which an old sea leaves behind a layer of salt, there’s an upheaval somewhere else, the salt layer now sits on an inclined plane and slowly “flows” into a spot where it concentrates; but then eventually water seeps through layers above and dissolves the salt, leaving a void that other stuff then gets pulled towards. This pulls layers of sedimentary rock, and begins to separate it into “fins,” parallel stands of sandstone that will eventually have the spaces between eroded away. All these fins run parallel to one another, but all pointed perpendicularly to the direction to the salt concentration, because that was the center of the “pull” that caused these fins to begin to form in the first place. When you visit a place like Arches, there are signs and brochures and trail guides that have all these words about the salt and the fins and the like, but it’s all been just words to me. Now, maybe just after one reading that really put the pieces together for me, I’ve been able to tell the story to myself. So, in this case, there wasn’t this conceptual change, but a bit by bit construction until the whole story came together. Until I realize there’s some piece of it that isn’t right.

This is all to say that, for the talk I’m giving as well as multiple other purposes, learning isn’t a story nor a changed idea. It’s either, or both, or other things as well. We just have to be careful about what it is we think learning is versus what it is that we expect out of a student versus what it is that the student thinks learning is. (This becomes the major theme of the talk.) There are multiple possibilities, and if you’ve read this far you might as well keep going because I’m running out of steam and coffee and time and need to just list these:

  • memorizing words/numbers/facts — Surely, most people who would dare to go to a talk on “learning for life” probably don’t think that it’s this simple, but I do run into people like this all the time. In fact, it’s probably the de facto (facto?!) assumption we implicitly make about learning as policy about schooling is being constructed. Just consider the current testing regime in place, or listen to a politician talk about education sometime.
  • ability to do something: a skill (e.g., a backflip), write a paragraph, make a measurement
  • ability to know a story and interweave the ideas. Better yet would be the ability to tell the story yourself.
  • a construction of a new explanation based on your own investigation.
  • a deconstruction of an old idea based on your own investigation.
  • the reconstruction of how you do something . . . often this is learned via an apprenticeship experience of some kind, as are many of the following.
  • the reconstruction of how you think about something . . .
  • the reconstruction of yourself (i.e., your identity).
  • the ability and gumption to reconstruct something outside of yourself (e.g., plant a garden, run for mayor, ride a bike, decide to teach, etc.)

And there are many other possibilities in between and beyond these. I guess the point is that we should consider all the possibilities, and then consider if our own modes of educational operation are making good on more than one or two of these. We inherently expect more out of learners, so we probably need to expect more out of what we design for them as well.

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