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“Natural” Learning

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Prehistoric stone with cultic pictograms from the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. Photo by W. Rankin, 2016.

For several years now — certainly since our team began to explore the implications of mobility back at ACU — I’ve been thinking about learning and trying to understand its structures. It’s my conviction that the way we conceive of and practice learning in schools is largely the product of a series of technological challenges that once constrained the movement of information and people — challenges that have now been superseded or solved. Understanding “school” from inside the structures we’ve invented for schools thus leads to a kind of echo-chamber problem that tells us more about the institution than about learning itself. So for some time, I’ve been working to understand other sorts of learning — specifically, the self-motivated learning that dominates so much of our lives: the learning of hobbies and pastimes for our own edification and enrichment, the learning we do around our homes from parents and grandparents, and the learning that we do to survive and navigate our everyday lives.

What I’m going to present here today is a work in progress. Though it’s based on a synthesis of research and experience, I’m not going to present that research here today. What I’m interested in instead are your comments and feedback about the overall model. Does this model seem plausible? Where is it flawed? Where are its strong and weak points? What exceptions to it can you suggest? Where do you see it applying? Though I’ve been working on it and thinking about it for half a decade, I need your help to test its soundness and make it stronger before I take the next steps with it. By the way, if you’re interested in another model based on this one’s structure, please see my post about “formal” learning here.

Here’s the the complete model in PDF form: structures-of-personal-learning. Because this PDF is able to connect all of the elements in a more complex way, it has some features that I don’t discuss below, but here’s a quick overview of most of what appears in it.

Natural Learning

First things first: as I said above, this model isn’t really about school or what we might think of as “formal learning” experiences, and this model isn’t about the learning that people do for reasons belonging to someone else: maintaining a certification, attending professional development, etc. This is about the learning we choose for ourselves for reasons that ultimately belong to us. So it won’t apply to a situation where someone is required to learn something for reasons that are beyond them. Instead, it’s for those moments when you say, “You know, I’ve always wanted to learn how to knit,” or “Your guitar playing is lovely. I wish I knew how to play.”

It’s my contention that the trigger moment for learning in these contexts comes from our curiosity about an element in the stream of things, people, or places that we encounter every day. Often, that encounter is about some form of novelty: something we don’t see often or something we’ve never seen before. Sometimes our curiosity is focused on a thing as a distinct external entity and sometimes it’s focused around how we might be different if that external thing became part of us or part of our own identity. Either way, curiosity is the originating factor in the learning ecosystem just as the sun is the originating factor in natural ecosystems (and I’m grateful for several conversations I had on my recent trip to Denmark that helped to crystallize this idea for me). The spark of learning emerging from the stream of experience looks something like this: sometimes it comes from only one of the three “noun” elements, but often it comes from more than one — connecting a person and a place, for example, or situating a thing in a place being used by people:


The “stream of experience” from which the spark of curiosity arises and develops.

When our curiosity is triggered, we face the first learning choice. We can let that spark dim, or we can begin to follow a cascading series of steps. Interestingly, these steps recapitulate the elements that generated the curiosity moment in the first place: content (“things”), community — either real or via media (“people”), and contexts — either literal spaces where we find ourselves or the kinds of cultural, social, or historical spaces we inhabit or encounter. Once an element captures our attention and curiosity, we begin a series of steps that looks something like this:


The initiating phase of learning.

We begin the “initiating phase” of learning by “noticing” — wondering about the nature or expression of an element (A). The question we ask ourselves internally may take many forms: “How does that work?” “How do you do that?” “Why does this happen?” or “What does this mean?”, among others. This sense of curiosity or wonder is critical to the rest of the steps and has to come from inside of us: it cannot purely be dictated or controlled by outside forces. Somehow, our own sense of wonder has to be sparked. Even if that spark starts with some kind of external pressure or requirement, unless we internalize the concern or interest to generate that spark, we’re likely to opt out of the learning process. We might go through the motions, but our initial disengagement will render the learning process transitory and feeble, and that will make it much more likely to collapse.

If our sense of curiosity is sparked, however, we’ll move to the next step, which is, in the broadest of terms, “social.” This is the first of two “production” steps — focused ultimately on “making” something, though the “artifact” we make may take many forms, including immaterial forms like performances. In this step (B), we seek connection with someone who can expand our understanding, offering us a perspective from expertise, and often supplying us with initial tools and an initial project. The “person” we connect with in this step doesn’t have to be someone we encounter directly, however: we might turn to an online video, read a book or article, examine a diagram, or explore a series of photographs. The key here is that what we’re seeking isn’t just more information or content; what we’re really seeking at this step is curation —the careful crafting of information or experience by someone who knows more or has more experience. In essence, this is the Vygotskian extension. We reach out to an other — real or via media — who can extend our capabilities, understanding, or challenge. What we’re seeking is shape, direction, and meaning, and this can only come from an encounter with someone (directly or indirectly) who is already farther along the path than we are. Significantly, this person doesn’t have to conceive of herself as a teacher; she just has to be someone with more experience of the learning focus than us. We might see a person knitting or playing guitar, for example, and express interest or curiosity, in part because we know that this person can also help us encounter the focus of our interest in a meaningful and productive way. If we don’t find an “other” to help us, if we’re unable to connect, we’ll often opt out of the learning process. Though we might return to a learning posture about this element sometime in the future, without someone to welcome us in and help us climb, the content will often be too daunting and insurmountable and we’ll opt out of the learning process.

Having connected with an “other,” though, we’re able to move to the next step (C). This is the second “production” step and is the crucible where curiosity is turned into genuine learning. In this step, we apply our initial skills or understanding in the making of an “artifact” (which, again, can be either durable or ephemeral). Although “making” has recently become trendy, educational theorists have long seen it as the apex of learning, and for good reason. Making requires us to operate in specific contexts — spaces where our learning is put to the test — and it requires us to apply our learning in ways that we haven’t necessarily anticipated or full prepared for. The application of skills, knowledge, and understanding thus not only disciplines and acculturates us into particular communities of knowledge or practice, but it also offers us the basis for two kinds of assessment: one immediate and “local” and another more deferred and “global.” The first form of assessment occurs largely in this step and has to do with our sense of how we’ve internalized the skills, knowledge, and understanding that are the focus of our learning. “Am I doing this right?”, “Do I have everything I need?”, and “Do I really get this?” are all questions we have an opportunity to answer through the making of an artifact in this step. The artifact is thus for us the first real test of our learning. Without the opportunity to make our learning “concrete,” the information we’ve been accumulating in the learning process can increasingly seem vague, confusing, and impractical, and this sense of abstraction can drive us from the learning process.

Once we’ve made an artifact, however, we move to the post-production phase, a place for the second form of more “global” assessment (D). At this point, we’re typically less focused on the details of our understanding than we are on the broader implications of what we’ve learned. “Did I enjoy that?”, “Did I connect with it?”, and “Was that worth my time?” are all questions we often ask at this phase. What’s important here is not necessarily pleasure, however, at least not in the most superficial sense of that word. What’s really essential is engagement. In other words, we don’t necessarily have to have loved doing what we just did — though love and enjoyment often happen and are a great predictor of ongoing commitment to the learning process. Sometimes, however, what we feel is less about love than about challenge: even if what we’ve just done was very difficult and ultimately disappointing, as long as we feel challenged to try again or do better the next time, we’ll likely continue to the next phase of the learning process.

The next phase of the learning process mirrors the first phase very closely, intensifying at each of the steps. The questions we ask in the first step (E) are increasingly sophisticated and focus on increasingly complex aspects of the topic. In the collaboration step (F), we often reach out not only to individuals, but increasingly to communities of practitioners, expanding the pool not only of mentors but also of collaborators available to us. And at the making phase (G), our projects become increasingly complex and ambitious. Yet overall, the structure looks remarkably like the steps of the “initiating phase.”

The iterating phase of learning

However, while this “iterating phase” recapitulates the same general structures as the first phase, it also features two important augmentations. Our increasing mastery at the “making” step (G) means that our projects often become the elements that will generate the “spark” for new learners, and our increasing experience, coupled with the wisdom we are developing through reflection as practitioners (H), makes us excellent mentors for new learners to connect with in their own collaboration steps (B).

As we repeat the iterative phase, our learning becomes more durable: we’re less and less likely to opt out, and the intensifying factors continue to build: the complexity of our questions, the reach of our community, the challenge of our projects, and the value of our reflection.

So that’s my model for the “structures of natural learning.” What do you think? I’d welcome your reflections and discussion in the comments…



©2016 William Rankin

Author: williamrankin

Explorer in emerging pedagogies, mobile learning activist, digital book prospector, information designer, medievalist

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