Unfold Learning

exploring the best innovations in learning and teaching

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“Natural” Learning


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technological challenges that once constrained the movement of information and people — challenges that have now been superseded or solved.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.

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Beyond Modern Education…


Buadrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation in a still from The Matrix, distributed by Warner Bros., 1999.

Part 2: Simulacra and Simulation

In his 1981 Simulacra and Simulation (print or PDF), the theorist Jean Baudrillard offers a critical framework for understanding how our concept of the world has changed over time, and this can be a useful starting point for thinking about how educational systems and structures are also changing. In this book, Baudrillard’s overall model derives from the production of goods, tracing the changes from small guild workshops to the most mechanized factories. While that may seem irrelevant for discussing trends in education, it actually points to a fascinating parallel: throughout history, we’ve constructed schools and shaped our ideas about learning to mirror the ways we produce objects. Many writers — most recently, Todd Rose in his fascinating The End of Average (digital and print) — have traced the ways that industrialism and factory culture changed the practice of teachers and the expectations for learners, but Baudrillard gives us a longer view and offers us an explanation for why we’ve made the changes we have.

Semioticians like Baudrillard study how we construct meaning through the creation of signs. When we connect meaning (semioticians call this the “signified”) to an object (the “signifier”), we create a “sign,” and signs dictate how we understand and interact with the world. For example, when most of us see a red octagon, we know it means “stop.” The red octagon is the signifier, and the meaning we associate with it, “stop,” is the signified. Yet there’s nothing inherent in red octagons (or even in either just the color red or just octagonal shapes) that would automatically make us think “stop” — at least if we hadn’t already been introduced to the notion of stop signs. Instead, at some point, somebody connected these physical characteristics to this meaning, and in so doing, made a sign — quite literally, in this case. The rest of us agreed (perhaps not overtly, but at least in our practice) to “read” such signs in this manner, and thus whenever we see a red octagon while we’re driving, we stop.

However, in Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard is thinking about more than just the creation of individual signs; he’s thinking about how we make meaning systematically — how we build whole superstructures of meaning. Baudrillard calls these systems of signification “simulations,” and he argues that we’ve experienced 4 major periods of simulation in history. Just as with individual signs, these symbolic superstructures have dictated how we interact with and understand the world around us — and they have much to offer as we consider where education is heading.

Here are the four phases of simulation Baudrillard describes. As you consider each of them, pay special attention to the changes he traces in the relationship between reality and its connection with symbolic meaning. And be forewarned: this gets pretty abstract and philosophical. Nonetheless, it’s critical to lay this foundation so we can build the rest of the articles in this series… Continue reading

Beyond Modern Education…

Radebaugh Push-Button Education
Arthur Radebaugh. “Closer than we think.” 1958. Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Part 1: There and Back Again

Get any group of educators together, and the topic will inevitably turn to “what’s wrong” with our profession. Conference schedules are packed with people lending their voices to the chorus of critiques, and they’re just as packed with people offering this or that “solution” that will magically transform everything — at least until the Next Big Thing comes along.

This is nothing new. In fact, it’s the one constant that has characterized the profession since I started teaching almost 30 years ago. And that’s part of the problem. There’s been such a string of promises — MOOCs, tablets, lightweight web clients, and interactive white boards, to name just a few recent ones — that, despite a few positive-use cases, have all fallen flat. This makes many of us understandably dubious. With all of these broken promises, it doesn’t take long for people in our profession to become jaded, even disinterested. So how do we genuinely move forward without chasing once again after futures that prove illusory?

In this series of articles, I want to explore and provide a theoretical background that can help ground our discussion, giving us a metric for assessing what’s being offered and hopefully helping us avoid some of the false paths we’ve taken in the past. To do so, we need first to think not just about what this or that approach might mean for education but to think about what we mean by words like “good” and “education” in the first place. Going back to such definitions may seem unnecessarily rudimentary, a journey back to origins that everybody already knows. But I’m convinced that it’s our assumption that we’ve all come from the same place — that we all started on the same page — that’s behind many of our conflicts about what education needs next. Without such a shared understanding, it’s far too easy for us to get trapped in blind alleys or dead ends — even if the path we took to get there initially seemed promising and even if lots of other people were with us along the way.

So in this series, I want to ask a few essential questions: what do we mean by education? What tools can we use to differentiate good practice from bad, and what do we mean by “good” and “bad” in the first place? How can our development of an overall metric help our practice move further and how can it restrict us and keep us from discovering new possibilities and innovation? And most importantly, how can our own growth and learning engender the learning we want for our students and make a positive impact in the world?

This last question is one that I care about profoundly. In fact, it’s at the core of my definition of learning. Critically, learning for me is not primarily about the transfer of information, though such transfers often occur in learning situations. Rather, learning is about relating more closely with the world and with the people around us. In terms of information, true learning requires the application of that information in either a relevant context — a situation that gives meaning to the information — or in connection with a relevant community — people who also give meaning to the information. Indeed, true learning typically involves both of these contextual and communal factors.

This model of learning might seem odd for someone who has spent most of his career studying medieval literature. After all, what could be more esoteric than the odd dialects and cultural scraps of people who have been dead for a thousand years? How could any of that connect with our experience of the world today or of its people? But that’s just it. The value of my studies hasn’t resided in any sort of esoteric abstraction; rather, it’s been valuable precisely because it has let me see the world and people around me more clearly — sometimes by contrast, but mostly because I realize that what it means to be human hasn’t changed. Our humor, our worry, our love, these are all instantly recognizable, even if they’re packaged in languages that no lips have uttered for a millennium.

So by way of a beginning to this series, here’s a manifesto: the five natures of learning:

  • Learning is connective. It doesn’t exist in tidy packages, but is only recognizable in complex webs of interaction with others and with the world.
  • Learning is living. If it doesn’t integrate with our regular experience of the world and grow with that experience, it isn’t real.
  • Learning is generative. It gathers, it remixes, it synthesizes, it creates.
  • Learning is directive. It sets us on paths — sometimes recursive, sometimes quotidian, sometimes surprising. It doesn’t let us sit still.
  • Learning is human. By nature, humans are obsessed with learning, and learning makes us more human. However, if we remove it from real contexts and connections, we can alter, or even defeat, this basic human instinct.

In the next installment, I’ll explore the notion that learning has to be connected to real-world contexts and communities. What constitutes the “real” and why (and how) did education begin to split learning into information disconnected from these two essential elements of meaning-making?