‘Learning is mysterious’. And I was reminded this by comments on the use of science demonstrations by Alom Shaha and by other reflective comments by practicing teachers such as Candlelighter’s objection to the assertion that
Students behave in broadly similar ways, and, like machines, if the correct inputs are submitted, predictable outputs will be emitted.
At the nub of Candlelighters objection is the idea that ‘knowledge’ can be broken down into sub-units, often called ‘modules’. The central thesis of this idea is that if an individual accretes enough of these ‘modules’ they will then ‘know something’. It is analogous, I think, to the idea that if a child owns enough Lego™ bricks that they will be able to build something of interest (say) a bridge.
I do not hold with this ‘modular theory of knowledge’. Within certain limited realms, the theory may work, but it simply does not explain how people come to understand complex ideas, or become expert in fields such as physics. On meeting experts I am amazed that they seem able to converse about ‘modules’ about which they have never been taught. How can they possibly do that! So on these grounds I reject this modular idea as inadequate. And also it does not match my own experience of either teaching or learning. I would like to put forward a different representation of human knowledge.
The ‘geographical theory of knowledge’ holds that human knowledge can be envisaged as a landscape, and what we experience as we move through the landscape varies from person to person. Some people experience almost nothing, whereas others are acutely aware of, say, the colour of the terrain. Others understand the geology or history of the area and others its folklore. In short, there are a large number of ways in which people can become familiar with a region of the ‘knowledge landscape’.
If this were an accurate representation of the way human beings ‘experience’ knowledge, this idea would have consequences for the process we call ‘learning’. In the knowledge landscape, ‘learning’ consists of (a) moving from ‘where’ you now are, to a new ‘location’ and (b) becoming familiar with new location. Facilitating this journey corresponds to ‘teaching‘. And the normal process of class teaching corresponds to ‘giving people directions‘ – a bit like being a tour guide.
People in a learning group will only rarely be starting from the same place. So issuing them all with the same directions is as mad as giving everyone ‘directions to London’ when they are starting from different places: inevitably people will get lost. Being ‘lost’ the knowledge landscape corresponds to a state of confusion. In learning environments it is inevitable that people will experience confusion (i.e. get lost) as they embark on journeys to and fro across the landscape. Inevitably people will get lost (get confused) but in the same way that people who are lost eventually find their way back home – so confusion is the precursor to learning. And being able to cope with this confusion without panicking is critically important.
How can an institution devoted to learning (i.e. to promoting journeys across the knowledge landscape) respond to the fact that people require individual directions to (a) first find out where they are and then (b) to get them to a new place on the landscape? The only way that I know is to talk to people, i.e. to engage in dialogue. This is in stark contrast to many experiences of education in which people are subjected to monologue. Monologue is characteristic of the modular theory in which a monologue optimises the ‘amount of knowledge’ passed from the teacher (talker) to the learner (listener).
Insisting on a uniform learning procedure does not guarantee a uniform experience or that people will eventually ‘know’ the same thing. Imagine insisting that everyone goes to the top of, say, the Eiffel Tower. For some the experience is terrifying, for others a drudge, for some a pleasure, and others a great joy. And similarly with many ‘intellectual destinations’. Some find thermodynamics deadly dull, others serenely beautiful. Others useful. So just making sure that people have ‘passed through’ a particular point on the knowledge landscape does not predetermine what they then ‘know’.
Where am I? This is the most profound question of all. Issuing directions – personalised or not – to direct people from where they are to another place, only makes sense if people know where they are in the first place. It doesn’t matter if the teacher ‘knows where they are are’: the student needs to find that out. Many people engaging with scientific topics, especially initially, are in a state of great ignorance. In this analogy, this corresponds to being utterly lost. Before any directions can be acted upon, a person has first to find out where they are. This learning step is in many ways the most difficult step of all. It involves acknowledging that the knowledge landscape exists and that they don’t know where they are on it. This can engender fear and confusion – especially in adults who feel embarrassed very easily. But finding out ‘where one is can also engineer elation – it is often something which people have sought for a long time.