What is learning anyway?

Believe it or not, in a past life, before I went into education, I was closely involved with the Women’s Network in the organisation where I worked. The idea of getting men involved in these groups is, I think a good one. Nothing much is ever going to change for women unless men are involved in the change too, but that’s probably another discussion. As part of this role, I and a colleague were helping out with the team organising a series of talks and events highlighting different aspects of diversity.

We were trying to think about how to evaluate the events when we hit on what seemed a bit of a brainwave. What was the point of having Diversity Week anyway? Surely the key aim was that, maybe in a small way, people would change their behaviour as a result of it. So that needed to be the focus of our evaluation – we could ask people whether their behaviour, or at least thinking, changed as a result of the events. The idea was enthusiastically adopted.

I remembered this incident when doing our current reading and exercises for H800 – Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates. We have been reading Sfard (1998), who essentially argues that there are two dominant metaphors for learning – learning as acquisition of knowledge, almost universal until recently, and learning as participation in a group or community, emphasised in a lot of modern work. She strongly argues that we should not favour one or the other, but need to keep the two in tension.

A key point is that (as Sfard recognises), these two are very much interdependent. Much of my focus at work is on helping trainee accountants to pass exams and become qualified accountants. They are hoping to join a very specific, formal community with its own norms, ethics, terminology and culture. The learning process brings them to a point where they can join one of the institutes. However, in order to get to that point, there is a particular body of knowledge they need to acquire, techniques they must understand. You cannot have one without the other.

There are other metaphors, of course. Bayne (2005), in another of our key texts, considers learning to be bound up with identity change. This really strikes a chord with me – possibly the major thing that I took away from our last module was a shift in my identity so that I considered myself a blogger. This was the subject of a blog post in itself. I look forward to investigating her ideas further.

For me, though, it is also important to think about learning as a change in behaviour, at least for certain types of learning. It is a cliché to say that our actions count for more than our thoughts or our words, but nonetheless generally true. So a useful challenge to students like me could be – “What will you actually do differently as a result of learning this?”

References

Bayne, S. (2005) ‘Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace’ in Land, R. and Bayne, S. (eds) Education in Cyberspace, Abingdon, RoutledgeFalmer.

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’, Educational Researcher, vol.27, no.2, pp.4–13; also available online at http://libezproxy.open.ac.uk/ login?url=http://www.jstor.org/ stable/ 1176193 (last accessed 20 February 2012).

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