Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Questioning Pedagogy

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 04, 2010

Originally posted on Half an Hour, January 4, 2010.

I was given a reminder of the promises I made regarding my talk next week, which has to do with the pedagogical underpinning for personal learning.

Probably others have a much greater base of knowledge regarding pedagogy particularly, so I hesitate to offer models for specific situations. I would imagine people in the field have those well in hand.

That said, I think that I approach the subjective from a perspective that is very non-standard (and possibly, therefore, non-useful) in the educational literature.

Specifically, although we can speak of objective-oriented or goal-directed learning (and hence of a pedagogy that leads us there) I think that such a view is somewhat misrepresentative of what actually happens in learning, and therefore of what effective learning looks like. because I do not have a 'content-based' view of learning, I do not view learning (simply) as the acquisition and memory of new knowledge, and therefore do not trade in theories discussing the integrity of messaging or method of construction of that message.

Yes, we can focus in on one item of study, but in the ordinary course of events (and in the ordinary course of a classroom) we in fact acquire information across a broad spectrum, and this information does not accumulate facts, but rather, stimulates the growth and development of a neural network, such that one's learning is not a set of propositional storage, or even a (propositionally identifiable) skill, but rather, a complex set neural connections manifest in altered dispositions to behave (respond / think / react ) across a wide spectrum of cases, and not the particular subject.

So my view on learning, more generally, and without respect to the subject-specific exceptions we call domain learning, is centered around richness and diversity of the learning experience. I am interested in the sorts of experiences that will manifest themselves in useful dispositions (or habits of mind) across a wide spectrum of disciplines, where these dispositions are not taught as content, but rather, acquired as habits, through repeated exercise in increasingly challenging environments.

Thus learning (and pedagogy) as I see it is more about the development or creations of capacities (such as the capacity to learn, capacity to reason, capacity to communicate, etc) where these capacities are (again) not 'subjects' but rather complex developments of neural structures - more like 'mental muscles' than anything else. So (to carry the analogy), yes, you can focus on a certain muscle, or you can focus on a certain sport, but only at the expense of your wider fitness - an d a cross-training approach would be more appropriate.

The role of technology is to place learners into these environments. Technology - thought of from a learning perspective - is not a carrier of educational content, nor even a locus of educational activities, but rather, the provision of a space, a facility, where someone can exercise mental capacities through increasingly challenging experiences (where these experiences may (as they typically do) or may not involve other people. Playing skill games, blogging and being challenged, taking part in online debates, organizing people in a MMRPG, these are all not simply increasingly engaging, but increasingly challenging, educational environments.

In my view, content - including educational materials, OERs, communications, blogs, conversations, and the like - is the raw material we use to create these environments, and the stuff we work with in order to exercise and grow our capacities. We become, for example, more mentally agile by analyzing and creating arguments (as opposed to by remembering arguments). It is our work with the argument that develops our capacity, not our acquisition or storage of the argument. (Just so: it is our work with various forms of mathematics that develop our capacity to think formally and abstractly (and not our memory of mathematical formulae)).

Does that make sense? Perhaps there are pedagogical antecedents - again, as I say, others would be more likely than I to know these. What do you think?

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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