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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 07, 2011

I commented, here:

The best learning I've ever done has been on my own, working through a hard problem, by reading and then writing, either text, or software, or derivations. This is also the hardest learning I've done; most of the people I could talk to don't understand it well enough to explain it, and attempting to work it through leads to more confusion than clarity.

Of course, that's just me. And I wouldn't think that what was best for me was best for everyone.

Pat Parslow replied,

I have certainly had some great learning experiences that way too, and most often, 'hardest' is strongly correlated with 'best' in terms of learning outcomes. It may not always correlate quite as well with the idea of 'best experience related to learning', which is where I would say dialogue has been the most important element for me. But on the couple of occasions I have managed to get a prototype conversational agent to chat to me about what I am trying to learn, it has been immense fun and quite productive too, so the people aren't necessarily part of that equation for me.

Here are my thoughts, expanded:

I think one of the things about working with software is that the learning process can be very iterative. Code something, try it, see if it works, code something, try it, see if it works, code something, try it, see if it works. This back-and-forth with the machine is characteristic of the hard learning that I have done.

This also applies, though less obviously so, in other logico-linguistic domains. Derivations either work, and can be known to work, or they fail. Hence, working on a series of difficult problems can provide the same result. In the case of writing, the evidence of success is less sharply defined, but can be observed nonetheless (for example, by reading the paragraph aloud to test for flow).

There is typically a progression through such iterations. Sometimes the progression is explicitly designed in the assignment itself, as in a series of logic problems or scientific experiments. Sometimes it is defined in terms of overall difficulty, as in the offering of increasingly talented opponents in a game or sport, or in the accomplishment of increasingly difficult welding or woodworking tasks. Sometimes the progression is defined through movement through social circles, such as the progression toward increasing involvement in a scientific or academic community.

The concept of progression in teaching is much less well-defined. Part of this is due to the many roles teachers play, and part of it is due to the variable nature of the object of enquiry. In teaching a student there isn't as clearly a 'right and wrong' as there is in the case of solving logic problems or programming a computer; student success or failure is informed by numerous factors; and the students change each year without necessarily increasing or decreasing the challenge. I think this ambiguity in teaching leads professionals to seek measures of progression through other methods, for example, interaction with other teachers.

My own feeling concerning the iteration of learning with a group is that it is very easy (and unfortunately common) to take the wrong measures as indicators of success. In some cases, the indicators can be very clear, as they would be for an individual - solving scientific problems, winning sporting events, building bridges - but in others the indicators are much more vague. Normally a discipline would be defined by its standards for success, but in the case of those with vague standards, the discipline is defined by the domain of enquiry. What is 'success', and what is 'progression through iterations', in religious studies?

My own observation is that 'progression' in these disciplines is often defined by adherence to the standards of practice within the discipline. It is this standard of progress, I believe, that appeals to precisely the wrong set of indicators of success. For example, consider the following standards of success:
- fluency with and use of a certain vocabulary
- exposure to and familiarity with a standard body of literature
- conduct of enquiry in a generally accepted form of discourse
- acceptance of an underlying set of principles

In other work, I have characterized these as typical of what I called a 'group', and suggested that the standard for success in such environments is best characterized in terms of sameness with other members of that environment. Sameness of vocabulary, sameness of curriculum, sameness of process, and sameness of belief set. Among other things. Naturally the opposition focused the suggestion that my use of the word 'group' was heterodox, rather than the underlying set of propositions I was trying to express. This is, I would argue, characteristic of this misplaced set of standards for success.

If we look at the other domains where there is some less ambiguous standard for success, it may be argued, then we also see these same practices: agreement on vocabulary, curriculum, discourse and method. This may be true, but this is the *result* of successful enquiry, not the cause of it, and progress in these disciplines is typically accompanied (cf. Kuhn, Lauden) by *change* in these practices, not adherence to them. This is *especially* the case when we consider the progress of an individual's own learning; we cannot imagine how a child could possibly be successful in school using only the vocabulary, curriculum, methods and beliefs he or she had at the age of four.

Learning is change, not sameness, and this is as true for a society as it is for an individual. There is no single 'path' or progression that creates learning by bringing a student into the same place as everybody else. At the very best, achievement of sameness can be seen only as an intermediate step in that progress, analagous to mastering the bubble sort, successfully executing a riposte, or building a chest of drawers. But learning has occurred only is the student is able to go beyond that measure of sameness, and create something unique. And success in the field may be obtained whether or not a person has first achieved that degree of sameness, however likely or unlikely that may be.

That is what probably most underlies my unease with group interaction as an essential educational principle. It is a methodology that, while it promotes the sort of iterative behaviour that characterizes successful disciplines, nonetheless risks miring students in an environment where success is measured inappropriately, and in the worst case scenario, risks miring an entire discipline in an unsuccessful methodology.

I believe many academic disciplines - philosophy, education, economics - are in this situation now. Which is why I believe that success in these disciplines will come only as a result of breaking out of the conventions current within those domains, rather than prevalent within them.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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