Learning in Western minds is inextricably bound with memories and ideas from an institution called school. School is a building where learning takes place. Lots of learning. Only learning. Well, not exactly. Other activities creep in. Meeting your first boyfriend or girlfriend. Fighting during the recreation period. Talking to friends about a TV programme you saw or maybe a book you read or a website you visited. Playing marbles. Discussing friends and enemies and their behaviour and their words. But despite these intrusions, School with a capital ‘S’ is a place where ‘concentrated’ learning takes place. These learning activities are generally divided up into periods (when I was at school it was 45 minutes). During that period if you try to play marbles or talk together about girlfriends or boyfriends you get reprimanded or even punished. You are disturbing the learning. And if you persist you can even get excluded or expelled. So school is an attempt to force people to do learning and nothing else: the underlying assumption being that that is the best way to do learning.
It’s possible you have never seen school in that way. In which case you must be asking, why bother? The answer is simple: learning as a concentrated activity done by and for itself, stranded like a fish out of water, desperately flapping around trying to get back into its proper element, is perhaps not the best way to do things. Learning is fundamentally an activity that is integrated into other activities. And learning makes sense because it is embedded. And this ‘making sense’ is the main motivation for doing it. If you take learning out of its natural environment (the water of the fish) you have to find other ways of motivating people to do it. That’s why we have tests and marks and all those ‘senseless’ activities. I say ‘senseless’ because those artificial incentives to learn get between us and our natural ability and desire to learn. Careful here though, that last word is a trap. It immediately evokes the activity done in a school-like way, as something you do in its own right, on its own, out of a desire to ‘learn’. Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that. It’s just that that type of activity and the fact that we focus on it when we think of learning, gets in the way of seeing that most ‘learning’ – let me call it ‘learning moments’ to distinguish it from the condensed version – takes places unnoticed as part of our everyday activities. That’s why the fish metaphor above is misleading: in fact it is very difficult to tell our learning fish from the water of everyday life.
Let me give an example to clarify what I mean by a ‘learning moment’. At dinner yesterday evening my friend Ramesh, on a business trip from India, was talking about a film I hadn’t seen. Something called: What the bleep do we know? As he explained the film to me it made me think of a book I’d just read: Science and the Akashic Field: an Integral Theory of Everything. He hadn’t heard of it. So I showed it to him. And while he read the back cover I used my portable (no iPad as yet) to check out the film and order a copy. My friend had got engrossed in reading the first pages in the mean time so I looked up the word ‘bleep’ in the dictionary on my portable wondering what the meanings of the word were. I’m a writer, so words are my business. He asked if he could borrow the book during his stay and, as I’d already read it, I agreed. And the conversation continued about the book and the film and other places we knew of where these ideas had been expressed. Note that in this tiny fragment there is no formalisation of what is being done. The two people are not following a set procedure. There is no test to see if they have learnt anything. And if you were to ask them they’d surely tell you they were having a conversation, not learning. Yet this is a good example of a learning moment. Both have given the other new ideas, new tracks to follow. This example concerns sharing information and ideas, but it might have been learning new ways of doing things by seeing how someone else does it.
Now the above exchange happened spontaneously. It made sense at the time. It made so much sense, the two people taking part hardly thought about it. They were curious and wanted to know more about subjects that interested or intrigued them. Now you might say that this is not learning in the sense you think of it. But it has all the hallmarks of learning: peer exchange, exploring new concepts, comparing notes, understanding ideas, … In other more complex circumstances when it wasn’t obvious how you could get the knowledge you lacked to do something in hand you might have been forced to think of ‘learning’ strategies. But in most cases, it just happens. So what’s the big deal? Well, being aware of learning moments might improve them or even make things possible that otherwise would have appeared impossible. I am not suggesting we should attempt to formalise learning moments, nor that they necessarily need to be explicit – doing so would invariably destroy much of the richness and adaptability of such moments – but there are times when increased awareness of these learning mechanisms could lead to better strategies and ways of doing things. That is where ‘external’ help could contribute to better learning.
Alan McCluskey, Connected Magazine, April 24, 2010
This article was inspired by work done on the question of evaluation and moments of evaluation in the PALETTE project with Professor Murray Saunders and Prof. Bernadette Charlier. See Evaluation in Complex Situations. It was also stimulated by discussions in the context of the online Forums entitled SFEM 2010.