Thursday, 9 July 2015

What have you learned today and why that's a bad thing...

I've been known to be pretty hard on the pursuit of 'knowledge', I think it's a fool's folly to try to hold something that flows like a river.  I've written it's a trap, it's not an object and various other views that we should be learning rather than trying to acquire knowledge and that the two things are not the same.  So now here am I about to have a go at learning too?

Not exactly.  But recently I've found myself getting annoyed with the way we try to objectify learning.  If your lesson/course/learning starts by telling me by the end of this lesson/course/learning you will learn x, y and z I'm a little turned off.  In fact I'll go a little further, you can't really tell me what I'll learn by the end either.  Sure you can have a well-defined test and it's reasonable for you to make that assumption - but we should recognise that's exactly what it is.  Just like calling teaching or training "learning" it's a bit of an assumption that the two things are the same.  You don't really write 'learning' do you - that's the desired outcome but it's not what you do.  You make up teaching or training material - and whilst you want to make learning the outcome, that's not strictly what it is.  Now you may think this is just splitting hairs, but in the world where there is so much informal learning where we use investigation type techniques to learn things (not to mention social media type approaches) surely it becomes even more important that we don't assume learning is or needs to be quantified the way we often try.

Okay, I'm having trouble convincing some of you I can tell (which is pretty impressive from a blog - maybe just me arguing this in my own head).  Let's take #lrnchat as a great example. That's when a great number of experts (and me) get together for a Twitter chat where we talk learning.  Q0 is the same each week 'what did you learn today, if not today this week'.  I can't be the only one who cringes each time this question is asked - it's really really difficult to answer and not because I'm not learning, but because it's asking me to quantify something that I'm not sure can be thought of that way. At the end of the session comes an even harder question 'what did you learn' from this chat? Damn it, I've participated I've shaped some ideas and I've interacted every way I can but I can't simply answer that question and that's an issue... but is the issue with me or the question?  

So for me knowledge is a river and learning is a journey (yes, I know how it sounds).  Learning is what we do when we shape our opinions, when we think, when we contribute and when we consider what others say.  It's a journey not a destination because we don't arrive at a point where we've 'learned' anything, we are continually learning and evolve. Our opinions and ideas (just like our knowledge) are formed over time and re-form. That's not to say we all do it at the same rate or with the same approach, but if your ideas are formed and can't be changed you've stopped learning - only at that point have you 'learned' something. Does that mean learning is a 'bad' thing? Shock horror, but if learning is concrete then maybe yes that's the bad thing, the idea of learning as a journey is a good thing, but learning as a thing is an end-state so that's not so cool. I know some of you think I'm just caught up in the language, but look at examples in history - we learned Newton's laws of motion (c'mon you can remember some of them) only to find that they're actually not 100% accurate (think speeds approaching the speed of light and relativity). If we'd all stopped at the point of having learned Newtonian physics then that would be that. I learned English at a very young age (being English I don't count it as my greatest success...) but I didn't actually. I learned some basic parts of the language and to this day I continue to build and learn my vocabulary whilst I drop off other parts that aren't of use to me, my language evolves - isn't that what learning really is?

So here's the thing, when you say 'what will you or have you learned' maybe that's not the most productive question.  Maybe the question is 'did it make you think?', 'did it challenge your preconceptions or make you change your mind?' or even just 'did you enjoy it?'. For me if I'm going to answer those questions from now on, not with a semi-fake I learned 'x, y and z again' but with an honest 'it made me think about so-and-so...'.  

So let's stop treating knowledge and learning as nouns, they're not 'things' and it's okay that we can't always quantify them as such. Learning, if we must classify it, is a verb, it's an action it's something that we do and I hope I'm always in learning mode. So if you learned something from this blog then okay, but I'm hoping it just made you think about what learning is... because to me that's learning.

Keep learning everyone (however you define it) and feel free to disagree with me by commenting - my mind's not set on this so I'm happy to re-shape my ideas with you (or you can take it in a new direction with or without me :)