Rediscovering the nature of learning

Recently, I participated in an intriguing discussion on Facebook with two LSL colleagues and several Taiwanese scholars in the learning technology field. The discussion was mainly carried out in Chinese. I hereby translate some important points below.

Eric: Are human beings born as empty vessels?  Are we born with “learning
tools” or “learning features”? What natural talents or “equipment” imbued us with the ability to learn? …… Can we “program” ourselves? …… Engineers can program the computers. How can our parents program us to embed more capabilities (“apps”)? Where is the Apple Store for human beings?

David: Are human beings really born as empty vessels? No, because even self-programming itself is a program. If humans do not have such pre-programs, they can’t even live for a second.

Eric: Then is it the Matrix that programs us? Oh, My Lord, please leave me in this evil Matrix. Don’t brush me off.

Huang: Your question reminds me of the survival instinct of the primitive tribes. Regardless of whether they are situated at the poles or the tropical forests, how did they manage to learn? How could their societal culture be transferred?

Eric: Bandura’s social nature of learning may be able to shed some light …

Hsing: The process of biological evolution is analogous to the continuous (re-)installations of progressively modified OS. We can perceive learning in human brains as parallel to  developing and utilizing new distributed apps.Abiding by the principles of constant changes of the environments and the survival of the fittest, the next version of OS should be able to develop (self-program) apps that are more suitable for the future.

Huang: Some living habits need to be duplicated and imitated, including the capabilities of using tools in daily life. From the Stone Age to the New Stone Age, it was about the improvement of the capabilities of using tools. Such capabilities need to be inherited and advanced.

I stumbled upon and joined the discussion at this point as I couldn’t help associating the topic to my past whole year’s reflection on the nature of learning, which has now constituted one of my research interests. It all started from my early attempt to formalize the notion of seamless learning, supported by 1:1 (one mobile device per learner) setting. Chan et al. (2006) define seamless learning as a learning model where a student can learn whenever they are curious in a variety of scenarios and in which they can switch from one scenario or context (such as formal and informal learning, personal and social learning, physical reality and cyberspace, etc.) to another easily and quickly using the personal device as a mediator. The key is to empower and support them to learn wherever and whenever they are stimulated to learn. Learning is immersed in the daily life and the daily life activities are integrated into the on-going learning experience. Last December, I concluded my theme-based invited speech at ICCE 2010 with the following remark (which is also available in an in-press journal paper arisen from the speech),

“Humans are intrinsic sense makers, looking to organize new information so as to find meanings, significance, or patterns in it (Schank, 1999), in order to make sense of the world and cope with new situations and problems. As a counterpoise to the view of learning as a form of ‘knowledge transfer’, researchers (e.g., Weick, 1995) argue for the active-sense-making nature of learning. When learners cannot make sense of new information, they will either create sense or meaning for the information or leave the information as incomprehensible noise (Larsen-Freeman, 2002). Learning deficiencies can therefore be characterized as a learner’s lack of the habits of mind and the cognitive skills in creating a new sense for new information. An undesirable consequence of this is doing rote memorization for the sake of doing formal assessments. Apart from the formal curriculum covered in the school, any experience or encounter in a learner’s daily life is a
potential resource for her sense making (or learning). By advocating mobile assisted learning, it is our intention to combine the technological resources and pedagogical means to ignite our learners’ inner fire of sense making or sense creation. Such dispositions are stimulated by new information (either intentionally or incidentally) accessed or sensed anytime, anywhere, and within any context, thus enabling the learners to experience genuine holistic learning.”

Building on the above exposition, I was looking into how the rich learning resources and contexts learners experience in their everyday life could play important roles in complementing formal learning. Inspired by the notions of “mediation by artefacts” and distributed cognition, my colleagues and I derived a novel visualisation approach for
descriptive analysis of the learners’ in-situ learning activities. Artefacts (broadly defined to include instruments, signs, languages, and machines) mediate activity and are created by people to control their own behaviour. In many cases of planned or emergent learning activities, every-‘thing’, or artefacts, that a learner encounter in the learning environment, may play pivotal roles in the seamless learning process, suggesting that there is a need to capture how learners interact with artefacts in a seamless learning experience. A holistic seamless learning experience design requires learners not only to interact with other people and instructor-provided artefacts within a relatively closed learning environment (e.g., traditional classroom or e-learning portal), but also with the authentic physical environment and perhaps the Internet at large, where learners may draw any element or information that they incidentally encounter or recall (based on their prior knowledge or from their past experiences) and appropriate it into a useful mediating artefact for learning.

I put forward the notion of distributed cognition (DCog) in the Facebook-based discussion thread. DCog is devoted to the study of the representation of knowledge both inside the heads of individuals and in the world and the propogation of knowledge between different individuals and artefacts. A DCog perspective suggests that learning should not be perceived as an individual cognitive activity, but as a process distributed across individuals and artefacts. Therefore, an analysis of cognitive activities that incorporate the functionalities of artefacts will enable us to better understand how learning actually takes place within and beyond our design.

Our colleague, Mingfong chipped in to elaborate my point.

Mingfong: I think Eric raises a really interesting question regarding the biological nature of being. He posted a question framed by the mind-as-computer assumption and hence the following discussion threads mostly follow the assumption. What if human brains do not work like computers and they do not operate like computers? Of course Steven Pinker has framed the mind-as-computer metaphor well, but there are alternatives. Distributed cognition, as LH mentioned here, is a path to a cultural-nature-of-being framing. Mind does not work alone and human intelligence is distributed and mediated by artefacts, activities, social systems, and cultures. This assumption is not to negate the first assumption
Eric raised, but to expand the unit of analysis from human cognition as within the brain to human cognition as part of the activity, if not the society. We cannot deny the biological nature of being, but, as human beings, we are a product of culture and nature (biological) at the same time.

Eric: Thanks to Mingfong for adding the piece of culture. Indeed, the society and the culture have been making profound impact to learning. In particular, humans are social animals. Without information exchange in social activities, humans would not be able to stand out. In the past, certain human species were (physically) stronger than modern humans. Without special cognitive tools or social activities, we might have already been extinguished.

Beyond the discussion thread, the DCog perspective has enticed me to study the notion of learning ecology, which is defined by Barron (2006) as “the set of contexts found in physical or virtual spaces that provides opportunities for learning” (p.195). As potential theoretical frameworks for seamless learning, both Barab and Roth’s (2006) “curriculum-based ecosystems” and Luckin’s (2005) “learner centric ecology of resources” advocate that individual learners’ holistic, cross-context and perpetual learning ecology had to be genuinely learner centric. The two somewhat overlapping frameworks conceptualise learning as a process of connecting learners to the ecology of learning resources. In particular, Luckin et al.’s (2011) notion of ‘learner generated contexts” redefine context as “the combination of interactions the learner experiences across multiple physical spaces and times.” (p.73)

In this regard, I propose a re-conceptualisation of the nature of “seamless learning environment” from an individual student’s perspective by adapting Barron’s (2006) definition of learning ecology as “the combination of physical or virtual (living) spaces that a person is situated or encounters in his/her daily life that provides
opportunities for learning.” I remove the phrase “contexts found in …” from the original definition to recognise the potential for learners to self-generate learning contexts from the resources found in each living space; and to carry out a learning activity can be viewed as the act of generating a learning context. The opportunities for learning are always there. It is up to an individual who has established the habit of mind and competencies of seamless learning to identify and appropriate such opportunities to advance her learning.

There is still a long way for us to theorise seamless learning but I believe that the notions of “sense making as the nature of learning”, DCog, “mediation by artefacts”, learning ecology and learner generated contexts may shed light to our effort.

P/S: Special thanks to Mingfong, Wenli, Chee Kit, Yanjie and Chai (Ching Sing) for enlightening me at various stages of my (still on-going) journey of making sense of seamless learning.


1 Nanyang Walk | Singapore 637616
© 2010 National Institute of Education | Nanyang Technological University

designed by anden solutions.