What is learning? CALRG panel

What is learning? On Thursday 29 December, CALRG assembled a panel of four researchers to discuss this fundamental question: Bart Rienties, Liz Fitzgerald, Alice Peasgood, and Peter Twining. These are the liveblog notes. An audio recording was made and should be available soon.
Bees, September '14

Peter Twining

We need to distinguish between formal and human learning. Human learning is the real one, what we do in education (formal learning) is a disaster most of the time.

What do we learn? In formal, it’s about a pre-defined curriculum, divided in to artificial subjects, it’s academic knowledge, the theoretical before the practical. You learn about before you use it and apply it. It’s explicit understanding. Human learning is about becoming part of a club, acting in meaningful ways in a group of people.

The why is different too – human is to pursue interest, intrinsic motivation; formal is about jumping through a hoop, pleasing my teacher – extrinsic reward.

When – formal is timetabled, vs human being flexible, a long-term part of what I do.

Where – formal is decontextualised, you learn maths, not how to use maths to do something else. Human is in context.

Who – formal is about the teacher, the knowledgeable other, the learner doesn’t know much about what they’re being taught; in human learning, there’s mutuality, everyone has relevant expertise to bring.

How – formal learning by being told, some learning by doing, but experiments in school are not actual experiments – if you get unexpected results, they’re just wrong. Through imaginary/role play exercises. An example of students interacting in Second Life, negotiating a ‘marriage’, which troubled Peter, but the student said ‘you do realise this is only pretend?’ Then learning through becoming, actually doing it, doing it in the real world. Being told is formal; imaginary/role play and becoming is the human.

Human learning is happening all the time.

How do we know if people are learning? We test them in formal learning, especially in schools where we don’t trust teachers. In human learning, we see what people can do. It’s about being able to act in certain ways.

Peter is working on Points of Learning, a completely different ways of doing learning: https://halfbaked.education/?p=199

This talk is itself adapted from a blog post on Peter’s new blog, which he is keen to get people to visit: https://halfbaked.education/?p=63

Bart Rienties

1. Learning is complex. Peter agrees! [Peter is noted for being a qualitative researcher; Bart for being a quantitative one]

3. Learning is continuous. Peter agrees!

2. Learning is hard. It does take a substantial amount of effort.

Finally, learning is nonlinear. Again, Peter and Bart agree!

I was writing a piece on learning gains, the biggest example of how we can assess people is using progress tests. In the NL, they assess doctors every 3 months in undergraduate, they do progress tests, 200 random case studies from a large database. They go through the case studies, and show how much they’ve learned. You quickly realise you’re reasonably intelligent, but you couldn’t answer a single one. If you design assessment in an appropriate manner, you can start to see whether they have learned a particular concept. Over a longer time, you can use the progress to see where are your strengths and weaknesses. They are a means whereby you can identify what you’ve understood, where you’ve been able to apply a new context. Example – it hurts if I press here, and here, and here – what do I have? A sore or broken finger.

Alice Peasgood

I re-read Kolb, who has interesting things to say. [paraphrasing and summarising] “Human beings are unique in that primary adaptation is not physical but in identification with the process of adaptation itself; we are the learning species.” We learn from our experience. Formal education is creating artificial experiences, artificial situations, in the hope you can learn from other people’s experiences, rather than having to stick your own finger in to the fire to learn not to do that.

What happens if you put digital in to that? What happens when physical and social worlds have something digital there? Are we not designing digital tools in our image. They learn, they create environments in which we learn.

In systems thinking, Stafford Beer, the purpose of a system is what it does. Clear away assumptions and look at what’s happening.

Can you learn without realising you’re learning? If you’re learning through a mobile that pings and notifies you, interrupts you, battery runs down, you react to the object, a bit of stimulus/reward going on. Behaviourist psychologists would recognise that. Is there something unintentional happening here? You design authentically fake experiences. But if you do it by a tech that gives you stimulus/reward it could be undermined.

Pask – what happens with the learning medium. Learning is the process of coming to know through conversation. Can be between minds, can be text, a computer, two humans in person or over the phone. In a tech-mediated conversation, the medium is changed by the conversation and the medium chances the conversation. It’s hard to pin down. [Phone went off; Peter said don’t be distracted.] I just had a conversation with it, I asked it to say when I’d talked for 5 minutes and it did.

Liz Fitzgerald

Liz presented a graphic of learning theories of learning from here: http://tinyurl.com/hotel-learning-theory


Laughter at this image. This is just TEL! It’s a nice visual aid to explore the theories.

What is learning? It depends on your theoretical view, or what you’re looking at.

Learning is – from Mike Sharples – different views in different disciplines. It’s an integrated phenomenon, that can be understood at different levels. From making connections in neuroscience; changing behaviour , enhancing skills, gaining knowledge, making sense of the world – that’s how I view it, how you get to grips with it, make sense of it, change your perspective. Interpreting the world in a new way, and to personal change. A change in knowledge ? It’s definitely a change; you’d hope positive.

Her personal theory of learning. Coming form formal view, used to be a school teacher. Do exams, invigilation, it’s awful and really doesn’t work. I’ve become a less strongly formal education person, embrace the informal, human side of things. Working with APD, aims to develop Grounded in constructivist theories. Meaning making, experiences, ideas that are pertinent to what you do every day. Focus on situated learning, and communities of practice. Like being in the human ‘club’. Emphasis on socio-cultural aspects – why, what’s the goal, what do they already know, how do they want to know it, how will they know they’ve learned it. Working with adults, andragogy, self-direction, control. And reflection on action and in action, Schön’s work.


Peter: Andragogy is rubbish. [laughter]

Liz: Not saying it’s different.

Peter: Adults don’t learn differently to children. They have different experience, but the underlying process is different.

Liz: But children have learning imposed on them

Peter: Yes, the formal.

Ann Jones: A dichotomy between human and formal. I have an issue with that. I agree about what’s going on in school. A grandchild, four year old, summer baby really not ready. She was socially. Has to do tests, learning spellings. Are you really saying none of what goes on in formal is human? What is human not?

Peter: Human is happening all the time. Depends on motivation. There’ll be kids who are fascinated, emotionally engaged in what you’re doing. Neuroscience shows that’s important. Good teachers, part of their role is to make that engagement, start where kids are.

Ann: Your choice of that dichotomy is deliberate.

Peter: Yes!

Liz: Why human not informal or non-formal?

Peter: Because it happens in formal contexts too. It’s about the nature of the learning process.

Liz: Could also be, formal is at fixed points rather than continuous.

Peter: That’s one of the dimensions.

Alice: Going back to what Ann’s said. Purpose of a system is what it does. Sounds cryptic. That’s how a systems analyst works out what’s going on. What is happening, what does it do, what change does it bring about. Young child going in to a classroom, ostensibly purpose is to educate. Come out bewildered, not that interested. What has that classroom done to the child? How does that relate to the intentions?

Peter: The intention of the education system is not to educate. it’s about compliance, signalling, cultural capital transfer. Childminding, that’s really important.

Liz: Paid childminding is really expensive.

Peter: When I was a teacher on strike, parents were really supportive if kids were watching videos in the hall, but not if they had to care for them themselves.

Liz: Who’s in control of the learning? Children and adults, adults have more opportunity to be in control, support their own.

Peter: That’s because we impose things on kids not because they learn differently.

Liz: As you gain experience, being older, have greater capacity to use the opportunities.

Peter: I give two kids lego blocks, the one who’s used to it has different opportunity to the other kid who has no idea what it is. Providing same stuff is not equitable.

Some skepticism about purpose of formal education. How should formal education fit in to society? What changes?

Peter: What is the purpose of schools. If it’s childminding, get rid of those expensive teachers.

Liz: They’re not that expensive

Peter: I could get in cheaper ones. If it’s creativity and entrepreneurship, I’d do something different. Ken Robinson TED talk. Start with purpose. Until you’ve agreed purpose you can’t go anywhere else

Liz: Get rid of testing, certainly at younger ages, it terrifies children, makes them depressed, they cry. Younger children. There needs to be some formal assessment at some level,lbut below 10 is madness. Probably over 10 as well

Peter: It’s about the assessment – Bart’s example of doctors, it’s sensibly diagnosing patients. That’s not what we do in examinations. We’re looking at abstract academic regurgitation. What is knowledge? For me, information and knowledge are not the same thing. Knowledge is ability to apply information in a different context to act in different ways. NC means knowing about stuff, not applying it and doing something with it, and that’s one of the big issues. Assessment and accountability systems drive what happens.

Alice: To what extent, if someone’s been through the school system and been successful, they go to university and do the same but bigger. But universities have ostensibly different aims, being individual and think for themselves.

Peter: Do they?

Alice: Mike Wesch, digital anthropology, learning as soul-making. 2011, YouTube video, the Machine is Us, the Machine is Using Us. In classes, he had 200 students in raked lecture theatre, falling asleep. As an anthropologist, went up to student who fell asleep, chatted to him, he was addicted to video games and was keen on programming them. Reconfigured small group, did anthro projects about YouTube, they make their own video game, that student was the lead programmer. Stepping outside that paradigm [was very valuable]

Peter: Not a simple step

Alice: No.

Peter: Early experience with the course E211 Learning matters: challenges of the digital age. Good students would refuse to take the final assessment, we encouraged them to do that. It wasn’t the extrinsic reward, they were engaging to learn about digital tech. The students hated it, they wanted to know the answers. We deliberately disagreed with each other about what the answers were. There wasn’t a right answer. That was a very uncomfortable place in HE. Not least the people allowing us to run it, who shut it down. Half said it was the best course ever, the rest loathed it.

Liz: At Univ of Nottingham, worked on virtual school of biodiversity, with Hong Kong Univ. Same 10 credit biodiversity module concurrent, international projects. One task for them was to come up with a question and write a short essay plan about how they’d investigate it. Got such a backlash. Did a lot of evaluation. One quote “I came here to learn, not to do research”. [laughter] You tell me the answers, my mind is an empty vessel, fill it up.

Peter: The formal view is what people think learning is. Kids’ use of digital tech outside and influence inside. We asked about learning, and they said they didn’t learn anything outside school. Really hard to break out of that – all the stuff they did was not learning

Liz: I say to my son who’s just started school, what have you done today? He says nothing.

Peter: That’s probably true.

Liz: He just sits on the floor, doesn’t learning anything

Quan: Testing, seems to have a negative vibe. Testing is not the problem, it’s misalignment of testing and the outcome we want students to achieve. In most testing or exams, you have set time e.g. 3h, rules not to use external materials to complete tasks. In real life, we don’t have that time limit and we’re allowed to use external resources. In that case, testing is bad. In other cases, when the testing does replicate – e.g. CPR, you have 5 minutes, real time frame. So there a time frame on the test makes sense. Can’t use external resources because the person is dying. Testing is not bad, misalignment is bad.

Peter: Yes, and that’s why POL is so good.

Alice: I agree. You can’t be disruptive all the time. Society requires norms. Schooling as a process of becoming compliant with the norm of your society is not a bad thing.

Peter: Whose norms?

Alive: Yes, that’s a key question. Who gets to decide. I wouldn’t want to have asrgeon who was trained by being told to read a few things and see if they liked it. In systems, boundary conditions. Where to draw line between child following their interests, and when they have to learn arithmetic to run a bank account.

Peter:That’s one of the things they don’t teach in school!

Alive: Critical systems heuristics asks that, who checks the controllers, who watches the system.

Someone: Not comfortable with surgeon who doesn’t know what he’s doing. How about, instead of standard assessment, we have different assessing systems for different fields. What is done in primary and high school is just basic and everyone has to do it. Some students feel it’s not going to help them.

Bart: If you go to university, compare disciplines. If PG [course] is in event management, have a degree in it, you’d expect you’d run an event and see if it works. Univ of Surry course, they have to run an event, has to be profitable, has to be well managed. Get 5 weeks. That would never work in medicine. Who cares if it’s profitable, you have to save the patient. What’s crucial, links to Quan’s point, if you have clear outcomes for what you aspire a graduate to be, you can train for it. But still have to be mindful, in 2004, all the knowledge that we know, half is irrelevant after 3-4 years, in 5 years operating this laptop will be useless.

Someone: At the OU it might be the same laptop [laughter]

Bart: It’s not just learning to know, but learning to learn. Have to develop people to have skills to continuously learn to solve a problem. We haven’t been very successful in the OU, in general, in the UK, to develop problem-solving skills. Whether it’s an external system or your mate to solve your problems.

Alice: Kolb, learning is what makes us human. Is the logical response, humans naturally learn and want to learn, it’s about giving permission to go out and learn and find things out. The unintended effect of formal education is inhibiting people, not valuing. Give permission for what they want to do anyway. People wanting to change a tap, look up a YouTube video.

Bart: That’s how I repair my car or bike.

Peter: I’m overwhelmed that Bart and I have such shared views. He’s expounding my vision for education systems.

Liz: I’ll throw in something you may disagree. We’ve agreed not all assessment is bad. Formal assessments, a lot of them involves using a pen and paper and writing lots of stuff, answering questions on an exam paper. We do that throughout formal education. Are we saying a lot of those assessments are bad and unnecessary and should be replaced, and if so with what?

Peter: Yes. Replaced with more appropriate ones. What’s the purpose, how can you see if you’re moving in that direction

Liz: GCSEs and A-Levels?

Peter: Most of what’s taught in school is a waste of time. Worse, it teaches you to hate learning, the opposite of what Bart was saying.

Lesley Boyd: It does teach many kids to hate learning. Through GCSEs to hate English. A vivid example, to hate poetry. Getting kids in to poetry takes some work. Then to get the exam, you have to write against the clock to closely prescriptively-constructed paragraphs to compare two poems in the way they want to see it. Most British adults can’t do this.

Peter Most teachers are doing a great job in their context.

Lesley: They need to learn how to get through the exams.

Peter: My daughter used to teach kids synthetic phonics. They get a test reading nonexistent words. The kids who can read do really badly, they’re trying to work out what the word says. The kids who can’t read and don’t understand that text conveys meaning do much better.

Quan: How do you compare a different person? How do you choose if you don’t have a standard? To admit someone?

Peter: It’s like appointing someone to the OU

Bart: I know, who appointed you? [laughter]

Peter: We have these scoring criteria. We had a bid for an external evaluator, for £300. The DFE [the funder] insisted on marked criteria, marked out of 5. The people who did best we knew couldn’t deliver, but had done a good bid. Standardisation, we have to measure, it’s really problematic. The world is, if you haven’t measured, it doesn’t exist.

Quan: How do you decide [who to hire]?

Peter: I’d like to see them doing the job. If a teacher, get them to teach.

Quan: The economical cost – if you have 5, you can invite them. But 20,000, not.

Peter: That’s why A levels are good. We do it with OU applications. If no PhD, you don’t get shortlisted. A lot of our great professors don’t have PhDs, because 10 years ago you didn’t need one.

Someone: Is the support we give teachers enough? New system [was introduced], that was more Vygotsky, it failed. They tried to do it all at once, and not supported, [the teachers] were unguided, it was a failure.

Liz: Any new system without support is destined to fail. Any new educational thing, you need to train up the people to use it. Same with anything, at the OU, a new thing, how do I find out how to use it. Sometimes mandatory training, others we find out by mistake. With any new system need training

Peter: I got in to a journal article a thing saying with ICT, you have to spend 30% on staff development.

Alice: Is anyone [here] qualified in systems change?

Several people: How do you define that?

Alice: I’ve got a certificate. [laughter] Systems thinking in practice is exactly that, how do you find a way to introduce these changes. Consider what is systemically desirable and also cultural feasible. No point in having a wonderful idea, like that one in Canada, if it’s infeasible. A smaller one that can be managed is better, otherwise setting people up to fail. Examples where one exceptional person in place, others say let’s do that for everybody, and it doesn’t work because the wider implication might be everyone has to do what they’re good at. Everyone likes sticking to protocols.

Vicky: One final thought each from the panellists.

Alice: I come back to this thing, humans are learning species. We all learn, whether we want to or not. It’s about not inhibiting that. Education is coming up with authentically fake experiences. A transition between not knowing and doing stuff in the real world; education is between those, sufficiently real world to work, but sufficiently fake so you don’t kill people.

Liz: Do not kill people, that’s a good principle for learning. Learning is personally and socially and culturally constructed. We’re not the only learning species. Saw a video about bees learning yesterday. Maybe life is geared towards doing it.

Peter: On the distinction between us and machine learning, read Rose Luckin’s book about human intelligence and others. But it’s not as good as my blog, halfbaked.education, which you should all visit [laughter]

Bart: Really interesting. We’ve discussed the school system, the exam system. But we haven’t talked about what is learning. It’s interesting, everyone constructs learning in a different way. A dog learning. I can tell a dog, open door, or close door, or go to door. If you give it positive reinforcement, it will do that. We have this vision that we are the only ones learning, but maybe we should take a broader perspective.

This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
No further permission needed to reuse or remix (with attribution), but it’s nice to be notified if you do use it.


Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

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