Tuesday, May 2

Doing and/or non-doing, formal and/or informal

First, thanks to all for the various takes on my very pragmatic but apparently provocative question. The simple answer appears to be that there's no available or known research on this topic! I hope there's more to come on the general question raised by Clark and would love to see Jay taken up on the offer of a public debate (more on that below).

When Jay mentioned that informal learning is, in some sense, going back to basics ("the natural way"), I couldn't help thinking of Aristotle (even more than Socrates) who conducted learning “peripatetically”, i.e. by walking around and letting both his thoughts and the discussion grow and flow. Apparently, he also did a few "wandering" lectures (most of his extant writings appear to be the result of students’ notes on his lectures) but his school was known for moving and grooving. This is certainly a way of building doing into formal learning while at the same time specifically recognizing the value of informality. I would suggest that we would be wise not to be satisfied by simple opposites, such as studying or listening vs. doing, or formal vs. informal, but reflect on how these opposites are complementary and may, with a bit of judicious encouragement and clever organization, in some way blend (could this be the key to a new definition of blended learning?).

On the question of learning by doing, it might be useful to expand our cultural horizon by introducing a nuance in the form of an apparent opposite: the Taoist concept wu wei or “non-doing”. Ted Kardash elucidates it as follows:
Wu-wei refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one's environment. It is not motivated by a sense of separateness. It is action that is spontaneous and effortless. At the same time it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity. Rather, it is the experience of going with the grain or swimming with the current. Our contemporary expression, "going with the flow," is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which in its most basic form refers to behavior occurring in response to the flow of the Tao.
Even if we all agree that learning by doing is better than learning by listening to an authority, I would suggest that we need to think about how to integrate non-doing (an active, not a passive concept) into our learning strategies. That may even be one of the keys to understanding the meaning and processes of informal learning.

In a recent book by Andrea Nightengale, Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy we learn that the origin of our all too familiar word theory, which our civilization has turned into a synonym for abstraction (and more recently, a highly pretentious form of abstract criticism) comes from Greek “theoroi” which originally meant “spectators” and implied active involvement (eye-witnessing) in games, including the notion of actually going to the games and interpreting them within a social context. A far cry from the way we use the term today. It’s true that Plato and Aristotle used the idea of participating in events, observing action and reporting on it as a model for contemplative study, which they subsequently called theoria. But the theoria they proposed implied a kind of communion with real physical events (Nightingale calls it “sacralized spectating”). Possibly a Greek version of wu wei.

So what’s the point of all this? I’m suggesting that we may have a tendency to paint ourselves into linguistically and culturally determined corners that restrict our reflection on the very problems we all recognize. Perhaps we need a bit of lateral thinking rather than head-on debate, or rather, we need both, as they are the yin and yang of inquiry. Instead of looking for a winner between polar opposites let’s try to see what both doing and non-doing accomplish and how formal and informal complement each other. Is that beyond our powers?

My final point: we still seem to assume that learning means assimilating or appropriating and its end product is possession, which reflects a highly individualistic view of learning and neglects both its social dimension and that part of knowledge that exists below the threshold of immediate and measurable awareness. While these metaphorical notions have value in describing aspects of the process, I'd suggest that we make a special effort to bear in mind that they are only metaphors and can only do part of the job. Wu wei and theoria are two examples of culturally unfamiliar notions that may help us to achieve a deeper level of nuance.


Stormy said...

OK, you totally lost me with your final comment. If learning is not hte acquiring of knowledge/information or skills (or attitudes), what is it?

Peter Isackson said...

Sorry if I took a shortcut. I didn't deny that assimilation, acquisition and possession were part of it; I simply affirm that they aren't all of it. You can possess something without it's being your property. Much of knowledge and even skill is shared and thrives below the threshold of consciousness. Our scholastic culture -- where everyone competes for individually assessed grades -- imposes a view whereby we end up seeing only measurable individual accomplishment and remain unaware of collective knowledge, what anthropologists and sociologists call "culture". Think again of Wu wei or going with the flow. Most of what we know and do is culture and there's a little bit on top which isn't necessarily shared, though it may also end up being shared.

It might require more space to make such things explicit. Sorry for the confusion.

Stormy said...

I suppose the confusion was that I did not think of knowledge as a tangible thing in the first place -- maybe I'm already going with the flow. ;-) In fact, knowledge is much like a river -- you can dip into it and posess a bit of it. So can others, and you will both posess the same thing -- water. But the river flows on.

jay said...

Hi, Peter. Thanks for keeping this issue open.

You're on target with the need to look at collective knowledge as well as individual, but the disruption caused by the accelerating pace of change is even more profound. Moore's Law applies to human progress as well as chip cycle time. Ray Kurzweil suggests that in the 21st century, we will experience the equivalent of 20,000 20th-century style years of activity!

When things are changing so fast as to make your head spin, what we once considered bedrock liquifies. Knowledge may be what's inside our heads but if what's outside is zipping by at an ever-faster rate, the inside knowledge isn't useful very long. This relativity of knowledge led me to go back to a more fundamental definition of learning.

Learning is what enables one to participate successfully in life, at work, and in groups that matter. Learning is therefore adaptation. Its measure of success is how well one fits with the ecosystems of which one is a member.

Taking advantage of the double meaning of the word network, to learn is to optimize the quality of one’s networks. This can arise from changes to the node in a person's skull or changes to the networks outside.

Doug Belshaw said...

Great post! This is something that isn't even acknowledged by Western education - the idea that knowledge and concepts cannot be 'owned', but exist in the context of the stream of culture passing through space and time. This is created through interaction and interplay between humans and mediated by the difficult-to-grasp notion of 'culture'.

I wonder how we could develop this in schools?

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