Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thoughts on Learning

As a PhD student here at NTU, part of my scholarship is to teach or TA once I've completed my coursework and passed confirmation. NTU is beginning to focus on training teachers more, and particularly in ways that encourage students to learn. One recommended course I'm taking now is part of that initiative, and we had our first session yesterday, taught by Peter Looker.

One of the best parts of the class was when Dr. Looker asked us to think about and define what learning is. I had a bit of a brain-wave and came up with this definition, definitely guided and influenced by my experiences. Here it is, and I'll unpack it a bit more below.

learn (v.) : To discover something new about reality. (Hiram's Definitions)

Part 1: Discovery
Learning, to me, is primarily about discovery. When you learn how to use your phone, when you learn how to drive a car or how to use a phrase properly in language or how to do a math problem, you are discovering it. Discovery also implies a self-driven process, the involvement of the person who is learning. Learning in this sense is not a passive, osmotic process, but one which requires engagement on the part of the learner. People who truly learn are in some sense pursuing the object in question, seeking the boundaries that flesh out the subject of study.

Part 2: Newness
When we discover something, by the act of discovery it is new to us. It may have been there all along, but until we discover it for ourselves it is as if it didn't really exist. The act of discovery focuses our attention on it and brings it into our field of vision, making it salient to our experience. A good example Dr. Looker gave was when he bought a new car - a white Fiat. When he was driving it home he began to notice all the other white Fiats on the road, something he had not noticed earlier in the day.

Part 3: Reality
The new thing that we discover is always grounded in reality, particularly the reality that we experience personally. The discovery is not about someone else's experience, but how that information connects with us and our frame of reference. We do not live in someone else's shoes, therefore we cannot experience both what their reality is and our own reality. We may be able to imagine someone's experience, but ultimately we cannot know it, we can only share a similar experience. The learning process is one in which our discoveries are integrated into our complete frame of reference and worldview (or multiple frames and worldviews) in a conceptual map. We work primarily with this conceptual map or network to interpret the information we receive - learning is the process of linking, re-linking, and creating new links in this network.

The question in our session then became: how do we teach in such a way that students are able to engage with the information presented and are able to discover it for themselves? I'm really looking forward to dealing with this question over the coming weeks, and gaining some tools to help others learn.

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