“The only reason why we ask other people how their weekend was is so we can tell them about our own weekend.”Chuck Palahniuk
Today I want to introduce a new style of article that I will be posting here on ThereforeThink — I’m calling it a “Donversation.” It’s a lot like a normal conversation, but with a Don twist — there’s no noise. It’s silent.
I love silence. It is the breeding ground of deep thought, new discoveries and interesting ideas. However, a good conversation can assist in all those things, too.
That is why I wanted to make an effort to begin having conversations with good people where both aspects were possible. Conversation and silence. Now that’s a good mix.
Unfortunately, when we speak to people — verbally, I mean — we are too busy thinking about what we are going to say that we spend no time listening. Additionally, we have little time to fact-check or do some research prior to giving our response. My aim with these longer-format written conversations is to allow for that. This is the first of many, so I hope you like it.
Finally, a meta-goal for what I want these articles to achieve is to introduce you to others, their ideas and how they think. Anything I share here on ThereforeThink I believe in and am willing to put my name to; but that does not guarantee I am correct. Because of this, I never want to position myself as an unchallenged authority. My goal for this site is for YOU to learn, pick up better ideas and develop new ways of seeing and being within the world.
Something that is directly counter to that goal, is me trying to posture as the all-knowing messiah. If your ability to learn — on this site — is shackled to me, then you are shackled to all my limitations and biases, too. I don’t want that. That is why I want to include others, and hopefully demonstrate that their knowledge far exceeds mine in many domains.
With that said, I will get out of the way, and let you get on with reading this first instalment of In Donversation.
Jess and I met in early 2017. Since then we have talked 4-6 times a week, every week. It has been a journey and we have both had significant ups and downs in that time, but I wouldn’t change it. She is a very good friend and the world is better for her existence. She has taught me a lot, and I know I’m not the only one.
Jess has a Bachelor of Science with a double major in Zoology & Statistics, and a minor in History. If that wasn’t enough, she has Masters of Teaching (Secondary) with teaching methods of Biology and Mathematics.
But… Being an overachiever, there’s more to Jess’ resume. She also has her Certificate II in Animal Studies, Certificate III in Companion Animals, Certificate IV in Veterinary Nursing and completed 3 years of a Veterinary Biology/ Bachelor of Veterinary Science degree before deciding on a career change.
Jess’ instagram is: jess_pendlebury
And here she is…
In Donversation #1
Hey Pendles, fancy seeing you here! You and I have discussed many things over the years, and I have learned a lot from you. So, on that, I thought a cool topic for our discussion would be learning itself.
This is an area that you are more formally educated in than I am, and as such, I am always keen to hear your thoughts. As you’re aware I am a rather passionate self-directed learner, as well as a self-taught teacher of sorts. Through both those processes, I have acquired some knowledge of learning and education theory, but it is rather incomplete. Hopefully, you can help fill in some of my gaps.
Before we get to that, though, I would love to start by asking a few big questions. The first is, what is your general philosophy regarding learning and education? And following on from that, what are the most prominent theories surrounding those topics currently?
Hey there! Thanks for having me.
We have certainly chatted about a huge range of topics over the years and have learnt from each other. This is one of the cool things about learning – it happens constantly, from a range of sources and sometimes, from the places we least expect it.
I have a secondary education background, so while the majority of my formal education and teaching experience will come from that area, I want to try and frame my thoughts in order to relate to a broader learning context. While it’s great for me to delve into the intricacies of trying to educate 12 to 18-year old’s, I want you (and your readers) to come away from this with something that they can utilise or at least propagate some thought towards.
Explaining my personal teaching philosophy and pedagogical stance in an email is going to be a tough task, as with everything, there are nuances and caveats, but let’s give this a shot.
My teaching philosophy aligns with the constructivist view of scaffolding learning tasks, and Vygotsky’s theory of student-centred learning and the Zone of Proximal Development. But what does that actually mean?
I will answer that, but first, let me give you the bottom line of Piaget’s constructivism in an educational sense.
This is the theory behind the process of knowledge acquisition and construction, and the importance of utilising an individual’s previous skills, ideas or experiences, to build upon. This is where “scaffolding” comes in.
Think of this like creating a multi-tiered cake. I can stack all of the layers (information) together and hope for the best (knowledge acquisition and understanding), or I can layer cream (previous learning experiences), jam (a related idea from a topic of interest) and maybe even a piece of doweling (an activity or real-time experience), to ensure that it is placed together (hopefully) each time.
This is all well and good, but how do we know which student will benefit from which cream to jam to doweling ratios?
Enter Lev Vygotsky.
While Vygotsky died in 1934, it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that his work on cognitive development and sociocultural theory appeared on the forefront of education (Vygotsky was a Russian intellectual and his work was banned following his death, before reappearing in academic literature later on). While his work has influenced education and cognitive theory in huge ways, for me, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a concept that I keep in my teacher toolkit at all times.
There are complex explanations which details the particulars of the ZPD, but I’m going to give you a simple take on it. It is the space between what an individual currently can do and what is too far out of reach, therefore highlighting an area of potential achievement if given the appropriate assistance. This zone shows what is not beneficial to teach because it’s either already well established or will be too complex at the current time.
With all of this in mind, to allow someone to learn we need to play to their strengths and interests. It is well known in all facets of life, that we learn best when we are interested in something and can see where it “fits in” within life.
For me, this is an important point to focus on. As a maths and science teacher, I often spend longer thinking about “how can I make this relevant to my students’ lives”, than I do in any other planning. If I have a class who loves sport, I’ll teach statistics via real sporting data. If I have an individual who likes baking, I’ll explain a concept using a cake, such as in the scaffolding analogy.
This is a critical step to help someone learn for understanding, not just to regurgitate a fact. I can confidently tell you — and without first surveying a whole bunch of teachers — millions of students around the world are currently learning about Covid-19. It may be about the scientific background, politics, persuasive or argumentative writing or the effects of mental health; but it’ll be there. Why? Because it’s relevant, so students will remember it.
I’ve touched on a few of the big hitters in education theory already, but I think there are (at least) two more that play a big part. John Dewey (not the Dewey of the ‘Dewey Decimal system’ fame) voiced his opinions (loudly) on the need for pragmatism in learning, progressive education (experimental learning) and reflection. Ironically, one of Dewey’s most famous quotes is “If we teach today as we did yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow”, but as educators, we are still learning from what he theorised in the 1930s.
Finally, there is the king of current Australian and New Zealand educational theory, John Hattie. Again, his work comes off the back of the greats who I have previously mentioned (whether he would like me to say that or not) and delves into the need for educators to understand how their students learn and push them to play a bigger part in their own educational journey. He pushes the point that learning is not just a process that happens when a teacher gives knowledge to a student, but it is reciprocal.
I’m sure, for readers, that felt like a lot of information. But even with that said, I’ve very likely missed something important! If I realise, I have missed something, then we can return to that later. For now, maybe we can try to expand that rather “school education” focus out into something that is a little more broadly applicable.
Finally, let me now pose a question to you: As a self-directed learner, do you know what ‘style’ of learner you are, and do you think that this is actually important to the learning process?
Nice! Lots of great information there. That’s interesting about Dewey, too; I always figured that the organised-bookcase-guy was the same person as the teaching-theory-guy. I now know better.
Ok, what I’d like to do now is focus on of one the things that seemed apparent to me — based on my own n=1 experience — that also appears to be in-line with what you’ve just said.
That thing is the importance of interest. There is no comparison in my mind about how well I process information when I’m interested in it, versus when I’m not.
Actually, upon reflection, it might be possible to say I have never (consciously) processed information to any significant extent without being interested in it. Processing it and being interested in it seems practically identical to me. I’m sure there are caveats to that, but I will try to give you an example of what I am talking about.
As you’re well aware, at Uni, we often have to study a few subjects that don’t quite align with our interests. For me, this was things like anatomy and statistics. I loved physiology, nutrition, psychology or science theory, but in my eyes, compulsory anatomy or statistics classes were the most boring thing ever. I skipped everything that wasn’t mandatory.
Those, for lack of a better word, were my tastes. Potentially they could be described as my macro-interests and disinterests. While subject to fluctuations, they were more durable and resilient to short-term fluctuations, with those short-term fluctuations potentially being indicative of environmentally driven conditions and constraints.
For example, I recall that after failing multiple statistics and anatomy classes, I did much better the second (or third) time I took them. In effect, I processed the information much more effectively. The cause is contentious, however. My better grades cannot be completely disentangled from my familiarity with the content due to previous exposure (some learning had taken place previously). Although, I don’t think this played as larger role as one might presume.
As I said, I often skipped classes, so the amount of the content I was exposed to was well less than all of it. Additionally, sitting compulsory subjects (or resitting; which I don’t recommend) can typically only be done once a year. So, even what I had possibly learned from the small number of classes I attended to sustain the required participation grade, I had well and truly forgotten by the time it came to sit the subject again about eight months later.
The point I am getting at with this is that even for subjects that I disliked on a macro-interest level, I likely only seemed to pass, once I became interested in them enough due to “environmental reasons.” Or something we might consider as a micro-interest.
While I wasn’t interested enough in statistics to drop out of my degree and begin studying that instead, I would argue that I did not end up passing statistics despite my disinterest; but instead became interested in the subject enough — due to what it would mean for my future — to pass it. Once the looming reality of an even greater debt and the possibility of being kicked out of my degree for failing a subject a third time became apparent, my interest in the subject rose, even if temporarily.
I would love to hear if you have any thoughts on that. But I guess what I am saying, in summary, is that even subjects I have passed or topics I have acquired knowledge in, that I wouldn’t consider as interesting, did, interest me for one reason or another when I passed them or gained the knowledge originally. And because of this, maybe interest doesn’t just enhance learning but is actually a necessity, and it is more so a case of whether it is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated.
Though, as I said, you’re the expert. I will recalibrate my beliefs following your reply.
Now, in response to your question about learning style. This is something I am unsure of how to think about exactly. I am probably going to speak more about “mode” rather than “style” of learning, but I will lay out my thoughts and let you tell me where I am right, wrong or somewhere in between.
Off the top of my head, my intuitive answer for what has helped me learn the best is books. That is the answer that immediately comes to mind. However, I’m really not sure how justified that answer is.
For starters, I’ve read a ton of average, or worse, books that I learned next to nothing from — many of which I have warned you about! So, books don’t seem inherently guaranteed to be a good source of learning for me; which implies it is a matter of degrees and some books are better than others. And when the answer “books” comes to mind, I notice that I am only thinking about the few books that have taught me a lot and ignoring the many books that have taught me significantly less. This gives a significant bias to my answer.
Adding to that, I also realise it depends on how I define the pivotal word “best” in the question: How have I learned best?
When I think about books being a better source than anything else, I am only considering the dimension of depth. I really value the thoroughness of books, but the value of their thoroughness comes at the cost of slowness. Because of this, I don’t think they have expanded the breadth of my knowledge as much as other sources of information have.
For example, at the time of writing this, I have read about 25 books this year. I have probably listened to 3-4 times that number of podcasts, maybe more, I’m not actually sure. And while one book tends to focus on a single topic or a theme, a podcast can cover half a dozen ideas easily within a 60-90 minute period. Because of this, the amount of ideas and varying information contained within that many podcasts provides a monumental amount of informational width in comparison to that contained within the books I have read in the same period of time. And that is without considering YouTube videos or even just really interesting and insightful conversations.
All of this considered I am really not sure what to think when it comes to sources or styles of learning. It seems to me to be a case of “different horses for different courses,” but that is just my take.
What, in your opinion, is the current take on learning styles? And how do we even think about this question? What about my conception of knowledge having dimensions of breadth and depth? Is thinking in these terms useful? Useless? Or incomplete?
I definitely agree with you regarding interest. In some way (consciously or not), we need to have an interest to process, store and utilise information. As you said, it may not be something that we want to dedicate our lives to finding out about, but it may be a requirement for x, y or z reason to enhance our future. I would, however, suggest that we are unlikely to keep this information as readily accessible, in comparison to that which we are actively interested in.
For example, we have all been in the situation where we have ‘learnt’ enough to get us through a formal assessment or situation, and then have proceeded to do a ‘brain dump’ afterwards. While we could argue that this isn’t learning and is in fact just trying to hold onto information while needed, this is often a process which many of us go through to ‘get through’ subjects or content which would be linked to those micro-interests.
My most vivid memory of this is Veterinary Epidemiology in my first year of uni. Similar to your own experience with statistics, this was not a subject that I had a large interest in and would rather put my effort into medicine, pathology and surgery subjects. After failing the subject the first time around, my interest in the subject changed, come the following year – enough to get me through the subject but not enough that I would still be able to recall details of the subject now.
As an educator, whether in a formal school/university setting or even as a self-educator, an important skill to be able to understand this importance of learner interest. By doing this, we are able to help learners identify why they may see information as valuable (a point that I will come back to), to aid in learning.
So, this brings me to how individuals learn. Before I reply to your comments on learning modes, let’s quickly look at the concept of learning styles.
We often are told that we each fit within one major learning style; auditory (dependent on listening and speaking), visual (thrives when they can see information) and kinaesthetic or tactile (learning by doing). You may see these broken into more subsections, but these are the headliners. There are many quizzes online which may help you identify what style you align most with. I just completed one out of curiosity, and after answering 20 multiple choice questions, I was told I am 10% auditory, 25% visual and 65% tactile.
Quite often, we are told that we need to find our learning style and stick to it so be a successful learner. If this was the case, then I would become a lot more knowledgeable than I currently am by focusing on tactile learning techniques.
While this concept is still pushed in academic fields, is it really important? In my opinion, not really.
Academic papers have shown mixed reviews on the need to focus on the categorical way of learning. One of my issues with this thought process is that it pigeon-holes people into thinking that to learn, they must stick with their ‘style’. This narrow thinking neglects the advantages of learning from varying sources.
You mentioned that you are able to encounter a vastly different breadth and depth of information via different sources. This is an important point, as each source (while potentially covering a similar array of topics) is likely to explain an idea in a slightly altered way or make a connection with a different previous experience. These sources propagate multiple mental avenues, allowing us to connect the dots to understanding more efficiently than if we focused on one particular mode.
Another concern I have with focusing on ‘optimal’ learning styles is enjoyment. We spoke earlier about interest being a necessity, but enjoyment is something else that I think needs to be within the learning algorithm also. My personality traits point me in the direction of being a tactile learner. Great, that makes sense — I can’t sit still for long, I like to fidget, I love a ‘to-do’ list and I doodle on a page while I think. But how do I enjoy learning?
Like you, and this is something we could say our friendship stemmed from, I love to read, listen to podcasts and watch YouTube videos or documentaries of things that I’m curious about. These activities typically cross between differing learning styles but the joy I get from them adds to the interest and increases the personal value.
So, as a summary to this, thinking in terms of learning styles may be a decent place to start and find potential ways of learning which help you, I think that we shouldn’t be boxed within that area.
I want to touch on something that has been mentioned a few times — value. What information do we value, and why? As an educator, the best thing that we can do is give someone the resources and potential direction to find knowledge for themselves, rather than just spitting facts. By allowing someone to go through the trouble of obtaining information themselves, this has the potential to increase how much they value what they have learnt — rather than a fact which has simply been given to them.
I have a vivid memory of when I realised the importance of ‘working’ for knowledge. I was completing my school-based apprenticeship and I wanted to know everything all the time and I asked a bunch of questions to my boss, Paul. While he was happy about my curiosity, he wanted me to search for my own answers and then come back to him if needed. He sent me to the (extensive) library that he had and guided me towards a few textbooks to find out what a mandibular symphysis was and how best to fix a fracture within it. Once I had secured the knowledge I needed, I was so stoked with this information and valued it so much more due to the effort I had put into finding it.
A decade later, this is one of the fondest learning memories I have and was a game-changer for how I personally approach educating and personal learning.
As a self-directed learner and self-taught educator within a different teaching realm, what do you think are some of the most beneficial learning processes? Do you think there is a discrepancy between how you benefit from learning personally versus the way you think it is most beneficial to teach?
Such a good response, again. There’s a lot of places I could jump in there.
You mentioned a really good point — almost in passing —about whether we have learned something, even when we have passed the assessment(s). Applied to you and I, just because we completed our stats and veterinary epidemiology classes, did we learn?
Here, you are hinting at the idea that learning requires some kind of long-term stability. Would you agree with this?
I know to some that might seem obvious; of course, you need to retain the knowledge for a semi-lengthy period of time to say you have learned it. But I don’t think it is so obvious when you consider how we define learning is typically at odds to how we measure it.
For instance, if learning is defined as some kind of skill or knowledge maintained over the long-term, then it seems almost a sleight-of-hand move to say that we send children, adolescents and adults to a variety of different schools, to learn, when we don’t actually tend to test their knowledge over the long-term.
Am I making a mistake in thinking about it like that?
I’m not suggesting that it is isn’t logistically difficult to test long-term retention, only that some kind of deficit does appear to be apparent regarding how we use words in theory versus practice.
I’m under no illusion that practice should, or can, perfectly represent theory, but I also don’t think we should be too willing to accept instances where one falls short of the other, either. I would love to hear your thoughts on that, though, given your inside-view of the situation.
I also really liked what you said about learning styles. I think that is a great suggestion to use a student’s (or your own) possible aptitude or enhanced appreciation for a certain style as a good starting point, with the aim to eventually transcend that single style.
As I was reading what you wrote, I was thinking that potentially we can leverage the style of learning initially — teaching a student something they may not be particularly interested in, but using a style they may be more comfortable with — then shifting towards leveraging the topic, and moving away from the single style, once a sense of interest and/or familiarity with the topic is created.
Therefore, style may be best thought of as a learning entrée. It can enhance the experience of what follows but isn’t the end goal in-and-of-itself.
Regarding the questions you posed, I think the most valuable lessons I have learned ties well into what we have discussed here already — which does hint at a nice synchronicity between theory and practice, in this regard.
I would say that, in particular, I have learned three related lessons when it comes to self-directed learning:
The first and second apply to the Zone of Proximal Development. While I didn’t have a name for this originally, I did somewhat stumble into the same valuable conclusion through trial and error on my own.
My first big learning takeaway was that the fastest way to learn what I wanted to learn, wasn’t to try and jump right in at the point that I wanted to know things about — I had to eventually work towards that point, starting from things that I already knew. Often, however, there was a large and unfun terrain of topics to cover that spanned the distance between those points.
This is the same kind of problem that leads us to pay inadequate attention to the basics or fundamentals. We all want to jump right into the exciting and higher-level parts of a topic or field, but to effectively comprehend the material there, you must have a solid understanding of the fundamentals. No one likes learning the fundamentals, though, and I initially let my early learning be guided too much by what I liked (on a short-term basis). I used to try and either skip the fundamentals entirely or breeze through them, convincing myself that I knew them — when really, I was only mildly familiar with them at best.
In recent times, however, I have learned to lower my eyes a little, recognising that the fastest way to get where I wanted to go, was by ensuring that I could understand as much as possible before that.
For example, I am part way through an online computer science course currently, and I have recently gone back a few weeks to re-watch the lectures and redo alternate versions of the same assignments I have already completed. Something which could be considered a “waste of time” depending on how you define the phrase. I do not think this way now, however. I recognise it would be more of a waste of time to continue telling myself that I understand enough to push on. I was certainly tempted to do so because the content is heading towards much more enticing topics, but ultimately, that would not be best for the entirety of my learning.
As I said, I find this is a strategy that seems to cost me a little in the short-term, but I think has allowed me to learn much more in the long-run. The other alternative is to rush into the fun but more complex stuff, which typically feels instantaneously overwhelming, the fun then almost immediately drains away, and before you know it, you have given up trying to learn the topic in a matter of days or weeks.
The second thing I will add, however, flies somewhat in the face of the first. This is the necessity of pushing yourself beyond what is comfortable — something that again ties into the theory of Proximal Development.
No one likes making mistakes. Paradoxically, though, it this aversion to mistake-making that ultimately keeps us making them. When it comes to learning and study techniques that are more difficult or provide more direct feedback, we tend to veer the other way.
Why try active-recall when you could just re-read instead? Or, why definitively test yourself, when you could check an answer and convince yourself that you knew it, once you know what it is for sure?
This was my method for years; decades even. But at a certain point, I became more interested in actually learning the material, rather than having an enjoyable experience while studying it. And to learn, you must be challenged. Something must push you beyond your current capabilities — and that seems to be inherently unpleasant. However, it is this struggle against discomfort and the vivid feeling of not knowing, that I think makes us better.
You, however, may have a slightly more “nurturing-teacher” take on that!
With that said, there is some contradiction between the two lessons I have stated. I reconcile them by thinking about it like this: I would say that the first recommendation was about what we want to learn or know, whereas the second describes what we want to study or do.
The hopes and dreams of our learning extend far beyond our Zone of Proximal Development, but then when it comes time to study, and put in the work, we stay well short of the ZPD. We look towards what is glamorous and spend time working on the semi-obvious.
For example, as I mentioned, I am (very) slowly teaching myself computer science. When it comes to the things I want to learn, this would be things like Bayesian statistical modelling, artificial intelligence, machine learning and other super cool topics. I spend my time thinking about these things, or even passively consuming content about them, convincing myself that I understand what is being said. But when it comes time to study and practice more directly and actively, I end up writing simple for-loops, accepting basic user-input and printing “You are 27-years old, Lyndon” to the screen — things I could already comfortably do months ago.
When I am not careful, I spend time thinking about what is interesting, not what is useful — such as the current bottleneck in my learning — and when it comes down to put in the actual effort during practice, I opt for easy and already well-engrained tasks. Things that I won’t make mistakes on.
Recognising when I am doing this, and better aligning my goals and behaviours is probably the best thing I have learned when it comes to my own learning. By focusing more on what is in front of me, and when it gets difficult, leaning into it.
That is how — I think, at least — you learn, get through and move onto the more exciting stuff faster.
The final and third thing I will add is that as an adult, I would now say that I subscribe to the idea that all learning must be (at least, in part) self-directed. The quote that best captures this for me is by the scientist and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov who said: “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”
This is not to say that I think good teachers or mentors are useless, not at all. Only that, as an adult, you must take responsibility for your own learning. I do not have an adequate conception of what I think this means for children. The following is with that in mind.
Whether you take courses, read books, listen to podcasts or use some kind of app, you must actively seek and take on board what is useful and applicable to you. Often this requires some degree of abstraction — where you’re removing particular details from what is presented to you — and then reformulating that knowledge to fit into one of your existing semantic networks or knowledge schemas.
At this point, the information may be rather different from what was presented; however, this is what, I believe, is required. A good teacher can only provide the material to work with — and possibly some assistance in working with it — but, ultimately, you must teach it to yourself. To me, this is the process of taking formal (or other people’s) knowledge and figuring out how to make it make sense, to you.
When we talk about learning versus completing, there is an important point to note.
I am not saying that if you don’t have a fast recall of all information from a ‘learning experience’ that we didn’t learn. It may be that we need a refresher to rehash some details, but we can come back to that information with relative ease if needed.
Physiologically, we know that our neuronal connections are strengthened by repeated use. Within learning, this extends to the idea of concepts that we continue to use, are made easier and ‘hardwired’ into our brain. As the cliché says, use it or lose it – or maybe it should be use it or be prepared to need a refresher each time you reach towards a lesser-used concept.
Coming back to the point of this comment, there is definitely a difference between completing something so that it’s over and not having semi long-term recall vs. needing to brush up on some intricacies because it’s been a while since we deployed our knowledge in an area. While some may disagree, for me, to claim that learning has occurred we need to associate it with extended knowledge retention of the idea/skill and the ability to use these concepts to act as stepping-stones to further expand our learning.
In regard to your point about the disconnect between how schools aim to teach and how they assess, simply, I agree. In a school setting, the gold-standard is that teachers are developing the scaffolding structures to enable students to further advance their learning in both the long and short term. While we aim for long-term student development, school-based formal assessments tend to look at the 4-6 week time period, with maybe the addition of a semester-based exam.
Is this an appropriate time frame? It depends. Without going into a rabbit-hole about assessment types (diagnostic, formative and summative), it’s hard to answer the question. Are we testing to provide constructive or directive feedback? Or are we testing the final summation of student knowledge for one particular subject within one year? Like anything, what works best in theory often doesn’t play out in practice and it is a shame that we can see some ‘settling’ happening in testing student learning.
Your three lessons from learning are very interesting and are not dissimilar to my own experiences.
It can be scary to make mistakes – this is natural. I want students to make mistakes. It’s an important part of learning. The most important thing in this respect is the feedback in which we receive following them. Outside of the formal academic world we rarely get timely or succinct feedback, but when we do, utilising it is one of the best drivers of our learning.
Even into my Master’s degree, I would get high levels of anxiety surrounding feedback on my work. It took until my final two years (after 13 years of schooling and 8 years of university) to convince myself how important feedback was to my personal improvement. I would be too nervous to read what others thought of my work and based my academic merit solely on the numerical mark I got.
And where did that leave me? In a state of consistency – not doing poorly, but never improving. When I started to take on board the feedback that I was provided, this is when not only my grades but my understanding greatly developed. Now, as a teacher, I also appreciate just how much effort was put into giving feedback to students, so I have a slight regret for ignoring it for all those years!
You make an interesting point about becoming a self-directed learner as an adult. I recently read an article about how curiosity changes as we age. Within the article, it mentioned that adults move to a state of ‘deprivation curiosity’ where we are only curious about things because we feel like we are missing out on a piece of knowledge from a particular scenario. This was juxtaposed by children experiencing ‘interest curiosity’ where they are just thirsty for knowledge.
While there were aspects of the article which I disagreed with (this being one of them to a degree), I found this idea intriguing. Why do some people lose or diminish their thirst for knowledge? In my experience, I don’t think I have. I want to know more about a range of topics, but I do find myself needing to google a particular fact after hearing a radio snippet or a comment on the news.
My point of bringing this up is that I think students need to be supported throughout their schooling to allow themselves to continue to be curious and have the drive to learn, rather than only fact-checking their friends. As an educator, I want to develop students’ skills to set them up to be curious, to be critical thinkers and to know where to start when wanting to become self-directed learners and take ownership of their own journey of life-long learning. As Tara Westover said, “An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.”
I don’t want to hold their hand through the process or just spit facts at them (as much as I sometimes want to tell them everything that I know about anything), I want to lay the foundations so that like you, they can be competent and confident self-directed learners.
I really like that idea of yours about what learning is: “to claim that learning has occurred we need to associate it with extended knowledge retention of the idea/skill and the ability to use these concepts to act as stepping-stones to further expand our learning.”
It is the second component, which I have italicised, that I think is most integral — or, at least, that I have the most interest in. It is this crucial aspect that makes learning a positive-sum process. When learning potentiates further learning it can compound on itself, rapidly increasing its utility.
Alternatively, though, we often see learning following logarithmic — rather than exponential — growth patterns. The more someone learns, the less they are likely to in the future. The opposite of what we are trying to induce.
If this is true — that these are the two general paths that learning and knowledge acquisition can take — I would imagine that this could very well be explained by one’s “curiosity style.”
For example, if as we age, we gravitate towards a form of deprivation-curiosity, then our learning will likely slow as we progressively encounter less unfamiliar circumstances. Sure, changing careers or travel may induce deficits between our knowledge and what is adequate for the circumstances, but over time those instances will occur less frequently, and the deficits will be less severe.
Alternatively, if the predominant determinant of whether we are curious about something is simply our awareness of it (or previous lack thereof) — rather than striving for sufficient knowledge for some outcome driven purpose — then I can well and truly imagine a situation where we acquire knowledge in a much more exponential fashion. As you learn, you become increasingly aware of other things to learn about; rather than things you tick off a list, bringing you closer to a state where you can comfortably plateau.
It is this second process, where knowledge can accumulate like a runaway snowball that really interests me. Which is fortunate, I guess, as interest-based curiosity may be the key to achieving it!
That’s just me, though, and while I understand that some do not share the same interest in learning for learning’s sake, I think this can become detrimental if taken too far — as anything can.
An example of this could be what is often referred to as “earned dogmatism” in rationality and critical-thinking circles. Earned dogmatism is the propensity for knowledge to decrease further learning, primarily because it reduces your level of open-mindedness and alters your attitude towards alternative viewpoints.
I think it is a serious concern (and actually wrote a piece about this recently that was published elsewhere), because often what we have learned is incorrect or, at the very least, incomplete. The world is a very mysterious place, so if learning shuts off our potential to learn other things, and it turns out what we learned was wrong, we may find ourselves up a creek without a propulsion device.
So, with that said, I will leave things there — for now. I will turn it over to you to add any comments on what I have stated or final words of your own.
Thank you for joining me in this discussion, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself and learned a lot. I look forward to many more interesting and insightful conversations in the future. Your current and future students are lucky to have you!
I have very little to add to what you have said and definitely agree with your concern of potential dogmatism.
Personally, as a learner, I aim to develop a wide range of knowledge within my ‘teaching methods’ in Biology and Maths, to better educate my students. However, within this self-education, I aim to seek ideas which will sometimes conflict with my current knowledge or perspectives, not only to lower the risk of becoming narrow-minded but to also give myself an idea of where common misconceptions or different understandings from students may stem from.
I also aim to spend a large part of my ‘learning time’ exploring other subjects which interest me but have minimal to do with what I teach. Not only does this meet my personal need to continue to learn and give me a broader view of the world, but it also allows me to develop an understanding of other topics which students and peers may be interested in.
With that being said, my biggest advice towards those who what to continue to educate themselves and/or educate others is to learn from a variety of sources, converse with others about ideas (in-person or online), don’t be afraid of feedback and be prepared to learn from those that you expected to be teaching.
Thank you for having me along for this chat. I look forward to doing it again.