To Learn is an Experience

Weekly Writing 2 –  Lori Sowa

Reflecting on a particularly good learning experience — I come up with not one particular instance, but a few categories of experiences that have stuck with me and made lasting impressions.   First, I remember everything I physically constructed during school — wood shop and metal shop projects, science fair experiments, and even the interactive poster I created for a Shakespeare class in high school (I don’t recall the content of the poster as much as the clever little doors that would open and shut to display quotes).   Second, I remember a number of specific quotes from instructors at the graduate school level: to design a remediation system, you must understand the physical, chemical, and biological nature of the contaminant and the environment in which it resides so that you can exploit those properties to remove it from the system; computer programs should never be a black box: you must understand how the software is built so you can correctly interpret the results; and if you are trying a new teaching method, let your students know what you are doing, and why.  I think the common thread is that each was a guiding principle that I could apply to future situations I would likely encounter. The third learning experience that I remember involves my 6th grade math teacher, who had low blood sugar and carried M&Ms in her pocket in case she got light-headed while working problems on the overhead projector (the one with the crank and roller on the side).   This last experience was not direct instruction of course, but changed my view of the world by making me see my teacher as a “real person’ — someone who was not immortal and all-knowing, but human and doing her best to help us learn.

My question is this: are these learning experiences powerful to me because of the deliberate pedagogy used, or because of my own individual learning style?   I’m sure it is a combination of both.

Coming from an engineering background, I have only recently explored the field of educational psychology.   I’ve read a bit about behaviorist, cognitive, and constructivist theories of learning, always wanting more examples than I am given.   My guess is that those reading this piece with a solid background in the educational field will likely categorize me as a constructivist, and that is certainly the learning theory that resonates most with me.   Although the meaningful learning experiences involving physical construction are not what is specifically intended in “construct’-ivism, they are prime examples of active learning experiences which fall directly into this learning theory.   The guiding principles that stand out in my mind as significant learning experiences were meaningful because they allowed me to contextualize what I had learned, and thus provided a roadmap to apply them to real world problems.        My third significant learning experience can be summed up as an awareness that my teacher was trying her best to help us learn — that teaching and learning were complimentary activities.   This provided an early glimpse into metacognition, an essential part of the cognitive theory.

I look forward to continuing my study of educational theories so that I can be more deliberate in the inclusion of various methods in my teaching and more understanding of student needs.   I see relevant applications in each of the three foundational theories; however, I am struggling a bit with the idea of connectivism. I agree that learners need to know how to access and evaluate information, and that is a learned skill, but I can’t get past the idea that Ally (2008) puts forth that “…we do not have control over what we learn since others in the network continually change information, and that requires new learning, unlearning old information, and/or learning current information’ (p. 34).  How can it be that we don’t have control?   Doesn’t access to an ever larger pool of information give us more complete control?

Ally, M. (2008). Foundations of educational theory for online learning. In Anderson, T., & Elloumi, F. (Eds.). The theory and practice of online learning (2nd ed.) (pp. 15—44). Athabasca, AB, Canada: Athabasca University.

4 thoughts on “To Learn is an Experience

  1. Alda

    I’m intrigued by your question, “Doesn’t access to an ever larger pool of information give us more complete control [of our learning]?” The first thing that jumped to mind is the confusion over what foods, medicines, and habits are “good” or “bad” because of how research changes what we collectively, connectedly “know.” Coffee was bad, then good, then bad, now I think it’s good again? It’s a bit like being stuck in a post-modern, multi-truth kind of situation.

    Having more information from more viewpoints can combat groupthink, but in a fast-paced web-connected world it can also lead people to “learn” things that can potentially be harmful. The internet is full of conspiracy theories, contradictions, and PhotoShop. I think more access to information gives us more *options* and *viewpoints* but also puts a greater burden on us for skepticism and critical thinking. Access to information does not mean access to Truth, because “information” is filtered and shared by humans, who are flawed.

    Reply
    1. lsowa Post author

      Thanks for your response, Alda. You make some very good points, and trying to find “truth” in the multitude of publications out there is dizzying. I guess when I think about having control over what I learn, I think about having ready access to more topics of information rather than the validity of those sources, which certainly has to be considered as I choose what to believe. I think about content-based skills – if I want to learn how to program in a particular language (such as C++), I can likely find a great tutorial online. If I want to learn how to play the guitar, I can start with YouTube videos at home in the evenings rather than trying to schedule formal lessons. I’m hoping that coffee is “good”, but I can pull up the literature if I want to read the studies and try to make my own determination.

      Reply
  2. Owen

    This made me smile, “my 6th grade math teacher, who had low blood sugar and carried M&Ms in her pocket in case she got light-headed while working problems on the overhead projector (the one with the crank and roller on the side).” I love that…think of me the same way! 🙂

    Alda – good questions. Does quantity of information have a relationship to quality? A few years ago, when we had less available content, was it higher quality? What about 100 years ago? or more? People in the 1930’s certainly had some dangerous ideas floating around. How would/do those ideas fare in today’s world?

    Lastly, can you build a learning experience outside of someone’s individual learning style that will be powerful for them?

    Reply
  3. kgebauer

    Control is more of an illusion than we think because so many things are outside of our control and many aspects of our daily life influence us. Control is an action as you point out, it is not something we just have, you have to work for your control. That is why, as Alda points out, critical thinking is important. We can’t take much at its word and must do research to form our own informed opinions and learning. This is the control we have, our critical thinking and discrimination of information skills. I think what Ally was trying to point out was the fact we are exposed to so much information that in that sense learning is out of our control, but only until we choose to think and look deeper into the information that we are exposed to. We can choose to learn or unlearn what we have been exposed to, that is in our control. What is out of our control is the news that pops up on MSN, Google, Yahoo, or the ads on Facebook etc. Those headlines are teaching and influencing our learning and we do not have much control over that. We can click on the link or even read new information in a magazine or newspaper. When we stop critically analyzing and evaluating that is when we let go of our control, when we stop thinking for ourselves.

    Your question, “Doesn’t access to an ever larger pool of information give us more complete control?” is an interesting one. Owen points out that no matter what century it is the quality of information available is not a guarantee, not matter how much of it is accessible. It gives us more of a sense of control because the information is easier to access and there is more of it, but you still need to approach it with the right learning skills in order for you to be in control of your learning and unlearning. The skill of being able to discern quality is essential if you are going to dive into the ocean of information available to the world today.

    Good points and questions. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

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