Thursday, 10 December 2015

When is a learner not a learner?

Being in the 'learning' world I'm probably as guilty as the next for referring to people as learners, but it's time to set the record straight; learners is a misnomer at best and a wildly inaccurate term we really should stop using.

Firstly there's the theory of pervasive learning much like I shared in my last post (The Accidental Learner) if learning is something that's pervasive or ever present then being a learner is a given, we can easily replace learner with person and we're sorted.  Learners are just people and not a special type just because we label them as such.  If we have a course with people enrolled we tend to call them learners, but actually they're just people on the course, call them students if you will as that's a far more accurate term if we must further define someone on the course.  Call them participants if you must, but learners is a little misleading...

Secondly just because we get people to our learning material that does not guarantee that the desired learning has taken place. Yes yes, I know you're thinking learning objectives and valid testing will do this, but I'm not so sure it does at all.  The vast majority of summative testing is knowledge based (by now you may know of my opinions of knowledge and so we're often testing recall which is not the same as really learning something.  But even testing based on higher levels of taxonomy like synthesis is relative.  The testing takes place, achievement verified, but unless there's an ongoing way of measuring what's occurred, what's been learned for the test may not be 'retained'.  Learning is shaping rather than a discrete and measurable event and we're all learners if you will.

'Learners' with bad attitude are not learning (or at least not learning what we want them to learn).  If a learner with a bad attitude takes part in an activity, chances are they won't get the desired learnings from it.  If someone has an open and positive attitude and takes part in any activity (even one they're not scheduled for) the chances are they will get something from it.

Okay, the crux of the problem is not really the definition of learners but the definition of learning itself.  What is learning materials after all?  We expose people to resources and activities and they complete (or not) those.  A lot of what we do is training, some is education and teaching, a bit of instruction but calling it learning is dependent not on the teacher/trainer/instructor but the 'learner'.  We've become a bit PC with our definitions so we (self-included) tend to lazily opt for learning as a cover all.  If what we do is broadly 'learning' then what people taking part are is broadly 'learners' - but we should recognise that it's lazy, it's an approximation and often wrong. 

But all of that's okay actually.  I can live with learning and learners in their broadest sense, but what really drives me loopy is when we try and sub-categorise that to the nth degree. If we recognise and live with learning and learners as a broad term cool, but if we then invent new categories; self-directed learners, lifelong learners or even competent autonomous lifelong learners (for real today this was used in #pkmchat) to add accuracy to our inaccuracy it becomes silly.  It's like measuring a big distance with a 30cm ruler and then giving the answer to 4 decimal places.  The 'accuracy' is both misleading and... err.. inaccurate.

So people, learn and live, if you must call yourself learners do so (for what else would you be... breathers?) but don't define what type of learner you are beyond that, just recognise that alone is enough of an approximation.

Disagree? Cool, let me know... 

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Accidental Learner - Shaping by Life

I always enjoy #pkmchat although I think it's ironic that one of my favourite chats is one where they use one of the words I have the biggest issues with in the learning world; that word is knowledge (pkm is personal knowledge management - a concept I chuckle at too truth be told). It was a funny discussion today listening to really intelligent people trying to work out what they intentionally 'forget' in order to get over the capacity issues of our brains.  What a daft concept when you think about it. Consciously trying to forget things to preserve 'memory' space.  The problem though, as I have regularly mentioned in the past, is that firstly knowledge isn't a thing, much less a simply quantifiable thing of set storage size.

I used the word 'shaping' today to talk about what knowledge effectively does.  Knowledge is an entirely relative thing; it's not something that's fixed and can be stored in the same way we store a physical thing like a CD or even data like an mp3. What knowledge actually is really only noticeable by its effects rather than the 'thing' itself.  If the analogy we were using above with music was extended, it would be like saying that the knowledge is the experience of listening to the music rather than the music itself. Maybe think of it as a live music event.  You can record and playback the event but it's not the same as the experience that you would have if you were there.  Furthermore the experience you would have when you were there would be different to somebody else and you can't bottle up that experience no matter how high the fidelity. Memory plays a part and listening to the same song streaming 10 years later will bring some of those feelings back, but again what has happened to you since will have an effect on that, your experience has been shaped by what you started with and what other things have happened to you on the way.

Forget knowledge, start thinking of learning.  Learning is the shaping process of our life; a combination of experience, knowledge (if I must), emotion, DNA and relationships.  We often use the analogy of a pool of knowledge, we need to replace that idea with a stream of learning.  The important thing is to not to try and catch the water because it's not the water that holds the value but the flow itself.  Nick (@technkl) today said we were the rock in the stream and I think there's some value in that.  We're not there to capture the water but to be shaped by it as it flows over and through us.  We can seek different streams but the thing that will make the biggest difference to us is the effect that stream has on us.  In other words if you want to change the shape, then you can only really change the rock.  What I mean by this is that it's your attitude that shapes the way you learn, far more than the stream you happen to be in.

One challenge I did get was that my way of seeing learning as a shaping brought upon by a number of factors was just what you might categorise as 'life'.  Well I can't disagree, many times you'll hear me say that learning is pervasive and you really can't separate learning from living as they are intertwined at the very least.  Just like our rock in the stream, life will happen, it's our attitude and the way we chose to act that shapes our learning and indeed ourselves.

So why the accidental learner? Well, the big thing is that whilst we may pick and choose the odd stream of learning we dive in to most of the time we're just living and if learning seems accidental that's no major surprise.  Again though, how we approach life and the things that happen to us will determine how much we learn and in turn what we get out of life along the way.