Understanding Learning by Understanding Language: It’s Growing, Not Transferring

I believe we cannot understand learning without taking into account the operation of language.  Specifically, understanding the way language operates is a reason why educators should abandon the transportation metaphor of learning (i.e. learning transfer) for a cultivation metaphor (growing the knowledge garden).

Language was at the center of philosophy during the last century.  Beginning with the linguistic turn and ending with the interpretive turn, these 20th Century movements had a profound effect on psychology and education. M.M. Bakhtin was one of the great elucidators of language that I encountered in my studies. I believe he was at heart a teacher, but his work defies easy categorization.  I recently came across this quote which emphasizes languages role as a tool of communication, intellect and thinking. (emphasis added)

Due to stratifying forces resulting from the dialogical contextual use of language; there are no “neutral” words and forms – words and forms that can belong to “no one”; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents. For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system of normative forms but rather a heteroglot conception of the world.  All words have the taste of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions.  Contextual overtones (generic, tendentious, individualistic) are inevitable in the word.  [Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, Austin TX: University of Texas Press. (p.293).]

All language is populated by intentions and overtones that don’t just communicate, but form a conception of the world, by a particular person and in a place and time.  The thought of learning transfer is like thinking of a person that cannot speak except by using direct quotation.  Call it a left-over from a linear behavioral conception of learning.  Imagine if we could only speak to others by using direct quotations.  We don’t do that! We compose our statements according to the context and our purposes.  Similarly, when we learn, we also compose our knowledge (much of which is language) according to the context and purpose.  We may barrow ideas from other people and other times and circumstances, but they are reformulated and grown according to the context and the purpose at hand.  This is the benefit of a cultivation metaphor over a transportation metaphor.

How to Think: Developing a Personal Learning Infrastructure

Ed Boyden from MIT’s Media Lab had an interesting post way back in 2007 titled How to Think: Managing brain resources in an age of complexity.  He lists 9 great insights that relates to structuring a personal self-managed learning environment.  The following is my edited personal version:

  1. Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read (or receive input).
  2. Learn how to learn and prototype ideas (rapidly). ?
  3. Work backward from your goal. Make contingency maps. Find out which things depend on other things. Identify things that are not dependent on anything but have the most dependents, and finish them first.
  4. Always have a long-term plan, even if you change it every day.  Use logarithmic time planning; events that are close at hand are scheduled with finer resolution than events that are far off.
  5. Collaborate.
  6. Make mistakes quickly, then move on. As Shakespeare put it, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
  7. Develop personal best-practices protocols and make them routine.
  8. Document everything obsessively and watch carefully for surprise and insight.  (Ed’s e.g. Compose conversation summaries on a notepad. At the end of the conversation, digitally photograph the paper and uploaded to a computer for keyword tagging and archiving.)
  9. Keep or make it simple, even if that is hard work.

It’s #2 where I have the most questions concerning how.  But really, everything else relates to #2.  I see 3 main thrusts in this list:

  • #1 and #5 are about expansive thinking, opening up the possibility of new ideas.
  • #3, 4 and 6 – 9 are about achieving focus.  Thought is focused by imposing constraints.
  • Also important is linking thinking and acting.  This is done through #3, 4, 5 and 6.

#7 is also a core thought. Work routines (along with a collaboration platform) are an important part of a personal learning environment infrastructure. It’s some of the ways we can create our own resources.