ON MAPS, METAPHORS AND LEARNING

January 6, 2011

I don’t teach; I try to help students to learn. That is, to make them independent of me: to realize that what they do is for themselves and their future, and to take responsibility for this rather than simply bending to the requirements of a system. Such an approach goes against most students’ experience of school; they have learnt to become passive: to give up responsibility to the system, to do what they are told. The message they have received is that learning is something that is done to you, rather than something that arises out of personal engagement; so that one can surf the Internet, play games and chat while someone else drives the bus to a preordained destination where you will be dropped off. This attitude arises from the pressure of external control.

My idea is rather to provide driving lessons and a map: explain the topography and the various routes available and to help them when they get lost. To provide a structure.

The process of learning, as Postman wrote is not linear:

“Certainly, anyone who has worked with children in an inquiry environment knows what a delightful, fitful, episodic, explosive collage of simultaneous ‘happenings’ learning is.  If the learning process must be visualized, perhaps it is most authentically represented in a Jackson Pollock canvas- a canvas whose colours increase in intensity as intellectual power grows (for learning is exponentially cumulative).”

-It is a messy, human process based on a series of approximations and  human contact and exchange. The process has to be adopted for each individual, each class and each day: they have a German test in the next class? I do not have all their attention and bullying them is not going to help their learning or the test. Expectation influences perception and one cannot understand something which one cannot relate to the experience and reference one has. Students don’t necessarily learn what I teach or fail to learn that which is not taught.

Never-the-less, all political discourses around education seem to be centred around the organisation, control and standardization of process and procedure rather than the creation of the human, supporting and encouraging environment that nourishes and encourages learning and confidence (of both student and teacher).

This dialectic seems difficult to address since the perceptions of the organisers are not those of the teachers: it is reasonable to wish to define and assess what is learnt, the content of courses and the efficacy of the process. Yet when the focus is too concentrated on structure the very nature of learning begins to be lost; it is not linear and it is not a simple, left brain process (which is what most testing assesses). Again Postman:

“From all this, you must not conclude that there is no logic to the learning process.  There is. But it is best described as a ‘psycho-logic’, whose rules sequences, spirals and splotches are established by living, squirming, questioning, perceiving, fearing, loving, above all, languaging nervous systems.”

We live with the heritage of the Modernist experiment. The error of this experiment was to remove solutions from human experience and behaviour into an idea of abstract perfection detached from reality. What McGilchrist sees in terms of left brain dominance.

“The right hemisphere saw individuals where the left hemisphere saw categories; the right hemisphere realised the importance of what is intuitive and embodied, where the left hemisphere prioritised abstraction and rationality (here I distinguish mere ‘rationality’ from the all-important, and far more complex, ‘reason’, to which both hemispheres need to contribute). “

Most of the misunderstandings in the discussions on education come from this dialectic. I do not advocate formlessness and lack of structure, but a structure based on reason, not on abstract maps.

A map is not the terrain it represents; it has a certain schematic relation to that terrain and can express different aspects. It seems as if the left brain wishes to limit reality to its descriptions. Concentration on the language of the map distances from experience of the landscape. Industrialization and Modernism already restructured the environment to resemble the plan and covered it with man-made artefacts, so that many people have no contact with natural landscape. Digitalisation now removes our focus even further from direct experience and increases the focus on the map: the mental model of that experience. Men focus on screens, not on direct interaction with the physical world.

If consciousness and the mechanism of perception is a work in progress, this change of focus must have a fundamental affect on our perception of reality and our manipulation of it. The metaphors we use affect directly our perception and behaviour; as George Eliot wrote we treat children differently if we see them as plants to be nourished or blank slates to be written on. Human beings do not function like computers and the metaphor is an inappropriate one and learning is not a linear process of acquisition, yet I am afraid that we are beginning to view students in terms of programming!

 

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