Archive for December, 2005

Meaning making, learning, subjectivity

Thursday, December 29th, 2005

I continue to grapple with definitions of information, knowledge, learning, and meaning. The more I read and seek clarification, the more murky my views. I’m now at the stage where I’m starting to define knowing simple as “being aware of an object/idea in a current context”. Tomorrow, the object/idea may be in a different context, and that will influence knowledge. It follows that a large part of knowledge is derived from the context or view of an idea/concept/object. Does a concept then have no intrinsic meaning? For example, I come from a pacifist faith and methodology (a concept constantly challenged in today’s world). Is non-violence always “true”? Or, if one holds to another view – is conflict or violence always the “final answer”? What does this say about concepts or ideas that we use to shape and form society? Is it relative? If so, does it then mean that our own morality is shaped by context? Can we reach “shared understandings” when knowledge is seen primarily as a function of subjective interpretation or perspective?

In the past, I’ve defined the debate of information, knowledge, meaning, and learning as being one of progressively greater intelligence applied in moving up the scale. Information (defined as data with some organizing scheme applied) is the starting point. Knowledge is an understanding or comprehension of information’s explicit and tacit domains (i.e. information in context and internalized). Meaning is the highest element in the pyramid. Meaning is an understanding or recognition of the impact of knowledge. The Dow Jones daily performance is information. Understanding why Dow Jones rose/fell is knowledge. Comprehending the impact of Dow Jones’ daily performance is a function of meaning. What does it mean? Who will be impacted? How does it affect my retirement goals? How does it reflect on national competitiveness? How does this “meaning” link to other forms of knowledge I possess (globalization, government taxation, principles of governing party)?

To see it another way, learning (which is comprised of many domains), at its highest level, is the moment at which knowledge translates to meaning. Unfortunately, we use “learning” as a vague and confusing term. Sometimes we define learning as acquiring a new skill (loading a software program). Other times we define it as an ongoing, informal experience (self-reflection). Or we define learning as a by-product of personal experiences…etc. We use the term “learning” to refer to filling knowledge gaps, increasing personal and organizational competence, increasing self-awareness, and on and on. Few words are more eviscerated of concise meaning than learning. However, if we tentatively view learning as the act of transforming knowledge into meaning (which then suggests that we can do something with (or actuate) knowledge), we can begin to tackle the challenge of perspective or subjectivity.

It seems to me that certain things are innate or certain entities possess intrinsic attributes. Perspective and subjectivity have value only to the degree that they align with these intrinsic values. A simple example: the concept of “forgiveness” is gaining much favor and attention in the field of psychology. It is generally understood that forgiving others who have wronged us is an excellent way of maintaining our own mental health. Forgiveness can be seen as an objective concept (I know I’m walking into very murky waters that require much more contextual information than I’m providing in this short example). A person can have knowledge of the value of forgiveness. Subjectivity comes in how we assign meaning to what we know (or to what might be an existing objective concept). How we personally approach forgiveness is the starting point of personal subjectivity. Context, cognition, and emotion all contribute to how we assign meaning to knowledge. The process is one of degrees, not a “yes” or “no” experience.

This is a simple thought experiment, but it does provide a basis for thinking objectively about the notion of learning and knowledge. I’m comfortable stating that everything we see/do is personally interpreted. In many cases, however, an objective concept exists as a tempering point for assigning value to my subjectivity.

This isn’t to say that all aspects of life are clearly objective or that subjectivity is always a function of assigning meaning to objective entities. Far from it. Many aspects of life, behaviour, knowledge, and learning are subjective. However, I don’t want the presence of subjectivity to exclude the possibility of objective dimensions to our learning and meaning-making.

How we assign meaning to knowledge, or how we design learning for our learners, is derived from our own conceptions of subjectivity and objectivity. The rapid development of information, the continual march of change, and global developments and conflict, are powerful illustrations of the substantial challenge facing educators. I fear that we pull the foundation out from our learners when we don’t provide at least the acknowledgement (possibility) of objective reality. Rapid change does not speak against objectivity. The higher pursuit, in today’s learning spaces, should be the creation of holistic, integrated modes of thinking, knowledge, learning and meaning. We all shape our realities. We all explore and see different parts of the aspects of life that are objective. We all contribute (connected individualism) to the aggregated whole of subjective view points leading to a more complete view of what is and what can be.

When learning goes underground…

Wednesday, December 7th, 2005

Administrators, learning designers, and teachers are facing a new kind of learner – someone who has control over the learning tools and processes. When educators fail to provide for the needs of learners (i.e. design learning in an LMS only), learners are able to “go underground” to have their learning needs met.

This happened in a program I was recently involved in as a learner. An LMS was the main learning tool (which was a good choice for the program – many of the learners valued the centralized nature of communication and content presentation). After a short period of time, however, groups of learners “broke off” from the program and started holding discussions through Skype, IM, wikis, and other tools. Learners selected tools that were more tightly linked to the types of learning tasks occurring. When the learning was content consumption or simple discussion threads, the LMS was fine. As the learning became more social, learners started using tools with additional functionality. The learning required by the instructors – assignments, discussions – still happened in the LMS. But much more meaningful, personal, and relevant learning happened underground – outside of the course.

This was a great example of the foraging dimension of learning – we keep looking until we find tools, content, and processes which assist us in solving problems. Our natural capacity for learning is tremendous. We overcome many obstacles and restrictions to achieve our goals. It’s also an example of the short-sighted nature of some learning programs. The problem rests largely in the view that learning is a managed process, not a fostered process. When learning is seen as managed, an LMS is the logical tool. When learning is seen as a function of an ecology, diverse options and opportunities are required.

What is the cost of learning “going underground” (i.e. off the radar of the institution)? The biggest impact is that the group of learners no longer has access to the thoughts of the entire group. Small communities form – but are not linked back solidly to the main group. Groups form due to ineffective learning design (tools, content, and process). Second, the organization loses its central role (this isn’t all bad – learners should have the capactity to play and mess around with new tools – an area for experimentation is very valuable…but the core learning requirements should be provided by the school). Learners who are less likely to experiment receive a different level of value from the learning process. Perhaps this is fine…as much of the underground learning is an “add on” to the main intent of the program. Still, for some, as was evidenced in the program discussed earlier, the move to underground resulted in frustrated learners who felt that they had missed part of the conversation.

This happens consistently in K-12, college, university, or corporate learning. When teachers don’t provide tools, learners take their learning process to new (user-controlled) spaces. Those who are most passionate and informed are the learners who are most likely to create new spaces of learning – and as a result, leave with much of their best insight.

Some types of learning (particularly brainstorming) are often best handled through small private groups. This isn’t the concern here. The concern is that the failure of the organization to provide tools results in a less effective learning experience for all learners (i.e. we aren’t privy to the numerous, valuable, “other space” conversations). Learners should have expectations about the type and quality of the experience. Many people will find solutions to inefficiencies, but others may simply continue trying to use the wrong tools for the wrong task. It is the responsibility of the school/college/university to provide the ecology in which learning can occur.