Meaning making, learning, subjectivity

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.

8 Responses to “Meaning making, learning, subjectivity”

  1. Roger says:

    I agree that we should be pursuing “the creation of holistic, integrated modes of thinking, knowledge, learning and meaning.” In my own grappling with the terms you mention I am finding Ken Wilber’s AQAL framework very useful – as do my students.
    http://hent.blogspot.com/2005/10/student-feedback-on-integral-theory.html
    For me Integral Theory and AQAL provide a coherent conceptual framework within which we can make some sense of objectivity, subjectivity, ways of knowing… perception, perspective, worldviews… information, translation, transformation… multiple intelligences, lines of development… the individual, the collective…
    And yes, as educators we do need to be much clearer about what these all mean – and from which perspective/worldview we are defining them(eg modernist, post-modernist or integralist).
    Ref: http://www.hent.org/hent/hentnews/hentnews13.htm

  2. Charles says:

    Some thoughts coming from perspectives of radical constructivism and autopoiesis.
    Learning is simply adaptation. For that reason, in different contexts, it seems to be different but isn’t. And for that reason, it can’t be a transformation of knowledge into meaning because both the acquisition of knowledge and of meaning are adaptations, or learning.
    If meaning “is derived from our own conceptions of subjectivity and objectivity,” then “objectivity” is always subjective. I assume that there is an external, objective world, but because I do not have direct access to it, what I call “objective” is my own experiential construct of my interaction with my environment.
    Instead of considering “information, knowledge, meaning” to be “of progressively greater intelligence applied in moving up the scale,” what about being “of progressively greater experience”?

  3. Hi Roger,
    Thanks for the links. I’ve come across Ken Wilbur’s work in the past, but I haven’t read him sufficiently to fully understand his world view. From what I’ve read (and the graphic you provided in your post), my quest for integrated/holistic conception of the facets/domains of learning seems in line with Wilbur’s work.
    The nebulous nature of learning (based on its own domains, and our machete-like use of language) requires contextual/situated/integrated viewpoints. So ofte our discussions of learning aren’t dialogue…we are unable to reach shared understanding because we are too busy talking past each other from our own conceptions.

  4. Hi Charles,
    I’ve heard learning defined as adaptation (Jay Cross promotes this perspective), but I’m not sure I completely agree. I believe that an aspect of learning does require adaptation to the environment/reality that surrounds us. However, seeing learning only as a reactionary element to broader, impersonal forces, robs learning of much of its true power. I think learning has the capacity to actually change our environment. Learning is a “first cause” activity. Humanity’s ongoing quest of exploration and understanding has shaped the very reality we currently enjoy. If learning is seen as adaptation, it reduces the process to a “second cause” activity (or even merely as reactionary). I would like to think that learning create the ecology…to which we/others eventually adapt. In a sense, learning has first/second causal properties – the ecology and the forces that allow us to adapt to the ecology.
    With regards to your statement that objectivity is always subjective…I may have been a bit unclear in my original posting. Subjectivity, in my eyes (at least when dealing with knowledge/truth that is objective), is our interpretation of an objective idea/concept. We assign value/attributes to an objective knowledge element…which results in meaning (and learning). The degree to which my meaning-making aligns with the “true” attributes of an objective entity is the degree to which I have successfully interpreted reality. Alignment to objectivity is the measuring stick to determine the value of my meaning-making. This isn’t the case in every situation – many concepts/ideas are very much open to subjectivity…because they themselves are formed on subjectivity. Perhaps the first challenge is to determine if a concept is objective prior to assigning meaning-making. How is that determination made? I’m not entirely sure of the full dimension, but if a concept/skill has a “right way” (flying an airplane, performing a heart transplant, respecting dignity of people) then it is objective. I’m successful when I align to these objective elements. When a concept is subjective (i.e. competing in foreign markets, personal goals setting, defining personal values) the outcome of the experience is subjectivity built on subjectivity.
    Finally, your last point on progressively greater experience flows out of my previous point – “is the core concept objective or subjective at its base?”. If it’s subjective, then yes, it can be a progression based on experience. If it’s objective, I assume that at least part of process requires greater levels of intelligence to be applied.
    btw – I’d love to hear your “perspective” :) …on role autopoiesis in the learning…and how we can use those concepts to inform formal education.

  5. Artichoke says:

    These are ideas that I am always struggling to better understand.
    I am interested in your framing of knowing as “being aware of an object/idea in a current context”. and your questioning of objective and subjective ways of knowing.
    Your post fits quite well with the book I am reading today – Eco’s ideas on the “Force of the False” in “Serendipities”
    “Over the course of history, beliefs and affirmations that todays encyclopedia categorically denies have been given credence and indeed believed so completely as to subjugate the learned, generate and destroy empires, inspire poets, and drive human beings to heroic sacrifices, intolerance, massacre, the quest for knowledge …. how can we not assert that a Force of the False exists?”
    I also quite like Yoram Harpaz’s distinction of the traditional picture of “learning as listening/ teaching as telling/ knowledge is an object and to be educated is to know valuable content” – versus- the alternative picture of “learning is to be involved and understanding/ teaching is providing the conditions for effective learning/ knowledge is a structure or a story/ to be educated is to know how to relate to knowledge. ”
    Your “being aware of an object/idea in a current context” kind of nestles in here quite comfortably.

  6. Charles says:

    A few more thoughts.
    Because all meaning is constructed, including one’s “alignment to objectivity,” it’s not possible to determine how well one is aligned to objectivity.
    I wouldn’t consider adaptation as reactionary. People, as autopoietic systems, are “self”-organizing: environmental stimuli may or may not trigger reactions. Rather, people, co-evolve and co-adapt to the environment. This means that people are “connected” through their co-adaptations and that one primary focus should be on interactions rather than “individual” learners alone.
    I don’t think that any of this really new, but these perspectives help me keep in mind that:
    (1) The learners’ perspectives, based on their experiences, make just as much sense to them as my own do to me, and in fact, may be as insightful and as effective as my own.
    (2) I need to listen closely to their own explanations to hear what is constructive in their models and build from there.
    (3) That building includes designing an environment that provides for interactions that promote their reflecting on their models and their perceptions of others.
    For me, a mix of complexity theory, autopoiesis, and radical constructivism moves me beyond the pedagogical prescription of “Here you are and There you need to be” and provide an explanatory model of learning that helps me critique my teaching practices and results.

  7. Desmond says:

    I think the struggle to create meaning/certainty out of something is probably the fun bit, as long as we accept the connection between meaning and the meaning constructor/s. I wonder also if there is really an external ‘objective’ world – maybe Decartes has a lot to answer for?
    Ken Wilbur draws a lot from Korzybski’s ‘Science and Sanity’ (a three mogadon read, but well worth the trouble). And, I think there’s a lot to be said for one of the basic premises of Korzybski’s theories: ‘The Map is not the Territory’. In many instances we can view our search for definitions of information, knowledge, learning, etc., as akin to making a map, and yet it is usually our experience that a map can never represent ‘everything’ of the territory, and, at best, may give us a reasonable resource on which to draw when we need directions. So, to interpret Korzybski in terms of meaning making we could say that all meaning is context dependent, except when it isn’t. Or, all meaning can be context dependent-ish.
    Wilbur, and many in the General Semantics movement would argue that to avoid what he calls ‘category collapse’ (or to paraphrase your comments George, that confused state of murkiness that comes from broad and detailed investigation) we can choose to accept meaning and truth as relative and start from the idea that perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for absolutes at all.
    What I think may be worth mulling over in terms of concepts having or not having intrinsic meaning is to look at how we make the maps (concepts) and how some maps gain currency and others dont. I think it could be useful for viewing those ideas and concepts that have shaped society as maps that have reached the point of achieving a concensus trance in some societies but not others, which fits tidily into connectivism as I attempt to understand it.
    To use a non-Aristotlean perspective, we could say that information is not neccessarily organised but is everything that reaches the five senses. We may speculate that knowledge is understanding after information is filtered through an imperfect system of individual and group biases, taboos, values, beliefs, ideals, means of measurement, and things that are seen as, but may not be, truths or facts (A statement about the map makers and the maps).
    When we get to meaning I suspect that there may have to be a operational aspect to it. If, for example, I have all the information on share movements, I understand why the market is overheated, know enough about the Dow and the market to realise that overheating normally precedes a correction, etc., but give in to my greed when someone gives me a tip on a ’sure thing’, what does that have to say about meaning? And have I learned anything at all?
    Perhaps learning is the operationalising of maps in all their incompleteness that have been shown, or can be seen, to be useful in some context?
    Maybe Jay Cross has something when linking learning to adaption, in the sense that there are some powerful forces out there that feed into the macro concensus that may require some choice of apostacy to deny.
    George oberves that “Humanity’s ongoing quest of exploration and understanding has shaped the very reality we currently enjoy.” I feel that that is true for me. But, what I have a problem with is why do we use mostly pre-scientific Aristotlean thinking to describe the very reality we enjoy, when scientific and quantum logic, radial meaning theories and other perspectives that are perhaps more aligned to our experience/trances of knowing today may have the effect of opening doors to other realities that better fit the world we attempt to describe?
    I think that in our design of learning experiences we may serve our learners well by acknowledging and promoting the value of of uncertainty, of offering maps that may or may not be useful, and of helping them discover a world of fuzzy logic where objectivity is portayed as an interesting suggestion that sometimes has a practical application.

  8. Desmond says:

    I think the struggle to create meaning/certainty out of something is probably the fun bit, as long as we accept the connection between meaning and the meaning constructor/s. I wonder also if there is really an external ‘objective’ world – maybe Decartes has a lot to answer for?
    Ken Wilbur draws a lot from Korzybski’s ‘Science and Sanity’ (a three mogadon read, but well worth the trouble). And, I think there’s a lot to be said for one of the basic premises of Korzybski’s theories: ‘The Map is not the Territory’. In many instances we can view our search for definitions of information, knowledge, learning, etc., as akin to making a map, and yet it is usually our experience that a map can never represent ‘everything’ of the territory, and, at best, may give us a reasonable resource on which to draw when we need directions. So, to interpret Korzybski in terms of meaning making we could say that all meaning is context dependent, except when it isn’t. Or, all meaning can be context dependent-ish.
    Wilbur, and many in the General Semantics movement would argue that to avoid what he calls ‘category collapse’ (or to paraphrase your comments George, that confused state of murkiness that comes from broad and detailed investigation) we can choose to accept meaning and truth as relative and start from the idea that perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for absolutes at all.
    What I think may be worth mulling over in terms of concepts having or not having intrinsic meaning is to look at how we make the maps (concepts) and how some maps gain currency and others dont. I think it could be useful for viewing those ideas and concepts that have shaped society as maps that have reached the point of achieving a concensus trance in some societies but not others, which fits tidily into connectivism as I attempt to understand it.
    To use a non-Aristotlean perspective, we could say that information is not neccessarily organised but is everything that reaches the five senses. We may speculate that knowledge is understanding after information is filtered through an imperfect system of individual and group biases, taboos, values, beliefs, ideals, means of measurement, and things that are seen as, but may not be, truths or facts (A statement about the map makers and the maps).
    When we get to meaning I suspect that there may have to be a operational aspect to it. If, for example, I have all the information on share movements, I understand why the market is overheated, know enough about the Dow and the market to realise that overheating normally precedes a correction, etc., but give in to my greed when someone gives me a tip on a ’sure thing’, what does that have to say about meaning? And have I learned anything at all?
    Perhaps learning is the operationalising of maps in all their incompleteness that have been shown, or can be seen, to be useful in some context?
    Maybe Jay Cross has something when linking learning to adaption, in the sense that there are some powerful forces out there that feed into the macro concensus that may require some choice of apostacy to deny.
    George oberves that “Humanity’s ongoing quest of exploration and understanding has shaped the very reality we currently enjoy.” I feel that that is true for me. But, what I have a problem with is why do we use mostly pre-scientific Aristotlean thinking to describe the very reality we enjoy, when scientific and quantum logic, radial meaning theories and other perspectives that are perhaps more aligned to our experience/trances of knowing today may have the effect of opening doors to other realities that better fit the world we attempt to describe?
    I think that in our design of learning experiences we may serve our learners well by acknowledging and promoting the value of of uncertainty, of offering maps that may or may not be useful, and of helping them discover a world of fuzzy logic where objectivity is portayed as an interesting suggestion that sometimes has a practical application.