Learning Is Not One Thing

Jared Stein has an excellent post up on a point that is near to my heart. People in the humanities who criticize flipped classrooms often don’t realize that their class is already flipped. The reason why they don’t get “flipped classrooms” is it does not solve a learning problem they have. They’ve been able to teach this way since the invention of the written word, more or less, and it’s been a prominent form of teaching in the humanities since the creation of mass market publications. On the other side of the equation, we have a set of people in the sciences who often have highly motivated students who just need a process explanation for a skill, and they don’t understand why humanities professors aren’t jumping up and down with excitement about video lectures. We have people in K-3 working to teach reading to disadvantaged populations telling people looking to make math relevant to ninth graders what they should do. And every week another professor publishes something about their miracle class, never dealing with the fact the last miracle class covered offered an entirely different prescription.

Analogies are dangerous things, but being educated is in some ways like being healthy. And teaching is in some ways like the practice of medicine. Students are in one state of capacity and a series of events happen that push them into another state of capacity. We call the delta on that “learning”, the difference between the two states.  But despite the gerundic look of “learning”, it’s not a thing like “running”. It’s not a chemical process, or even a thing one “does” in any real sense. It’s just the difference between two states, like “healing”.

People miss this. People get to thinking learning is a very specific type of action that we are trying to help students do better, that there is some atomic theory of learning. But ultimately the only thing that truly holds  together “learning to change a tire”, “learning how to think like a geographer”, “learning how to do long division”, “learning the importance of imaginary numbers”, and “learning to love again” is that all concern a change in capacity and behavior. They are unified, certainly, but in the way that recovering from flesh wounds is related to surviving cancer or suppressing panic attacks.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for a unified theory of learning (any more than I would argue that there is no place for a general study of medicine). There are many connections between what we call “learning”, and finding the common ground between them is helpful. But so much of the insanity of the chatter in this space is due to people believing learning is a thing. It’s not. And it doesn’t really make sense to enter the general discussion about education until you understand that.

5 thoughts on “Learning Is Not One Thing

  1. Nice post. I like to use the term L-word for much the same reasons you put about “it” not being a thing. The L-word is a weird strange attractor for all manner of adjectives that, to me, suggests most folk struggle to describe what is actually going on. It is a lot simpler to black box it all, call it X, Y or Z learning and it’s all tidy. It’s the tidiness that is part of the problem. The L-word is not to be associated with mess, or work-arounds, mistakes or blind alleys. The interesting thing is that when people actually watch to see what folk do when they tackle a problem or new stuff for the first time that the novices do very odd things, usually totally unrelated to the well-intentioned advice from the person who knows about the new stuff.

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