Learning & “Sunlight and Shadow”

by laurie jane kern on November 21, 2009

When I want to learn something, be it sewing, cooking, embroidery/crewelwork, knitting, weaving, and now silversmithing – I want to understand the technique or process first. Why? This is so as I expand my knowledge I can then envision how two or more technique/skills can be aggregated and allow me to work on more advanced projects. It is only when I understand a minimum of one technique [preferably two] that I can “make something” that I would consider it a project or finished piece. In this manner is possible to think beyond the current project and know that you can advance your work.

Recently I have been talking to friends about the process of learning and believe it or not there are people out there who DON’T learn this way and it does not just apply to making jewelry or silversmithing.

Yes folks, there are people who learn not in a process oriented manner but via a project or or finished piece (goal oriented) point of view. And it seem to be present in teachers as well, having taken several classes around So. Cal. in the past year.

I was talking to my friend Mike who use to teach English in the Scottish School system and he gave a great example:

We can all relate to writing “Book Reports” but a book report is really a type of essay. SO, when you had to write a book report did you want to learn how to write an essay and then apply that skill to the book report at hand OR did you think – what do I need to do to write this book report, what parts do I need. Oh, and by the way, I will worry about learning the various components (yeah, sure) then next time I have to write (you got it) another book report.

Now I am not saying that IF you are process learner, that you will remember ALL the components of an essay the second time you need to draw upon this skill. But you would remember some and have a fuzzy idea about others. With time you would know what to do so if you were asked to write an -gasp- essay it would be a no brainer.

If you are a goal oriented learner, your goal is the book report, not the components. Eventually you would learn the components but if you are asked to write an (here it comes again, wait for it…) Essay – could or would you be able to???

So far, all of this is predicated on the desire to learn how to write an essay cum book report.

Now think about making: a ring with a set stone; a bezel set cab; strings beads; etc.. Did you want to learn the processes required to make that object or did you want to just make that object?

If you want to know more about how people learn, read “Sunlight and Shadow” below and read the guest posting by Mike, and his take on the subject. AND YES, it is an Essay!



Consider a patch of sunlight falling on the skin of an amoeba-like animal. The light has immediate implications for the animal’s own state of bodily health, and for that reason it gets represented as a subjective sensation.  But the light also signifies – as we now know – an objective physical fact, namely the existence of the sun.  And, although the existence of the sun might not matter much to an amoeba, there are other animals and other areas of the physical world where the ability to take account of what exists ‘out there beyond my body’ could be of paramount survival value.  Consider a shadow crossing the skin of the amoeba.  Here an ability to represent the objective fact of an approaching predator would – if only it were achievable by an amoeba – clearly be of considerably more consequence to the animal’s survival than the ability to represent the body surface stimulus as such.

Nicholas Humphrey, A History of the Mind (1992)

This thought experiment might seem an odd way to try to begin to answer Laurie’s question of  the difference of view between various instructors and herself as outlined in her blog, but I start with Humphrey’s imagined amoeba-like creature because it seems to me that, intentionally or not, Humphrey neatly illustrates here some important aspects of what we call ‘learning’:

●at its most basic level it is a response to a stimulus – here  the patch of sunlight falling  on the skin

●the response operates simultaneously in at least two dimensions, the affective (the subjective sensation of warmth) and the cognitive (the source of the warmth is ‘out there beyond my body’)

●affective (the subjective sensation of warmth) and the cognitive (the source of the warmth is ‘out there beyond my body’)

●that information is then memorised for later recall, prompting the  possibility of a further stimulus (a shadow crossing the skin) emerging out of the change in awareness of potential significance created by comparing the initial stimulus with the second one

●this changed awareness of potential significance itself leads to a change in behaviour (here geared to survival – possibly by moving out of the comfort of the sunlight into the less appealing darkness) where the ‘learning’  acknowledges that subjective sensation, however pleasurable, is sometimes not the most successful means of meeting the need to interact with the world  (here the cognitive appreciation of  an approaching predator being of ‘considerably more consequence to the animal’s survival than the ability to represent the body surface stimulus’).

Obviously, the amoeba-like creature in the real world would be restricted to the first two points above – but in the world of the thought experiment it is possible to postulate the more sophisticated behaviour of the remaining points; and given this greater freedom, Humphrey actually tells us two distinct things that are, in fact, closely linked: he indicates that there are different degrees or depths and ways of learning; and he describes a clear process of learning.  In broad terms it is clear that the more developed the process the greater the depth of learning – if the amoeba-like creature did not interpret the initial stimulus of the sunlight as an indication of a world beyond its spatially-bound body enjoying the sensation of warmth then the second stimulus (the shadow) would be meaningless; and making things meaningful might stand as a workable definition of the learning process – if the meaningless shadow represented the approach of a predator, the amoeba would cease to be.

Roger Säljö of Gothenburg University published an interesting paper – Learning in the learner’s perspective (1979) – where he asked adult students what they understood by ‘learning’.  He organised their responses into the following categories or levels:

1. Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge – acquiring information or ‘knowing a lot’

2. Learning as memorising – storing information that can be reproduced

3. Learning as acquiring facts, skills, and methods that can be retained and used as necessary

4. Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning – relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world

5. Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way – comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge

This is interesting because these categories also demonstrate in a slightly different way Humphrey’s suggestion of the twin nature of this thing we call ‘learning’: that it is both a product (stages 1-3) and a continuing process (stages 4 and 5).  In terms of Humphrey’s amoeba-like creature, stages 1-3 are also immediately recognisable as its primary response to the initial stimulus of the shaft of sunlight: it is something new; it is recognised if and when it happens again; and it can be used to compare differences as the need arises.  But this response remains contingent on the external stimulus – without the sunlight, no information, no sense of another world beyond the amoeba-like creature as a self-enclosed organism.

In exactly the same way we can argue that for Säljö’s adult students these first three categories (what we might call ‘learning as product’) reflect a situation where the learning essentially remains external: it is something acquired from outside either by the happenstance of experience or through a teacher or instructor; and it remains as discrete bits or bytes of information, little pebbles of knowledge to be regurgitated like the answers in a quiz – How many wives did Henry VIII have? What is the state capital of Arizona? Who wrote ‘You’re The Top’?

Stages 4 and 5 are more complex.  If (at the risk of oxymoron) we categorise stages 1-3 as fundamentally experiential/accidental or passive learning, then stages 4 and 5 describe a more active involvement on the part of the learner where the discrete pebbles of knowledge become synthesised into a more general appreciation of what things mean.  A useful way of considering the difference would be to think in terms of where the learner’s consciousness of what is happening is most directed: in stages 1-3 the information acquired is concrete (warm sunlight; the sudden coolness of shadow), immediate and confined to something quite specific – the amoeba-like creature becomes aware of changing sensations on its skin; but in stages 4 and 5 the amoeba-like creature draws conclusions through comparison between the two different states of sunshine and shadow (essentially, that something else intervenes) and interprets that as potential danger – and thus moves from the concrete specific to a more abstract understanding of the potentiality of the outside world beyond.  The learning becomes purposive: it helps the creature remain alive.

Obviously, an amoeba-like creature could not be said to have a sense of purpose in the way we normally think of the term – it does not yet have the mental capability.  But in the world of the thought experiment the outcome of its survival reaction is akin to moving from the simple information that Henry VIII had six wives to learning about, for example, the political and religious tensions of the period, his own ambitions and dynastic pressures such as the perceived importance of male heirs, and through these towards appreciating something of why he married six times; or by discovering that as a young child he had suffered serious illnesses and later injuries that as he grew older increasingly distorted his physical body and possibly his mental states, thus adding to our sense of why he behaved the way he did.

I want to spend a little more time on Humphrey’s amoeba-like creature and its mental capability.  In a very direct way mental capability, intelligence or ‘mind’ (and therefore ‘learning’) depends on the physical development of the brain.  As Humphrey points out:

“In short, animals first had ‘minds’ when they first became capable of storing – and possibly recalling and reworking – action-based representations of the effects of environmental stimulation on their own bodies. The material substrate of the mind was nervous tissue, which in higher organisms became centred in a ganglion or brain; and it is to be remarked that even in animals like human beings the neural tube which forms the brain during embryological development derives from an infolding of the skin.”

No amoeba-like creature would have developed enough material substrate to qualify as having ‘mind’, and therefore its ‘learning’ would inevitably be limited to the simplest stimulus-response mechanism – but again, given that this is, after all, a thought experiment we should not be too harsh; it is meant to illustrate general principles.  And the general principle at issue here is how ‘learning’ developed from stimulus-response to process.  Humphrey is very helpful: at some point the sunlight and shadow move from sensations to representations of potentiality:

“In order that the same information could now be used to represent the outside world, a whole new style of processing had to evolve, with an emphasis less on the subjective present and more on object permanence, less on immediate responsiveness and more on future possibilities, less on what it is like for me and more on how what ‘it’ signifies fits into the larger picture of a stable external world.

To cut a long story short, there developed in consequence two kinds of mental representation, involving very different styles of information processing. While one path led to the qualia of subjective feelings and first-person knowledge of the self, the other led to the intentional objects of cognition and objective knowledge of the external physical world.”

We are all caught between this dualism of balancing our sense of self with our sense of the otherness of the external physical world; and ‘learning’ inevitably happens within that same framework.   At the risk of stretching the idea too far, I’m tempted to suggest that learning that is located within subjective feelings and first-person knowledge of the self is more immediate and graspable (even ontologically so necessary that we call it innate) whereas learning located within more objective knowledge is more difficult and requires formal endeavour because it is deeper and more abstract, and not simply experiential or accidental.

This division between experiential and formal learning formed part of the basis of Alan Rogers’ exploration of the area in What is the Difference? A new critique of adult learning and teaching (2003).   Rogers formulated a slightly different terminology for the difference: he suggested that it might be more correct to think in terms of task-conscious (or acquisition learning from experience) and learning-conscious (or formalised learning through directed or guided tasks).  It is not difficult, I would suggest, to see how these line up alongside the separated stages 1-3 and 4 and 5 of Säljö’s five categories.

Rogers argues that task-conscious learning arises not from the intention to learn but from the intention to complete a given task – such as changing a baby’s nappy.  The task becomes less problematic the more we do it because the simple repetition of the experience slowly reveals the best ways to approach it, the best materials to use, and so on.  And there comes a point when the skills needed have been acquired primarily from the necessity of having to complete the task over and over again several times per day.

Formalised learning is the diametric opposite of this acquisition mechanism: it is based on guided episodes of instruction or elucidation where the learner is aware that the intention of such tasks is to learn; the tasks are structured rather than contingent events in everyday experience – “Learning itself is the task.  What formalised learning does is to make learning more conscious in order to enhance it.”

Rogers conceives of a continuum: at one extreme lie those unintentional and often accidental events which occur all the time; then comes incidental or unconscious learning acquired in the course of some other activity; then experiential activities arising from immediate life-related concerns where the focus is still primarily on the task; then the shift towards more purposeful activities that disregard engagement with teachers and institutions; then come self-directed projects … and so on.  Rogers describes the other extreme as highly decontextualised learning using material common to all the learners without regard to their individual preferences, agendas or needs.  It is readily apparent that for almost all examples in everyday life and practice it would be possible to argue that there is a tremendous blurring of boundaries between each of these categories.

Both Säljö and Rogers approach the problem of ‘learning’ from the intention of trying to uncover what it might be said to be in order that teachers might be better able to enhance their students’ success; they are concerned with ‘learning theory’, which attempts to organise and structure practice and presentation of material so that experience becomes more valuable in terms of (primarily) academic success for both the learner and the teacher.  A workable definition of a good teacher might be along the lines of: one who creates an environment and sets tasks which enable or empower the pupils or students through stimulating their ‘learning’ skills by use of an appropriate engagement with different learning styles (some prefer visual presentation, some written, some practical – and so on).   Nonetheless, too often formalised learning seems to stimulate reactions of boredom as much as curiosity, especially as children become more aware of what the psychologist Carl Rogers famously called “the poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity” – as Winston Churchill said: “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.”

Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly the fact that as we grow older we develop a thirst for more autonomy in our lives (Alan Rogers’ reference above to individual preferences, agendas or needs) which comes into conflict with this increasing awareness of the straitjacket of conformity and the social rules which require certain academic qualifications and competencies before allowing entry into the sphere of work and the professions.  Every university I have visited has graffiti (often deep in the bowels of the main library) complaining of the educational mill, which grinds out each year the requisite number of automata ready to fill the spaces in the workforce vacated by those who went before.  It is, at bottom, a clash of the social intention with the personal one: the teacher is required to follow increasingly centralised curricula (of which s/he is a successful product, of course) irrespective of the individual desires or intentions of those being taught.

At this point I want to add a note to what Rogers calls the learning-conscious process: I would argue that another fundamental shaping force is the question of the intentionality of the learner.  Every teacher ought to be aware that (especially in adult classes) there will be a variety of reasons why the people staring back are there: usually to acquire a qualification that will in some way enhance promotion prospects or career change; sometimes out of a sense of earlier missed opportunities; occasionally out of pure interest in the subject; and so on.  And sometimes there can be a mismatch in perception between teacher and adult student: the teacher could be task-conscious (focused on teaching a particular skill in a particular way) while the student could be learning-conscious (more concerned with how the skill might fit into a wider repertoire of skills rather than on exercising it in the approved way).

Thus we arrive at my explanation of Laurie’s observation: it seems to me that something like this mismatch of perceptions of the nature of the task is at the root of the conflict between her instructors and herself.  The instructor perceives his role as primarily a provider of training, where the desired outcome is for all members of the class to develop the same technique in the same way through a process of imitation or mimesis; whereas Laurie is concerned with enhancing her education, in understanding more fully how the skill works rather than in being satisfied merely to reproduce it.

Along with more detailed exploration of learning styles and the broad ‘families’ into which most learning theories fit (there are dozens of them), the vexed question of the difference between training and education must wait for another day.

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