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The culture of learning

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Edited by Anna Greathead, Wednesday, 15 Jan 2020, 13:14

Very often my husband will ask me 'What does xxxxxx mean?' He's come across an unfamiliar word whilst reading and he wants me to define it for him. (He's an engineer, I am a vociferous reader). Every single time I ask 'can you read the sentence to me?' I think he has suspected that I have used this as a cheat but often I know what the word means but my explanation will only make sense to him if I explain what it means in that sentence.

I was therefore delighted to read this in the this week's discussion paper:

Experienced readers implicitly under stand that words are situated. They, therefore, ask for the rest of the sentence or the context before committing themselves to an interpretation of a word. 

The paper "Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning" by Brown, Collins and Duguid explains this repeatedly using different examples. Their basic point is that learning anything isolated from the context in which it is used, or the culture of the practitioners who use it, will not lead to robust understanding.

Certain cited examples resonated with me more than others. The way that children and young people expand their vocabulary by simply living in the culture of their language makes so much sense to me. The idea of learning a language, or expanding your vocabulary, armed only with a dictionary is absurd. 

Later in the paper the authors refer to 'tools'. In this context these tools could be mathematical formulae, grammar rules or scientific facts, but it helped me to envision them as hammers, chisels and machinery. (The authors also use this equivalency). It is very possible to acquire a tool but be unable to use it. It is possible to learn how to properly use a tool but not understand why it is useful in any wider context. A useful member of any community will not only be able to use a tool but to understand its place as well. 

The argument being built is that formal education settings (principally schools) give their students a multitude of tools but never the experience of using those tools as part of a wider culture. They call the mind the way that apprentices learn their trades - first by being tasked with the simplest jobs but all the time seeing how the operation works, how the experts develop their craft, the vocabulary of the profession and the culture of the community. A school provides none of this context to the learner - they are handed tools in isolation from the culture in which they are supposed to be used.

The school has become a culture in itself. The tools acquired are those necessary to thrive within that culture of knowledge which can be distributed, assessed and then tested. Exams may be passed but the learner is no closer to being a practitioner, much less an expert in the subject matter they've learned. They are not enculturated.

The paper, then, however goes on to suggest how maths could be taught differently and I have to confess the 'different way' looks a lot like how I recall being taught maths in the 70s and 80s.

The principle takeaway message seems to be that education does not prepare people for life within the culture of the practitioners of their field of learning. The apprenticeship alternative is much better at creating practitioners rather than people who are educated in facts about the practice.

In real life I can absolutely observe this. My husband works for a motor manufacturer and recruits engineering graduates. Not one of them is 'ready to go' as they begin their career. They all need many months of acclimatization to both the realities of the workplace in general and to that employer specifically. The company also runs a successful and competitive apprenticeship scheme where young people can spend five years working within the company whilst also attending university to acquire the necessary knowledge for their discipline and a degree. Similarly my eldest child is training to be a primary school teacher - it is clear that he learns much more in his placements than he does in his lectures. 

However - I am reluctant to summarize the article the way I first reacted to is - "School is Stupid". School (or formal education in general) provides the general knowledge necessary to hang specific skills and cultures upon. No skilled engineer can get by without basic and advanced maths within their skillset and they cannot learn the advanced maths before they've mastered the basic maths. Every teacher must be able to read and write. Without those basic skills then all of the classroom time in the world will not make them competent teachers. 

Examinations and tests may not demonstrate robust and usable knowledge but maybe they do demonstrate something else of value - tenacity in study, a foundational level of knowledge and skill on which specific expertise can be built, tools which will be reviewed and revisited later in life when their use and purpose become clearer.

Additionally I am reluctant to throw 'school' under any bus as it also fulfills other purposes. School is one of the few things almost all people in developed nations (and increasingly across the globe) have in common. There is much to be learned in the interaction with peers, the response to structure and the linear (though poorly situated!) acquisition of knowledge. 

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