Thinking about Learning Part 1: A Willingness to Change My Mind

"Learning is acquiring new, or modifying existing, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information." (Wikipedia)

A central tenant of learning is change.  Learning is internalized change in how one makes sense or meaning in the world.  Learning like humans is utterly dynamic; never static.  Despite what we tell ourselves, we are not static beings.  From the microscopic to the entire body and to the mind, we are never the same from one moment to the next.  Our bodies are constantly changing, much it based upon the constant feedback we receive from our numerous senses (by the way, did you know we as humans have more than 5 senses--we have more than 10 according to some).  As you sit reading this right now, consider all the changes occurring in your body right now:  blood coursing through veins, foodstuffs in various states of processing, cells in various states of decay, neurons firing away as you translate arbitrary markings on a screen into meaning in your head.  This says nothing to the physical movement your body is experiencing as you feel stationery and yet, your body moves at speeds you never imagined as the earth you inhabit rotates on its access and your body moves even faster as the planet you inhabit hurdles through space revolving around the sun.

Learning is very similar in that it is happening constantly.  Those senses take in all that information and we constantly make meaning of everything going on around us--we learn, unlearn, and relearn the environments based upon a range of variables that are certainly beyond this author's ability to keep track of and quantify.  We are conscious and unconscious of learning.  A great example of unconscious learning is the spine.  I've had various lower back issues for years.  It's a low-grade pain that peeks its head out every once in a while.  How did this happen?  My body slowly learned to contort itself to what it perceived for the moment was a comfortable position.  However, over time, this created other problems with my back and posture.  (It's partly why I've switched to a standing desk).  But I didn't consciously set out to do that, my body adapted and learned (wrongfully alas) what would be comfortable for the immediate future.  Now, the conscious me has worked long to unlearn what my body naturally learned, and I will eventually relearn how to sit properly in chairs for longer durations (if that's even possibly).

 If you haven't figured out yet, I'm committed to the idea of being a life-long learner.  I can probably fault my father for inspiring this but it's a core part of who I am.  As I close in on this Master' of Education that I've been working on, coupled with the other 4 degrees, and the nearly 100 college courses that I've taught, I've come to an important realization about learning and it may sound simple (though it's hard to master) and has already been said elsewhere, I'm sure, but I feel important to discuss it in the realm of teaching and learning.

A willingness to change my mind stands as a major part of this aspiration for life-long learning.  I don't mean in some frivolous way wherein I want chocolate, no wait, I want vanilla, no wait, I want chocolate, definitely chocolate, or maybe I should try strawberry.  I mean that to be a learner means to actively find ways to change your mind.  But not just change my mind in the sense that it is no longer the same (e.g. adding pennies to a jar, changes the weight and substance of the jar), I also want to change my mind on things I've long believed.  That's what learning in part means--to change my understanding and knowledge in the world and a true learner must recognize that this means some things I learn will not be easy or easily fit into the narratives and frames with which I understand the world.

This is the learning that's hardest for many of us and triggers resistance and cognitive dissonance among people, trying to interpret, reinterpret or outright ignore things that conflict with their worldview.  More than anything else, it conflicts with how we as individuals make sense of the world and we don't like such conflicts.  We see this on the big level all the time with international conflicts, political debates (remember "You didn't build that."), and in squabbles on Judge Judy.

But understanding this in education gets tricky.  To be a successful teacher does in part mean being a successful learner and in doing so, to continue to peel away at the preconceived notions we come to class about our learners and to help them peel away their own preconceived notions.  Helping students retract their preconceived notions is the bread and butter of many disciplines.  After all, we encounter students who argue that Subject X is not their strong spot or relevant or interesting.  We do our best to make converts of them.

But changing our worldviews about our students remains tricky.  Sure, we always have the student that surprises us in almost every class.  The student who didn't make a good first impression but then makes us want to cry with success by semester's end.  But in our classrooms, we very quickly decide that a range of actions and personalities are antagonistic.  We use terms like "respect" and "attention"; often determining what they mean (even though they are culturally-socially-economically-dependent and we often have a very diverse population), and grow resentful or angry towards those who don't fall into line.  In that way, I wonder if we as instructors need to relearn our classes each and every time.  I know that many of us treat each new class as a brand new opportunity but we slip into our own patterns and interpret our students according to our own past--not theirs.

In some ways, from the design of the syllabus and outline of the semester to assignments and classroom activities, we're setting the course for learning based on previous experiences (old classes; old knowledge) but not often or substantively enough, setting the course of learning based on the present experience (the classes we are actually teaching).  Should teaching be a more improvised and adaptive to the students we have--not the students we had.  And if so, what does that look like?

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