Learning merely for the sake of understanding: Clumsy metaphors and impressions as scaffolds
I have had this quote pasted to a note on my desktop for the last few weeks. I do this from time to time, post a few quotes here and there so whenever my gaze meets it, I am forced to reflect on it a little, even if that is just a second or so. I consider this my slow cooking equivalent of learning. Let it sit in the background and stew for quite some time and when it is ready, then you will know. After reading it again just today, I began to realize why it was leaving such an impression. It is essentially the working ethos of my network, that motley combination of open learners, elearners, mobile learners, digital media and digital humanities types that I engage with daily. Some are pursuing learning for outputs, some for professional expectations, some for mere curiosity’s sake. All create voraciously, in text (blogs, articles, or books), in media (some of my Edinburgh and Finnish colleagues in particular are exploring media as a learning vehicle with abandon), and in application (open coursework, open learning and the like). Vannevar Bush would have found that balance most agreeable, I suspect. If you read nothing else today, read Bush’s As We May Think (1945) and marvel at how applicable it is to our modern form of research and scholarship. But I get ahead of myself. The quote:
Knowledge for the sake of understanding, not merely to prevail, that is the essence of our being. None can define its limits, or set its ultimate boundaries.-Vannevar Bush
We learn because we want to know, not merely to prevail. We want to, but don’t always need to, know. This is a visible, tangible crossroads for learning in general, where it begins to separate from being output/skills based (job training and/or employment) to independent learning. The independent, informal type of learning, I have found, is best engaged with the following process.
So we experience or look to experience something and we pass through layers of context, location, mobility and time. That is the first part. It leaves an impression, but the next part refers more to what we do with that impression. It sits in this murky space of sensory input and our mind hasn’t really gotten a hold of it yet to make sense of it (let alone to make use of it). So we stimulate this process by generating an impression. I do this often with my work (much inspired by my Finnish colleagues, who seem to do this out of habit). I am engaged with something particularly complex or novel, so much so that I have little capacity for articulating a response. I therefore return to a more primal sense of what understanding is by recording an impression based on an emotional or aesthetic or even contextualized approach. I define it and begin to understand it merely by remixing or creating it. I do this most often with photography, which I then clumsily remix to reflect my emotional or aesthetic impression of what just happened.
These impressions provide me a foundation on which to articulate the intellectual response, the knowing part of the equation. Without the impression, I have no scaffold for articulating what I am beginning to know and so I fumble about with cliches, tropes, and boilerplate rhetoric, desperately searching for language to engage this slightly known unknown (see what I mean). With the impression, I have something, a perch, from which to articulate understanding. This is another mechanism for making sense and one I try to use as often as possible with my learners. I try and introduce a visual medium as early as possible to generate this impression. I occasionally have them record their own media responses to particular prompts connecting, however loosely, the prompt to their understanding. I then ask them to explain the media impressions, thus triggering the process of articulation. Explain to me what you did and then you will begin to understand why you did it.
So the process is sound and as a teacher I do feel that we are in the business of process rather than outputs. By outputs, I mean discrete ‘things’ generated by process. I only say this as the process I outline above will generated a practical (re: assessable or useful in the professional sense) output like about 10% of the time. This process is about engineering the mind to make sense of complexity by making the artifacts of this process visible to them. By foregrounding these artifacts, we are making the process conscious (and presumably replicable).
The clumsy metaphor I am using to describe this is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. With learning, we know that if we slam together enough of these artifacts in enough contexts, we will occasionally generate an output. We, however, will always generate meaning and learning assuming the learner is aware of the process and the artifacts used. At the very least, we will learn that this means less than perhaps originally anticipated. We will learn to ‘fail’ or embrace the kind of learning that Bush espoused in the quote. We will never self-define our learning through limits and boundaries. Why would we?
Impressions precede articulation. Experience, curiosity, or observation precedes that. The process is revisited again and again by everyone. As teachers, we need to make this process visible to our learners, to encourage them to explore this impressionistic precursor stage of true understanding. I use media as I think it is the shortest route between the heart (I feel this is important) and the head (I know this is important). But it isn’t the only route. Find it and scaffold it.