Thursday, 4 November 2010

Looking down the wrong end of the telescope? What's with the 'learning' fetish?

There is a misconception that pedagogy is about psychology (thanks to Oleg for this insight!). Learning concerns psychology; pedagogy is about the sociology of educational organisation, institutions, etc. For to teach on a one-to-one basis is entirely different than to teach 1 to 100. The pedagogy reflects the organisational situation. It occurs to me that this misconception has deep implications. For we persist in justifying everything we do in educational technology (which is fundamentally pedagogical) around the psychological benefits for ‘learning’ rather than considering its broader sociological implications – particularly those concerning the longevity of institutions.

Why do we make this mistake? Is it because to appeal to the ‘benefits to learning’ of using technology is virtually impossible to establish with any certainty? (.. and such impossibility is a useful defence in the face of scrutiny!?)

Is it because ‘learning’ is seen as the index of a person’s economic worth and the value they extract from education? Or indeed, the value which they demand from it as paying customers?

Maybe our adherence to ‘learning’ lies in the traditional definition of ‘learning’, where a person of 'great learning' was someone able to communicate in a wide range of registers, with reference to a wide range of reading, and whose analytical linguistic performances bear testimony to this preparation and consequent high social standing.

Whatever has happened psychologically is only available for inspection through what Wittgenstein calls ‘skilled performances’ – linguistic and technical. But such performances are necessarily social performances, and so the institutional context that nurtures and supports their development is as important as the individual minds that appear to produce them.

For all our talk of the technology impacting on the relatively short lives of learners, their economic effectiveness, their 'purchasing power', etc... how often do we talk of technology impacting on the much longer lives of institutions and the social life that embraces them?

Even work which purports to address the needs of institutional organisation, it is indirectly focused on the needs of learners, not institutions: CRM is a good example.

The lives of institutions are very long indeed. They remain fundamental building blocks of civil society, playing a role not just in the support of fashionable means of production, but in the peaceful development and emergence of new means of production (from feudalism to individualism for example). Their only enemies are those who seek to corrupt society for personal gain.

Human life is short. But in its passage of 80 years (in the West) or so, amongst the ends of an individual human life is its continued reproduction and transformation of the things that outlast it, that will continue to nurture civil society for centuries to come. This is a much bigger picture than the ‘learning’ picture: To focus on the individual at the expense of what can be sustained, on the ephemera of life rather than its ends may be a costly mistake.


Pat Parslow said...

Interesting piece.

Is it not reasonable to think of society and its institutions as being emergent structures which form from the interactions of many individuals? Those institutions with greater longevity may have their behaviours codified in sets of rules, but are still capable of being moulded and changed by the ephemeral humans who are currently extant and involved with them.

Having those individuals capable of learning well, of adapting to changing environments, is (currently) key to the ability of the institutions to adapt. At the moment it is also likely that the only models we can develop for the institutions themselves to be able to learn are based on our models of how people learn, although I can envisage it being possible to develop other models for institutions and communities at a later point.

Although I am not a liberalist, I do see a slightly sinister overtone to the idea of the individuals being subservient to the institutions of which they are part. The lag time on institutional change tends to be quite high in comparison to the individual, and personally I would think it important to focus first on understanding human learning and developing pedagogies which work well with the disparate types of people the institutions are there to serve.

Mark Johnson said...

At the time I wrote this I would have absolutely agreed with the emergentist account regarding individuals and institutions: this is basically the structure-agency distinction of Bhaskar (and to some extent Giddens).

However, now I worry about the implicit progressivism in that account. History seems to indicate a cyclical life of institutions: things repeat. Emergence doesn't have a way of articulating the recurring patterns, which is giving me a lot to think about.

More broadly, I think that the issue with learning technology is about identifying the 'grain' of the institution and working with it. The 'learning fetish' strangely seems to run against the grain: it often presents itself as an exhortation to 'think against the system'. I think we need to get better at thinking with the system, but understanding better what the system does and what it is for - both at a surface and a deep level. I don't think that's subservience. It's more ecological.