Learning on the Edge
One of the first exercises I ask the pre-service and in-service teachers in my Psychology of Learning course to do is define learning. This is not a look-up-in-the-dictionary type of activity. They are asked to do so using their own thoughts, images, body movements, and chants/music. It is a difficult exercise.
Actually, I find it quite baffling that educators don’t more often explore the question, “What is learning?” Isn’t learning the ultimate goal, vision, mission of education? If so, why is the implementation of learning, often known as curriculum, done so without a clear, clean, shared knowledge about what learning is?
I believe, as Grant Wiggins does:
Though we often lose sight of this basic fact, the point of learning is not just to know things but to be a different person – more mature, more wise, more self-disciplined, more effective, and more productive in the broadest sense. Knowledge is an indicator of educational success, not the aim.
- If curriculum is a tour through what is known, how is knowledge ever advanced?
- If a primary goal of education is high-level performance in the world going forward, how can marching through old knowledge out of context optimally prepare us to perform?
Recently, I attended Unplug’d, a type of think tank to explore education reform. Its unofficial subtitle was learning on the edge as it occurred at a retreat center called Northern Edge Algonquin. My thoughts and discussions at this gathering sparked ideas about the characteristics of learning on the edge. I believe that some of these include:
- The Map is Not the Territory
- There is Recognition, Acknowledgment, and Embracing of Unknowns
- It Requires Jumping Into the Deep End
- It is a Messy Experience Shared by Everyone in the Learning Community
The Map is Not the Territory
Jorge Luis Borges is said to have remarked that the only accurate representation of reality would be reality itself; by extension, the only accurate map of the Earth would be the exact shape and size of the Earth itself. Since we cannot construct such a map, we accept a certain level of inaccuracy from our maps. As Borges implied, we must expect some inaccuracies of this kind. But even beyond this simple separation of reality and representation, our society functions in relative naïveté about the accuracy of maps. (http://www.strangehorizons.com/2002/20020610/medieval_maps.shtml)
A similar illusion has evolved in education. There is a belief that the curriculum maps, lesson plans, and teaching scripts are the territory, that all there needs to be known can be taught with these “maps”.
Learning on the edge recognizes that just like geographic maps, curriculum and lesson plans are inaccurate and incomplete maps of what can be learned and known. Learning on the edge may be guided by curricular maps but there is an expectation of digressions, exploration of alternatives, and at times, throwing out the map altogether. Learning on the edge comes with an awareness that the map may or may not be an accurate representation of reality. It recognizes that each educator’s and student’s journey is unique, personalized, and self-determined. Another illusion of institutionalized education is that a student’s learning can be determined. Even with standardized curriculum, each students takes from it what s/he needs and desires.
What follows are the visual notes that Giulia Forsthye drew to depict the discussion our Unplug’d group had about the Map is Not the Territory.
There is Recognition, Acknowledgment, and Embracing of Unknowns
Terra incognita or terra ignota (Latin “unknown land,”) is a term used in cartography for regions that have not been mapped or documented. The term was reintroduced in the fifteenth century from the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s work during the Age of Discovery. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_incognita
Terra incognitia also means a new or unexplored field of knowledge. Learning on the edge has a built-in assumption that there are unknowns beyond the edge, there are things yet to be discovered by all members of the learning community, students and teachers alike. It becomes a journey of explorations, of new insights and discoveries, of seeing things never seen before.
It Requires Jumping Into the Deep End
Learning on the edge is not about dipping toes in the water or wading in slowly from the shallows. It requires a full commitment to jump in and get fully immersed. The shock, at first, may take breath away, (Jumping in cold waters always does). This is especially true for those educators and learners who are used to journeying along the roads most traveled, who function and live by the tried and tested curriculum, lesson plans, and instructional and learning strategies. But educators and students, who seek to learn on the edge, understand that there is only so much you can learn in one place, that terminal objectives and class outcomes are just that terminal. (Terminal: Of, at, relating to, or forming a limit, boundary, extremity, or end. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/terminal).
There’s only so much you can learn in one place
The more that I wait, the more time that I waste
Are you ready to jump
Get ready to jump
Don’t ever look back
Yes, I’m ready to jump
Just take my hand
get ready to jump
(Yep, Madonna’s Jump)
The act of jumping is a kinesthetic experience. Similarly, learning on the edge and often in the deep end becomes a full body experience. Learning experiences are heard, seen, felt. Changes in thinking, doing, knowing, being occur due to these experiences.
It is a Messy Experience Shared by Everyone in the Learning Community
Learning on the edge is a messy affair. Thoughts and ideas get muddied. Frustrations occur as there are few correct answers. More questions and puzzlements arise. Old paradigms are shaken up.
It is a shared experience of all members of the learning community – all students and all educators. All members struggle, all are changed due to the experience.
Good learning is not a matter of finding a happy medium where both parties are transformed as little as possible. Rather, both parties must be maximally transformed—in a sense deformed. There is violence in learning. We cannot learn something without eating it, yet we cannot really learn it either without being chewed up.”
— Peter Elbow, Embracing Contraries, Oxford University Press, 1986.
I want my students to learn, I want to be a facilitator of learning. I do not have the goal of transmitting facts and knowledge so my students, at best, acquire a surface understanding. So maybe what I describe is not learning on the edge but learning as it should be. It is not easy to facilitate in traditional institutions but it is possible . . . and the rewards of seeing and hearing student testimonies of their significant learning are priceless.
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