Our first activity was to examine how I, and then others, define learning, and write 500 words on this. Although I can see the importance of understanding concepts about learning, I find the exercise to be less than valuable when my time is so precious. There’s no end of definitions and they’ll be written from a wide range of perspectives so it seems to be more about the perspective than the definition.

Faced with such a task, we explore our experiences and knowledge to define what learning means to each of us. However, what matters are the experiences and knowledge and how we have been affected by them; a definition contrives to label this, and that label will depend on the context we see learning happening, what was learned, and if anything changed because of it. For me, much of life is learning, so a definition is always going to fall short of reality. So why constrain the concept of learning with a semantically imprecise label ? I rather think we should avoid defining it and instead spend time examining the ways we gain experience, knowledge, skills, etc, i.e., the how, the why, the where, the when, etc, not the what is it.

The next activity was reading a long paper by John Seely Brown about Situated Cognition or learning in context. To summarise it :

School has its own culture which is distinct from the culture of practitioners (work): as a result, the features of the(working)  practice are extracted from the context of the practice, so the practice is taught without the context because this fits the school culture/context. The general strategies for intuitive reasoning, resolving issues, and negotiating meaning that people develop through everyday activity are superseded by the precise, well-defined problems, formal definitions, and symbol manipulation of much school activity. However, learning methods that are embedded in authentic (work-related) situations are not merely useful; they are essential.

Instead of what he sees as school learning, he favours practices like those given by Lampert, who uses the following 4 types of knowledge to be learned: intuitive knowledge = the patterns I follow ; computational = the new pattern ; concrete = how this applies in the real world ; principled = why/how the new pattern works. Brown says this fosters cognitive apprenticeship. Start from where they are, show them the new ; apply it to the real, examine why it works. he also looks at Schoenfeld, who uses the real-world to create an understanding of what it is to be a mathematician examining the world from a mathematical viewpoint, instead of learning maths to become a mathematician.

We were asked 3 questions:

 1. As this paper was written more than 20 years ago, how has its central message held up? What lasting value does this paper have today?

Holds up well – most modern pedagogical methods involve pairwork and groupwork and the use of real-world ideas. See Teacher’s TV.

2. If you had to summarise the authors’ arguments in a short paragraph, what would you write?

School extracts features and principles from a practice and that makes the learning less successful; it needs more of the real-world practices with group activity to be successful.

3. In the late capitalism of the twenty-first century, is apprenticeship still a relevant model for learning? Try to think in terms of the kinds of knowledge required for the work that is common in a modern economy.

I think the answer is yes, because a lot of work is social and we learn from others who are, effectively, our mentor. However, what is a modern economy ? Is it electronics mass production in China by largely unskilled labour who learn on the job, and or a small scale family company producing watches in Switzerland ? Both are apprenticeships in their own way. In industries such as insurance, some people start work as filing clerks and through their enculturation or contextual learning, they develop skills to take on new roles.

The variety of knowledge and activity is very broad, and some must still be learned through traditional participation models, such as playing professional football; other skills, such as accounting, have to be learned in their first stages through more traditional education models because double-entry bookkeeping is an international skill that varies insignificantly according to context. Does that mean it can’t be learned by apprenticeship or that it shouldn’t be, or that choosing school or apprenticeship learning would produce better a practitioner ? 

So, yes, apprenticeship is still relevant as a model for learning, and it can be used as a model for learning in a very wide variety of modern activities that make up the global economy.  However, for a given student, learning a given thing, for a given reason, with given resources, and a given teacher, which method is better ? How do we define better ? More efficient teaching ? More proficient students ? The situation is much more complex than the simple analysis here.

The second reading task was Engelstrom’s paper on Expansive Learning At Work. He starts by explaining the three developments in Activity Theory because this is his underlying approach to analysing learning. I find his ideas much more fully developed and they are based on a real case of learning in the Finnish health system.

He dismisses standard learning theories because they don’t allow for the learning that arises from contradiction – basically, that there is a conflict, let’s say between an old method and a current problem, that cannot be solved with the old method. In other words, we are learning something that is not stable – it is developed as we attempt it. He favours Gregory Bateson’s 1972 learning theory because it contains three phases of learning. First, there is the traditional acquisition; second there is the participation learning (note this pre-dates Sfard). Sometimes in the second stage there is a conflict – a double bind – because of the contradictory demands between AM and PM; what I am learning and how I am supposed to behave; and then finally, there is the learning that comes from such a pressure – what happens when you have to radically question the sense and meaning of the context you are in, and try to develop a wider alternative context, typically as a collective effort. It is rare, but it happens, and he says traditional theories don’t include this.

To analyse the Helsinki inter-hospital problems, he uses four questions and applies each of them to the five stages of activity theory.   Who, why, what, how do they learn vs . the activity system, the voices of stakeholders, the history or temporal situations, the contradictions, and the expansive cycles (of learning/practice). To summarise, the private and public hospitals had to learn to co-operate with each other because of patients who exploited both systems. The conflict eventually compelled them to develop the Care Agreement which took effect in 1998. It is expansive learning at work.

He view this type of learning as horizontal. There isn’t the vertical learning aimed at higher levels of competence. It is horizontal because it did not try to create a better system by trying to integrate the two systems, they sought to create negotiation between the two, and then further, by including the patients and their families in the negotiation. The system continues to develop, or perhaps I should say, expand.

It was a busy week and I also took part in my second Elluminate audio-conferencing/tutorial.

I was a little less anxious the second time using Ell. and felt I could try to improve the way I communicate. I was specifically hoping to be able to keep my output short and clear and get responses from others more often. Ell . seems to naturally discourage interruption and rapid interaction, which, to me, is a disadvantage.

I also made a point of paying more attention to has their mic on, and the emoticons, because this is the nearest equivalent to the body language and facial cues I’d normally work from in a discussion.

Unfotunately, once again, there were technical problems ( it took me ages to log on this time – almost 8 minutes getting java up and running) and this broke up the discussions and created dead time with nothing happening, no-one talking, just waiting on the technology, and then after, trying to remember what was being said, and having to summarise it for those who missed it. It is much harder to have discussions online than face to face and they don’t seem as fruitful or efficient as face-to-face tutorials. Then again, much better than a boring meeting I don’t need to attend. smile

Once again, everyone was polite and sought to agree for the most part, but the best parts were when we found we had different ideas. This was partly due to a wide range of backgrounds in the small group and that is possibly an advantage over a university tutorial in which everyone is of the same age, with limited experiences, etc – in the Ou online tutorial, the distance is not just physical but exists in many other ways too.

This time I saw the use of ppt slides and people writing notes on the screen to help them summarise their key points as the discussion progresses. This is very useful, and can brought back into the plenary session.

Overall, I feel a lot more comfortable the second time around and feel I am developing the basic skills needed. Learning all the functions and mastering it stills seems quite daunting though.

As to cachet (Goodyear), I’m not sure I’d agree. Yes, it is important because it is a scheduled meeting, but my attendance would not be missed. I think it might be more true if I had lots of spare time and this became an ‘event’ to anticipate, but to be frank, making sure I can attend a session that can fit into my schedule is very inconvenient and doesn’t make me think the session is anymore or less important than the forums. Actually, I favour the latter for its convenience, and feel the strength of Elluminate is the more human contact of a voice. For example, when there was a tech problem and everyone went silent, I suddenly felt alone. But I am alone at home.

I could use Ell – I teach English and skills to non-native speakers. However, they’d need to be quite high level to cope with dealing with tech problems in a foreign language. The text box for typed language would get used more heavily as pronunciation issues would reduce comprehension. They’d need to be able to jump between rooms to chat to others for controlled practice/mill drills. It would not be suitable for pronunciation skills – the audio quality simply isn’t clear enough to drill someone on their pron errors. It would also need to be small groups when a real classroom can have many students.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next one – if it’s convenient smile

And, finally, we get to submit a practice TMA. 2,300 words. Like there’s time.