Wednesday, 17 May 2006

Learning Design - 1

I intend to call this paper, when finished, "Unified Theory of Learning Design". This is a far too ambitious title, so I am going to settle for "Learning Design" as a token for this series of posts.

I believe in "rapid releases and rapid updates" and I welcome comments so that I can incorporate better ideas into the paper. I hope it will be a collaborative effort. Please feel free to send me comment and ask to be included as an author.

Section 1 Understanding Learning

“Despite the remarkable progress, brain research has not yet found an application in theory or practice of education. And yet, one of the major contributions neuroscience is capable of making is illuminating the nature of learning itself”. [Blakemore, S-J and Frith, U (2000) The implications of recent developments in neuroscience for research on teaching and learning, London: Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.]

“From a biochemical perspective, it could be said that learning is what happens when some molecules are modified. At a more global level, it can also be described as the increase in association between two events. The term “association” has been traditionally linked to the concept of “learning.” Indeed, in 1949 one of the fathers of computational neurobiology, Donald Hebb, postulated a computational rule, known as the “Hebbian rule,” which makes explicit this assumption. This rule postulates that learning implies coincident pre- and post-synaptic activity. Although many of Hebb’s ideas were not right, recent research on neurobiology has shown that this coincidence of activities causes synapses to change, and therefore, they constitute the very basic mechanism of learning.” [Núria Sebastián Gallés, A Primer on Learning: A Brief Introduction from the Neurosciences online:,2340,en_2649_201185_33625337_1_1_1_1,00.html]

Since we don’t know what happens when we learn, we will look at philosophy for some guidance. René Descartes holds that the mind is a nonphysical substance. Descartes was the first to clearly identify the mind with consciousness and self-awareness and to distinguish this from the brain, which was the seat of intelligence. []. From Psychology, Cognitive Science and Physics, Karl H. Pribram David Joseph Bohm suggests the Holonomic brain theory that cognitive function as being guided by a matrix of neurological wave interference patterns situated temporally between holographic Gestalt perception and discrete, affective, quantum vectors derived from reward anticipation potentials. Neither of these descriptions is satisfactory for me. The Dualism theory satisfies my way of looking at our cognitive functions as “software” and our brain as a computing hardware. The Holonomic brain theory via the processes in quantum mechanic concepts provides me with a way of understanding why we almost act differently every time even under similar conditions , although I do not believe that quantum effect would be occurred at the synaptic activity. Further more, none of these provides me with a way to describe a framework for improving learning design.

Taking one more step further from the biological stance, I looked at how people attempt to define learning. Wikipedia [] defines learning as “the process of acquiring knowledge, skills, attitudes, or values, through study, experience, or teaching, that causes a change of behavior that is persistent, measurable, and specified or allows an individual to formulate a new mental construct or revise a prior mental construct (conceptual knowledge such as attitudes or values)”. A comment is to this definition is that “knowledge, skills, attitudes or values” are abstract concepts which do not address the aim of learning.

Gerry White (CEO,, Australia,2005) [] suggests (following Etienne Wenger) “learning is the process of negotiation, in searching for identity, between a community of competence (knowledge) and the experiences of the participant (learner) in an economy of meaning .” This view takes “social structures and 'knowing' which is a part of the tension of negotiating a learner's identity. It also brings into focus [snip] knowledge and community as well as the identity of the learner.”

Section 2 Learning Basic

Been influenced by the aforementioned authors (and many more) greatly, here is my attempt which is based on observations rather than controlled scientific experiments.

We are born with instincts such as the ability to suck at nipples, cry, smile and IMITATE. Our other genetic differences partly account for the differences we exhibit as our learning styles, giftedness and different intelligence traces as we become developed. In other words, when we are born, we already have some built-in survival instincts. However, I believe that what we are is influenced both by our genetic composition as well as things that we learnt as we grow.

As we grow, senses develop (vision, audition, gestation, olfaction, tactition, thermoception, nociception, equilibrioception and Proprioception). Corresponding parts of the brain also develop to support the developing perception and to process these senses . Responding to senses and the immediate satisfaction or pain (the first and second levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), we begin to build the foundations on which our inner world view (called IWV for short hereafter) is created. Some of our skills are acquired easier during the developing stage, e.g. we learn language effortlessly when young, but quite difficult at older age. Accent is developed and carried to later acquired language.

Human baby is known to react strongly to level 3 (love and belonging) of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs []. As we grow, the response to stimulation also reflects the maturity of the person. (for example Jean Piaget’s theory of developmental stages, Kohlberg's stages of moral development, Loevinger's stages of ego development, Erikson's stages of psychosocial development and Sigmund Freud's Psychosexual stages). However, we do not understand what electro/chemical and associations in our brain (or other part of our body) account for the processes that produce the response. In this paper, I am treating the inner world as a “black box”.

Of particular importance to learning is the role of language. Most of the learning, both pre-school, in school, post-school depends on language to communicate the subject matter with the learner. This is also true in most work environments as well.

Nativist linguistic theories hold that children learn through their natural ability to organize the laws of language, but cannot fully utilize this talent without the presence of other humans. This does not mean, however, that the child requires formal teaching of any sort to master the language. For instance, Norm Chomsky claims that children are born with a hard-wired language acquisition device (LAD) in their brains. They are born with the major principles of language in place, but with many parameters to set (such as whether sentences in the language(s) they are to acquire must have explicit subjects). Social interaction is a dynamic, changing sequence of social actions between individuals (or groups) who modify their actions and reactions due to the actions by their interaction partner(s). In other words they are events in which people attach meaning to a situation, interpret what others are meaning, and respond accordingly. Social-interactionists, like Snow, theorize that adults play an important part in children's language acquisition. In Thought and Language, Vygotsky argued it is through speech that thinking, thoughts and mental constructs (a child's intellectual being) is formed. . “Vygotsky is well-known for his model being termed sociocultural approach. For him, a child's development is a direct result of her/his culture. For Vygotsky, development applied primarily to mental development, such as thought, language, reasoning processes and mental functions. However, Vygotsky observed that these abilities developed through social interactions with significant people in a child's life, particularly parents, but also other adults. Through these interactions, a child came to learn the habits of mind of her/his culture, namely speech patterns, written language, and other symbolic knowledge that effected a child's construction of her/his knowledge.” []

Human are social and also curious. In our early years, sound patterns (speech) are associated with objects and events. Such sound patterns, often supplied and repeated many times to the baby by her parents, form the basis of the beginning vocabularies. It is important to note that I have assumed a consistent world . This formed a common part of IWV in the immediate community where the baby is being brought up. According to Jerome Bruner’s The Narrative Construction of Reality [Bruner’s, 1991 "The Narrative Construction of Reality" (1991). Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21.] IWV structures itself through "cultural products, like language and other symbolic systems". While I will not engage into details of the inner world (as a black box), there are evidences of using higher level symbols to represent complex construct of concepts and such construction in recursive. (For example, in this article, instead of diverge to discuss different concepts encountered, I quoted the concept as “Jean Piaget’s theory of developmental stages” which itself will require pages of elaboration.)

For me, I view language is a system of codified symbols which are socially negotiated and acquired. Most will communicate using language via the visual or audio senses. However, this concept of language applies to those who use sign language too.

Community here may mean social community such as the immediate family, larger community as such the neighborhood or the society. Community may also refer to profession groups. In any community, there are special agreed symbol(s) used exclusively in one particular way by members of that community. We call these special symbols “jargons”. For example, the word “work” means quite different to a Physicist to an IP lawyer to a museum curator to a worker in the factory floor. So one of the important aspect of learning in order to participate meaningfully in any community is to acquire the jargons associated with that community.

Language also plays an important role from another prospective. Language is one of the main tools which enable us to externalise the IWV (output) and accept other’s opinions (input). Told as stories, experience and knowledge are passed among individuals. As technology developed, stories can be recorded as written words and printed as text. Human experience and knowledge are preserved and passed between generations. Converged as digital streams, stories, texts, performances are transmitted across today’s networks at high speed. Search engines help us to find almost any existing information instantly. The volume of such externalised experiences (someone’s part IWV) increases rapidly. The value of good information is also increasing.

In this model, the IWV which we build throughout our lives
1. Are all different. Some of the difference is accounted for by genetic characteristics inherent in the underlying “hardware” – our individual special strength and weakness. Other differences are formed because we have different accumulated experience.
2. Are built through a continuous process of stimulation and response. We all live in a consistent world, ie under the same situation, to you an apple when released will fall. This is the same to me under the same situation. This consistent world form to basis for us to establish a common portion of our views of the external world.

Language is possible because of the consistency of the external world. Language was negotiated based on those parts of the IWV that are results for interaction with the consistence external world. With the commonality of the language, we are able to express ourselves so that other people can understand. However, it is also noted that language is meaningful codified symbols for us when we are active members of communities.

Language is able to express both real and imaginative events and circumstances and we are able to draw upon our common portion of our IWV to make sense of the communication.

Artifacts we create do not reflect the complete IWV. There is no ONE artifact which can completely externalise my IWV because some of my feelings, my emotion lack words which mean the same to you AND me. At the same time, as I am writing, I am reflecting and modifying my own understanding of the subject matter at the same time. However, many fine writers do express some part or portion of their inner world with such clarity that it makes sense to a lot of people.

With all these clarification, I will define
Learning as the process of building an inner world which enables one to participate meaningfully in a community.

This definition assumes nothing about the construct of the IWV or cognition . It emphases on the practicality of learning (meaningful participation). It acknowledges the multiplicity of purpose and objectives of individual within a community. Community may refer to specific professional group or general community as in citizenship. Any learner will be simultaneously engaged in more than one community.

Reading, a process which has effect on our IWV, is not necessarily a learning process. Yes, reading may help build one’s IWV. But the reading may not enable us to participate in our designated community.

Writing may be a learning process. Writing may help other clarify your understanding of the issues of the community, establish better communication between you and the other members of the community. Writing is a meaningful participation in a community. Writing itself changes one’s IWV as well.

With this board definition, I argue that “learning” demands an effort exerted by the learner. It involves messages (mostly in the form of agreed symbols) crossing the border between real world and IWV. The IWV being a black box, learning design is about understanding the role symbols play, the community the learner is engaged in and the purpose the learner would like to achieve in order to meaningfully participate in the target community.

1 comment:

Hunkston said...

Recently I began attempting to learn a new language online, just to have something else to put on my CV, and I was amazed how many different types of language software there are available. In the end I decided to purchase some gear that would help me learn French and it has been amazing, I can’t believe how quickly I am picking it all up! Going to give Russian a go next!