Monday, January 18, 2016

How I Think Learning Works: A Diagram and a Story

Imagine a girl, a teenager, perhaps. She wants to learn a new skill: sewing. In order to truly learn, there must be a relatively permanent change within her as an individual. In this case, because the content to be learned does not involve mere declarative facts, the change must be both mental/internal and physical/external.

The girl wants to learn how to sew because she wants to make a cosplay costume. This illustrates that the learning process must have a fairly deliberate starting point: activation. This can be as simple as getting a classroom's attention so they will remember the material, but it works better when it comes from a learner's own intrinsic motivation, goals, and interests. The girl is motivated because she and her friends love a certain TV show, and they want to express their love by dressing up as characters from that show. She has to sew the costume, because it is strange enough that assembling it from already-existing pieces of clothing would be impossible. Besides, all her friends are sewing their costumes too, so she wants to learn along with them.

The girl finds an online tutorial for how to make the costume. She buys the fabric recommended in the tutorial, and discovers that there are hints about how to work with the fabric embedded within the material itself. For instance, one side of the fabric looks better than the other, implying that only one side of the fabric should face outward. Fabric is flat, but it can also (and must also) curve. Even examining the way her purchased clothing is put together shows her some things about how sewing works, like how seams are almost always on the inside of the garment. Knowledge, then, does not always exist only in the individual mind. It can be distributed within the minds of others, within resources, and within the nature of materials themselves. Knowing how to find this distributed knowledge is just as important as—and can be done instead of—memorizing it.

Now comes the hard part: actually doing the sewing. The permanent change indicating that learning has occurred may not happen until the learner actually practices/otherwise externally demonstrates the knowledge/skill. The girl follows online how-to-sew tutorials in order to practice with the sewing machine inherited from her grandmother, and not until she does so does she understand, for instance, why most sewing is done with the fabric inside-out.

Finally, the girl finishes her costume, and has a blast wearing it at a fan convention with her friends. This has been possible not just because of her internal state, but also because of external supports from the sociocultural context. The TV show she likes provided inspiration for the costume. The convention provided a context in which to wear it. Her friends and family helped and supported her. And ultimately, she has begun to appropriate the norms practices of sewers and cosplayers, becoming a fuller member of the cosplay community.

The fun she feels while working on and wearing the costume are not secondary to the more “cognitive” and physical skills she’s learned. These positive emotions represent a relationship with the new skill that, while not always strictly necessary in order to learn, is crucial for developing an identity as the kind of person who likes and is able to do such things.

All of these elements—mind, activation, distributed cognition, doing/making, sociocultural context, and emotion/identity—are complexly intertwined within the learning process, and all are equally important.

(In order to keep track of the process of making this story/diagram, here is the "first draft" of the diagram I drew last week in class:)

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