Learning as Transformation

I love to write, although I struggle with it. As a teacher and graduate student, there is certainly a great deal of opportunity to do so. Sometimes when I write, however, I will often put down a simple word that I learned years ago and wonder, “is that how it’s really spelled?” The other day, I was writing a letter of gratitude to a colleague and I wrote the word “grateful.” I literally stared at the word for five minutes, second guessing myself on not only its spelling but its meaning and etymology.
Prussian Army at Battle of Sedan – September 1st,  1870
From: http://www.francoprussianwar.com
I suspect we, teachers, administrators, school owners, need to do this type of reflection about some of the concepts we associate with education. One of the concepts I like to reflect upon is the notion of “learning.” We tend to toss this term around quite a bit within the field of education, assuming perhaps that we have a collective understanding. We refer to students as “learners,” we design assessment tools to see what has been learned, and we attend professional development sessions professing to shed new light on what it means to learn.
But I don’t think we all agree on what it means to learn. Frank Smith, in his book The Book of Learning and Forgetting (1998), offers two prevalent understandings of learning. The first is what he calls the Official Theory of learning. This understanding equates the learning process with the accumulation of knowledge through hard work, through cramming, and through memorization. If a learner does not succeed, it is because he or she has not worked hard enough. The other view of learning is referred to as the Classical Theory of learning. By this, we are always learning – through our interactions with each other and through experience. Students learn they are confident, when they own the process, and when they are connected with others. How do some people become so knowledgable about football? Did they take a test? Did they work hard? I am not so sure.
The Official Theory is most likely what we were accustomed to in our experience. This model was designed. It is not innate in the human experience. In fact, as Smith suggests, it was a design borrowed from the Prussian Army in the 19th century. Curriculum developers noticed that the Prussian soldiers were well trained and a menacing fighting force and thought that this could easily be applied to the notion of learning.
I tend to side with the meaning of learning derived from the Classical Theory, that we learn through experience – both good and bad. Sometimes we even learn bad things. I would take this understanding a bit further, however, and suggest that for learning to take place, we need to be transformed. Our understanding of the world must be shaken. We must go through a state of disequilibrium, ask questions, become frustrated, and then seek answers so that we are in equilibrium, for a moment.
For learning of this type to take place, firstly, we need to understand the role of education. In my mind, that is to foster the development of agents of change. My philosophy of education sees learning and transformation as a means of making the world a more equitable place for all living species. Secondly, we need to engage students and use their experiences to create inquiry and further educative experiences. Dewey and Freire talked a great length about this process. This requires that learning communities negotiate difficult, profound, and adult questions which drive the learning process. It also means that learning communities need to release their findings and new knowledge into the public realm, as this makes the learning more authentic and provides an intense public scrutiny. It also suggests to learners that their thinking and curiosity is meaningful.

Through driving questions and authentic, public feedback, we can provide students with educative experiences that allow them to see themselves as dynamic agents of social change. They become transformed and become thirsty to tackle new problems, empathize with the most vulnerable in our society, and change the destructive path we are currently on. In this context, learning is transformation. Perhaps we should leave the term learning behind and focus on creating environments for the transformation of learners and society.

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