What we talk about when we talk about learning

On seeing two women arguing, one shouting from her house, the other from her home on the opposite side of the street, Samuel Johnson noted (apocryphally):

These two women will never agree, because they are arguing from different premises.”

Delivering my session at the Historical Association Conference last week, I made reference to my growing awareness of the value of substantive knowledge.  I was challenged by one attendee, whose question, in essence, was ‘Isn’t there more to history than that?  Isn’t history a way of thinking, of seeing, of approaching questions?’

My answer drew heavily on a paper passed on to me by my last head teacher – entitled ‘On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One,’ by Anna Sfard.  She argues that there are two “leading metaphors” of learning – the ‘acquisition metaphor’ and the ‘participation metaphor’.

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Image Credit: Schplook

 

The acquisition metaphor

If we see learning as a process of acquisition, we understand it as gaining knowledge and developing concepts.  “Concepts are to be understood as basic units of knowledge that can be accumulated, gradually refined, and combined to form ever richer cognitive structures.”  We subscribe to an acquisition metaphor, whether we see learning as ‘transmitted’ by teachers or ‘socially constructed’ by learners, because these are disputes about how we learn, not the “essence” of what learning is.  Add building blocks ultimately provides an overall structure of understanding.

Image Credit Krissy Venosdale

Image Credit Krissy Venosdale

The participation metaphor

This metaphor derives from a ‘linguistic turn’ which shifts learning from being something we ‘know’ to a process of ‘knowing’.  The “permanence of having gives way to the constant flux of doing.  While the concept of acquisition implies that there is a clear end point to the process of learning, the new terminology leaves no room for halting signals.”  In this metaphor, the learner “should be viewed as a person interested in certain kinds of activities rather than accumulating private possessions.  Learning is conceived of as “a process of becoming a member of a certain community” in which an apprentice comes, through practising, to belong.

What we argue about when we argue about group work

Old debates can be refreshed using these prisms – group work is an obvious example.  If we understand student learning as a process of acquiring knowledge, there is some strong evidence that collaborative learning can act as a useful means.  There are counter-arguments, which I tend to find more compelling, that the disadvantages – the investment in time and structures required, the distraction from the key content to be studied, and the opportunities for students to slip through the cracks – rarely make it an effective strategy.

Both the forgoing points sit within the Acquisition Metaphor – and, to my mind, they are reconcilable: given a specific group of students, a particular topic and given time and resources, a teacher can choose whether group work is an appropriate approach.  However, a teacher who sees more importance in the process of becoming a learner – participating in debate, discovering and ‘knowing’ – may well discount the technical arguments for and against group work.  Acting as a group and asking the kind of questions historians (physicists, mathematicians) ask, feeling the sparks of discovery and understanding the process of learning, may all be seen as the goals themselves.

For the most part, learning understood as acquisition appears to be in the ascendance – partly as a reaction to the emphasis put on approaches which fulfil the participation metaphor, partly because ‘acquired’ learning is so much easier to measure.  But a degree of unhappiness among those who oppose this can perhaps be attributed to a feeling that this loses sight of participation and of the communities teachers wish to form or into which they hope to induct their students.

Sfard notes that she is not claiming the two metaphors are exclusive.  She argues that there are merits in considering both – as a way to understand learning and to ensure every student’s needs are met.  In answering the question posed last week, I mentioned both: I know a good historian by their knowledge of the world’s past and their interest in learning more; by command of the details and an approach to facts, interpretations and evidence.  When I try to help students learn facts it is, in the long-run, to help them see history, and the world, differently.  In order however, I find Daniel Willingham’s arguments compelling, and so look to help students adopt the practice of a historian through acquiring a knowledge of history.

Much as Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind has helped me understand politics from a completely different perspective (and to wait far longer before reaching judgment), I wonder whether understanding these two metaphors may help us debate education better.  Sfard suggests that our eyes are tinted before we approach any data by our choice of metaphor.  She wonders whether: “Acquisitionists and participationists might admit that the difference between them is not a matter of differing opinions but rather of participating in different, mutually complementing discourses.”  This may seem obvious, but the article helped me understand more clearly the gulfs between conflicting arguments.  So perhaps it’s worth remembering when people are arguing from different houses, and trying to coax them out into the street to view both their premises through new eyes.

The full paper can be read here.