The mechanics of learning

Learners and learning is the fourth module in the study of education series produced by the South African Institute for Distance Education. The focus of the module, as the title indicates, is on understanding the process of learning. A learning guide, a reader and an audiotape make up the full module.

The question guiding the module is: How can learners come to know something that they do not already know? As the module indicates in its introduction: ‘ None of us doubts that learning to understand the world is a central part of education, but because learning is such an ordinary and everyday thing, we sometimes take it for granted. We don’t give a second thought to how the people around us are learning, or why they are able to remember all the new things they learn. The process of learning seems so natural that we forget to ask important questions about it; we often don’t bother to learn about learning.”

There is a danger in this oversight, especially for teachers. Teachers’ core purpose is to promote learning and, as such, it is crucial that they have in-depth knowledge of how and why learning does or does not happen.

The module provides an opportunity for educators to look at how people learn. The learning guide, which forms the central text of the module, is readable and engaging. In contrast to textbooks of old, the guide contains stories, cartoons, case studies, poems, metaphors and personal accounts, all of which add up to a comprehensive and lively account of how learning happens.

As a tool to teach about learning, the module itself practises what it preaches. As readers we are not simply told about the principles of learning; we are taken on the very same learning journey that the module promotes. As one goes through the book, one does exactly what the module says makes learning happen: adding new knowledge to already existing and familiar knowledge, building networks of knowledge, applying knowledge through activities and considering the implications of different theories of learning.

The module argues that schools and classrooms provide opportunities for learning to be organised in structured and systematic ways. The module itself is structured and systematic learning. It is clearly written, well organised, has informative headings and sub-headings, and makes extensive use of cross-referencing. Summaries and key learning points are at the end of each chapter and ensure the accessibility of what is fairly sophisticated material.

A further valuable contribution of the module is the fact that it links debates about learning directly to outcomes-based education (OBE) in South Africa. This allows educators to deepen their understanding of the theories and assumptions that underpin OBE and strengthen their own ability to use an outcomes-based approach in meaningful ways.

The module offers about 120 hours of study, although it is acknowledged that this will differ from student to student and from situation to situation. Tertiary institutions are likely to select or emphasise certain sections of the module for particular learning courses. Hopefully this will not prevent students from being exposed to the full argument of the module. The learning guide stops short of providing examples of formal methods of assessment of the module — it will be interesting to see how institutions fill this gap.

The module constantly asks the reader to identify ‘half-truths” about learning (statements that are true in some senses but false in others). These attempts to explicitly identify truth and falsity in statements about learning seem, however, to contradict the very message of the module: that the world can be learnt and understood in different ways. Perhaps the term ‘point of view’ would have been more appropriate than ‘half-truth’ in some of the examples.

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Maureen Robinson
Guest Author

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