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What is learning? What is understanding? How do we know what we know?


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I have some questions for members of this community. They arise at the intersection of experiential learning and complexity systems thinking (my current research topic).

Learning is what I take away from an experience that influences my behaviour or thinking in the future.
Since about 1950, the prevailing view in cognitive science has been that the nervous system picks up information from the environment and processes it to provide a representation of the outside world in our brain. This has been described as the information-processing model of the mind. We now know that the nervous system is closed, without inputs or outputs, and its cognitive operation reflects only its own organization. Because of this, we are imposing our constructed information – or our meaning – on to the environment, rather than the other way around. It implies our interactions with the ‘real world’, including other people, can never be deterministic; there are no unambiguous external reality or an objective world. We each construct our own version of reality and therefore cannot be an objective observer; which in turn means we have to take responsibility for our observations and explanations.

There is a real limitation on understanding the experiences of other people. You might tell me about your experience but your description is likely to be only a partial representation and, however good your description, I cannot share your experience. I can only construct my own mental representation of what your experience might be like. But the limitations on my understanding of the world are even more fundamental than this. My mental image of the world is a model. It is a partial representation of reality based on the partial knowledge I have of the external world. So, when I think I am thinking about the world I am thinking about my model of the world. This model of the world is built up in a way that is itself a model. So I am using a model, built by a model, to represent the world I think I see.

This has important implications. The model that represents the world tells me what I see and tells me what to see. The model both limits what I see and reinforces itself. When I think about the world, I am thinking about my own thinking; I have no direct access to the world at all.

If that is so, what is learning? What is understanding? How do we know what we know?

1 reply

Hi @Simplexity,
Your research topic sounds interesting. Since you are working on a research project, I am trying to explain the necessity of adopting a certain theoretical framework for your work. No matter what our definitions are, you will need to follow a certain framework.

Simplexity wrote:

I have some questions for members of this community. They arise at the intersection of experiential learning and complexity systems thinking (my current research topic).

Learning is what I take away from an experience that influences my behaviour or thinking in the future.
Since about 1950, the prevailing view in cognitive science has been that the nervous system picks up information from the environment and processes it to provide a representation of the outside world in our brain. This has been described as the information-processing model of the mind.



Here, you are referring to Cognitivism. This is a learning theory that looks at the learner as an information processor, as you mentioned.



Simplexity wrote:

We now know that the nervous system is closed, without inputs or outputs, and its cognitive operation reflects only its own organization. Because of this, we are imposing our constructed information – or our meaning – on to the environment, rather than the other way around. It implies our interactions with the ‘real world’, including other people, can never be deterministic; there are no unambiguous external reality or an objective world. We each construct our own version of reality and therefore cannot be an objective observer; which in turn means we have to take responsibility for our observations and explanations.

There is a real limitation on understanding the experiences of other people. You might tell me about your experience but your description is likely to be only a partial representation and, however good your description, I cannot share your experience. I can only construct my own mental representation of what your experience might be like. But the limitations on my understanding of the world are even more fundamental than this. My mental image of the world is a model. It is a partial representation of reality based on the partial knowledge I have of the external world. So, when I think I am thinking about the world I am thinking about my model of the world. This model of the world is built up in a way that is itself a model. So I am using a model, built by a model, to represent the world I think I see.

This has important implications. The model that represents the world tells me what I see and tells me what to see. The model both limits what I see and reinforces itself. When I think about the world, I am thinking about my own thinking; I have no direct access to the world at all.



Here, you are describing the Constructivism theory which is different. According to this learning theory, the learner constructs their own meaning based on their experience. The built reality is unique, as you mentioned.



Simplexity wrote:


If that is so, what is learning? What is understanding? How do we know what we know?



It will depend on the nature of your research question as well as your research problem. If you are going to set up your research question on the second theory, for example, then you will need to select that particular theoretical framework. This conceptual framework has already provided the definition of the learning concept. As you know, if you Google the keyword, you will see many resources. In fact, all elements of your study will need to fit in with that selected framework, not both of them simultaneously. Of course, there are some more theories available such as Connectivism if you wish to consider that, too.

I hope this helps.

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