In this blog, I want to consider a Twitter debate on the nature of learning. I was surprised to learn that many educationalists believe you can learn untrue truth propositions. Education has long struggled to define learning but a relativist perspective has emerged due to the increasing influence of Cognitive Psychology.
Vygotsky, Bruner, James and Dewey have been central to educational thinking for decades; however, Ofsted’s definition of learning endorses a view held by some cognitive psychologists that privileges memorisation, but does it reflect the true nature of learning 1?
Social theorists, such as Archer, describe knowledge as a social structure 2, individuals interact with it to learn. For example, knowledge of the bible doesn’t solely exist in human cognition; it also exists in books, print media and online. It is interpreted by different social groups and institutions. Historians, theologians and educationalists from all parts of the world and throughout the ages have contested its meaning. No one person or group owns the meaning of the bible.
Memorisation maybe the residue of thought but learning represents an ongoing relationship between social structures, normative cultures and individuals. To make that point, I highlighted the issue of the untrue truth proposition citing two examples a) 1 + 1 = 3; b) Stranraer is the capital of Scotland.
The issue of language
The issue could be more easily resolved if there was a word for memorising an untruth. There are words such as mislearn or misconceptualisation, which describe a truth proposition learned incorrectly but not one that is untrue. For example, the proposition “there is a number 4″ where 4 is spelt “fore” by error is mislearned. The proposition if memorised as intended is true and can be learned. Stranraer is the capital of Scotland is untrue, whether memorised correctly or otherwise.
Picture the scene, a student returns from school:
Parent or guardian, “what did you learn at school today”?
Student replies, “I learned Stranraer is the capital of Scotland”.
Parent or guardian, “that’s not true you should have learned it is Edinburgh”.
A parent wouldn’t say “you have memorised but not learned it”. They may say “you have learned it incorrectly, Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland”. The learning referred to is the object of the learning, in this case, Edinburgh not the outcome Stranraer. We can be duped into correlating untruths with learning simply by the vagaries of language.
Memorisation is not the same as learning
It’s not necessarily the case that learning an untruth is unintended. Memorising is not the same as learning. For example, you encounter a spy in a seedy bar, she tells you she is intent on harming a Scottish politician. Quite possibly the worst spy ever, still the spy asks you “what is the capital of Scotland?” You are stirred but not shaken and reply, Stranraer is the capital of Scotland. Ethically it’s justifiable, but still an untruth and in this case a lie.
The spy responds curtly, “I’m a spy, write it on a piece of paper“. The spy memorises the information and then, with a flourish, burns the piece of paper before proceeding to Stranraer.
The spy has memorised the proposition as intended. The question is, has the spy learned anything? The answer is not until she learns Edinburgh is the capital and you, dear reader, are a liar. You had your reasons, don’t feel too bad.
If we define learning in terms of memory then how can we differentiate between what is right and what is wrong? The consequence of a Cognitive approach is to descend into reductivist relativism whereby anything you can think and memorise constitutes knowledge. A hole that we cannot easily escape 3.
Memorisation might be the residue of thought but not everything we think constitutes learning. You can memorise 1 + 1 = 3 but you can’t know or learn it. It seems a number of educationalists disagree.
You can partially learn something but you cannot learn something that is propositionally untrue and known to be so. Only by maintaining the difference between learning, memorisation and knowledge can education begin to define learning.
The desire of some to make their field central to an issue is understandable; however, defining learning solely in terms of one aspect of cognition is unhelpful; particularly, if a standards agency, like Ofsted adopts it.
Education is a social practice involving a number of fields including Philosophy, Sociology, Linguistics and Psychology; therefore, educationalists should resist any particular field overly extending its influence on educational thinking 4.
2. Margaret S. Archer: Realist Social Theory: The morphogenetic Approach (Cambridge: 3. CambridgeUniversity Press, 199 S ) and Culture and Agency. The Place of Culture in Social Theory. revised edition (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1996)
3. Popper defined relativism in the open society and its enemies (1962) as:
“The choice between competing theories is arbitrary, since there is no such thing as objective truth.” (Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. II (London, 1963), p. 369f.)
4. Various papers exist that describe the relationship between cognitive science and psychology. Paul Thagard describes it quite well here: Why Cognitive Science Needs Philosophy and Vice Versa:
Whenever science operates at the edge of what is known, it runs into general issues about the nature of knowledge and reality. Mundane science can operate without much concern for methodological and ontological issues, but frontier science cannot avoid them.
For example, innovative research in theoretical and experimental physics inevitably encounters fundamental problems about the nature of space and time, as well as methodological questions concerning how scientific investigation should proceed. Cognitive science has made substantial progress in investigating phenomena such as perception, memory, learning, problem solving, and language use, but clearly it is still a frontier enterprise.