Is Learning Scientific or Organic?

Lafayette College, Organic Garden

Is learning scientific or organic? A scientific perspective suggests that learning is explained by how the brain works, is rationalized by scientific study. Organic learning on the other hand occurs through the culture in which one lives—where learning is derived from, or characteristic of culture and society.

The presentation, subtitled Learning Theory & MOOCs delivered by Boise State University professor Norm Friesen at a conference in Shanghai, presents the alternate viewpoint that learning is cultural—that learning comes about through experience and immersion in culture rather than by a process explained by scientific study of behaviors. Not a new idea, though it’s worth examining for two reasons: first, in light of the transformative influence technology is having on our behavior as a society and culture as we speak—and second, that current teaching practices are based on learning theories derived from scientific studies done decades ago. Considering these two factors, is there a disconnect in the practices and methods implemented at education institutions today? The presentation sheds light on this question—it’s thought-provoking, so much so I want to share it with readers.

Presentation Overview 
The slideshare with audio is about an hour-long; three-quarters of it focuses on learning theory which is the focus of the highlights outlined below. MOOCs were discussed briefly at the end of the presentation.

Learning as a Science
The idea of learning as a science began in the 1900’s with the American psychologist Edward Thorndike. Interested in learning, he laid the foundation for learning as science through his research on testing and exam procedures in industrial settings, and behavior studies that used animals as test subjects. Subsequent theories, behaviorism, cognitivsm and constructivism followed, all built on the similar premise that learning is biological, or mechanistic; the brain acts as a center for processing, storing, recalling and directing responses to stimuli. Over the last hundred years education institutions built practices, methods and policies around the principles of the theories. Teaching is a reflection of this scientific perspective; methods of instruction, assessment and testing embrace the theoretical principles.

In recent years, it’s gone further where the human brain is compared to a computer. Common terms used to describe learning and the brain include storing, processing, retrieving, short-term memory, etc. To that end, knowledge is taught in schools with the goal of maximum efficiency, technology often used as a method to increase efficiency, ie. automating teaching functions grading tests, essays and even feedback from robots in group work.

Learning as a Science: Examples
The scientific approach to learning, where the brain is viewed as the ‘processor’ of learning, drives our education practices, yet still the evidence of exactly how learning occurs within the brain is inconclusive. Friesen, in his presentation describes the science of learning, as “learning = x”.   There is no shortage of examples that reinforce the point that education builds on this scientific approach:

The American Psychological association devotes an entire section on its website to teachers: “Research in Brain Functioning and Learning: The importance of matching instruction to your child’s maturity level”.

Another organization, Learning & the Brain®, seeks to bring “neuroscientists and educators together to explore new research on the brain and learning and its implications for education“.

Learning is Organic
Friesen challenges the scientific viewpoint with a slide introducing culture as the driver of learning:

What if we were to say...
“We depend for survival on the inheritance of acquired characteristics from the culture pool rather than from a gene pool.

“Culture [would] then become the chief instrument for guaranteeing survival, with techniques of transmission being of the highest order of importance.” 

Friesen goes further and suggests that:

  • Learning is not cause and effect
  • Learning is cultural not scientific (brain as the machine)
  • Learning is contingent upon culture
  • Learning changes over time

There are two theorists that Friesen uses to support the perspective of considering a cultural approach to educating students—one is Jerome Bruner, a psychologist readers are likely familiar with, who is considered a cognitivist (thus supporting the science dimension). However, Friesen emphasizes that Bruner states that learning changes in fundamental ways based upon culture, example of technology.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 8.13.23 AM
Slide from Dr. Norm Friesen’s Slideshare, Learning Theory & MOOCs (2013)

Dr. Daniel Trohler is a scholar that studies the role of culture in education; Friesen shares Trohler’s perspective put forth in one of his book’s on the topic, The knowledge of science and the knowledge of the classroom Using the Heidelberg Catechism. In this example Trohler examines school textbooks over the ages and makes the point that pedagogy derived from science presents a constructed picture to students, that is a part of a whole, becomes an object of teaching for maximum efficiency.

Professor Friesen’s presentation is thought-provoking–my takeaway is how it challenges the traditional approach education. Professor Friesen doesn’t appear to suggest we abandon the learning science altogether, but he does present MOOCs as cultural technique of transmission. Though I suggest that the current-day xMOOCs  are an extension of classroom pedagogy, it is only the delivery format that is different. The same science is behind the methods used, ie. lecture, testing, etc.  It is the cMOOC format, developed by Downes and Siemens that reflects a different approach to learning, a cultural and organic approach accomplished  through a connected experience, where knowledge is constructed by the individual from existing knowledge within a network. Learning is pulled by the learner, and not pushed. This sounds like organic learning, a reflection of our connected and networked culture, doesn’t it?


Photo Credit: ‘Lafayette Organic Garden’, Flickr: Lafayette College’s Photostream

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