Sunday, April 29, 2012

On learning and who should judge it

Schools are about a thing called "learning", and school reform movements try to increase this thing. But learning itself is never defined; it is suposed to be understood what Learning is, though actually it is as difficult to define as Time or Quality. Just try

First of all, learning as "increasing one's knowledge" doesn't do, because it leads us to define knowledge: equally difficult. I like Chilean philosopher Rafael Echeverria's definition:  learning is "Increasing one's capacity for effective action". [1]

Following Echeverria, learning is judged by The Observer of the learning activity, who determines what is an effective action and whether possibilities of such action have actually increased. For a teacher, an effective action may be "getting a passing mark in the final exam". For Society as The Observer, effective actions increase the wellbeing of the society. The Observer can be the learner himself. Or future generations...

Sounds fine; however, inheriting a large sum of money or becoming friendly with an influential person may also increase the capacity of action, but we wouldn't call that learning. Individual Learning is generally understood to be a cognitive thing, but athletes and babies also learn with their whole bodies. So how about learning as "The improvement of one's whole person so that capacity for effective action is increased".

The emphasis on "action" may be interpreted to exclude learning philosophy or history for instance. But again that depends on who judges the learning event. An effective action in Philosophy might mean to be able to produce and defend a philosophical argument.

Now, who should judge the learning?. Given the large crisis and actual and upcoming ecological and social disasters that criss-cross humanity, I would like to argue that The Observer of all learning activities or whole courses, careers and so on should always be the Future Generations -or since they are not actually present, we should try to put ourselves into their shoes, bodies and minds and judge the learning accordingly.

To have some fun, let me introduce FuGenie, a representative of the Future Generations who has just traveled to the present and landed in this blog post for an interview:

-- Hello FuGenie... Heavens! why are you wearing that helmet!?

-- Oh the atmosphere has become so contaminated here in the future! And not only with CO2! We all have to wear helmets that filter out all the bad stuff!

-- Oh sorry about that. Here you are in a blog post mainly read by educators in the year 2012. What advice can you give them?

-- Well first of all, why are you turning out so many engineers, economists and marketers and so few social scientists, when what is most needed in your time is to re-invent social systems, economics and politics? Unbridled capitalism won't save us future beings, and a heavily bridled one probably neither.

-- Well said, but on our current system it is difficult to affect career choices... unless we re-invent the system as you say. FuGenie, we are considering learning as "an increasse in one's capacity for effective action". Now assume one of our readers is a K12 math teacher. What should he teach? What would be an "effective action"?

-- One that applies the math to society. In first grade that may be adding up the population of countries and comparing that with the carrying capacity of Earth. In junior high, perhaps drawing time-series of the increase of poverty. In high school, finding by calculus the optimum amount of a country's GDP so that a balance is achieved between damage to the ecosystem and the decrease of poverty, thus destroying forever in the minds of the students the idea that economic development is always good...

-- I see... so every professor at every level should think of learning as increasing the capacity of action taken by his students to save the planet and improve the well-being of humanity, as judged by future generations.

-- Correct!, said FuGenie smiling through the helmet.

-- What about engineering? marketing? economics? Would you abolish these careers?

-- Of course not! But engineers should be taught to design *only* energy-efficient things that do not depend on rare-earth elements from China... Marketing should *only* be applied to raising consciousness about us, future generations, not to brainwash people into buying more and more useless stuff... Economy students should *only* be taught green, whole-ecosystem economy. These changes are urgent so that we can stop wearing these helmets.

With that last remark, FuGenie suddenly disappeared -went back to the future.

[1] Echeverría, Rafael. Escritos sobre aprendizaje. Granica 2011. I.S.B.N : 9789506415860. (Available only in Spanish)

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