Thursday, February 02, 2006

To start this off: My perspective on human learning

I began this blog some time ago as a means to help me develop my ideas about human learning in an environment that is - at least to an extent - more open to whoever is interested than the traditional environment of professional publishing. It took me more than a month before I found - or rather, made - the time to post this first entry.

To start this off I will first explain what, in my view, learning actually means. To make the task easier, I copy much from something I recently wrote in the context of a debate that linked the question 'What does it mean to learn?' to another question, namely 'What does it mean to be human?' (Readers interested in that debate or who want to check the various references in what follows, can find it at

Here is what I wrote:

I usually express my view of what it means to be human in materialistic terms. My down-to-earth view of members of the human species is that they are nothing more but also nothing less than pieces of organized matter--just the same as rocks, plants, and other animals. What makes them special and somehow unique is the fact that, in the course of evolution, humans became endowed with the faculty of consciousness, the ability to reflect on their actions, to hold things in mind and contemplate them, carrying out thought experiments, and to foresee, to an extent, the consequences of what they intend to do. What exactly consciousness is; to what extent some form of it might be present in other species or be an exclusive feature of humans; what allowed it to emerge; and what are the neuronal correlates of consciousness are questions in which only recently some tentative insights have started to develop (e.g., Edelman and Tononi, 2000; Carter, 2002; Greenfield, 2002; Edelman, 2004; Koch, 2004; Koch 2005; Steinberg, 2005).

Consciousness allows us to experience joy and sorrow as we transit through life. It is the cause of the eternal amazement with which we stand, generation after generation, in awe of who we are, where we come from, what we are here for, and where we are going. It is at the origin of our sense of belonging, of being part of a larger whole, an experience to which we give expression in religious beliefs, mythologies, evolving world views based on the methodical and disciplined pursuit of scientific insight, and great works of art.

Within the above perspective, being human means having the unique faculty of participating consciously--for a brief moment--in the evolution of the universe. This is both an outrageous claim and a call to humility.

If one accepts the above vision of being human, then learning must be conceived of in a similarly broad perspective of purposeful interaction with an environment to whose constant change we must adapt while being ourselves the conscious participants in creating such change. 'Constructive interaction with change' thus ought to feature prominently in a definition of human learning at this level, expressing what ultimately learning is all about. Besides, it should be recognized that not only individual human beings partake in such constructive conscious interaction with change, but that the same behavior equally applies to larger social entities at a variety of levels of complex organization. Moreover, learning as conceived in this perspective is intimately interwoven with being alive. It is therefore not something one engages in every now and then, but rather a lifelong disposition. Finally, the disposition referred to in the last sentence is characterized by openness towards dialogue. Hence, I define human learning as "the disposition of human beings, and of the social entities to which they pertain, to engage in continuous dialogue with the human, social, biological and physical environment, so as to generate intelligent behavior to interact constructively with change" (J. Visser, 2001). When I first proposed this definition, I called it an 'undefinition,' referring to its intended purpose to remove the boundaries from around the current, too narrowly conceived, definitions of learning.

The above definition of learning applies at the most comprehensive level of being human, the level at which we are most distinctively different from anything else that learns, such as non-human animals or machines. Nonetheless, it should be recognized that human adaptive behavior, and thus learning, occurs at least at the following four levels of organizational complexity, some of which we share with other organisms (J. Visser, 2002, n.p.):

  • Level 1: Interaction with threats and opportunities in the environment through genetically transmitted preprogrammed responses, e.g. fight and flight responses.
  • Level 2: Acquisition of essential environment-specific abilities, such as mastery of the mother tongue, driven by an inherited predisposition to do so.
  • Level 3: Deliberate acquisition of specific skills, knowledge, habits and propensities, motivated by individual choices or societal expectations, usually by exposing oneself to a purposely designed instructional--or self-instructional--process.
  • Level 4: The development and maintenance of a lifelong disposition to dialogue with one's environment for the purpose of constructively interacting with change in that environment.

It can be argued that the above four levels of learning-related adaptive behavior in humans "represent a progression of increasingly higher levels of consciousness about one's role in life and in the world" and that "the four levels are not entirely distinct from each other" (n.p.). In fact, they may interact.

Not everyone is happy with a comprehensive definition like the one referred to above because it is difficult to use in the operational context of intentionally designed instruction. Besides, it may be seen to stress the obvious (see for a brief polemic on this issue the exchange between Chadwick, 2002, and J. Visser & Y. L. Visser, 2003). Most common definitions of human learning contemplate adaptive behavior at Level 3. There is nothing wrong, at least not in principle, with defining learning more restrictively than is done in my own comprehensive definition. It would be wrong, though, to do so without having in mind that one is dealing with only a segment of what it means to be learning. However important that segment may be at a practical level of intentional intervention in changing human performance capability to serve accepted societal goals--these days usually related to the interests of the prevailing economic model--by closing one's eyes to human functioning at a higher level of consciousness one is at risk of developing human beings who increasingly lose the capacity to intervene in ever more complex situations at a time when the major problems the world faces are exactly situated at such a higher level of complexity.

Thus, in view of the above rationale, I should like to argue that, at whatever level we interact with the development of human learning in our fellow citizens, we should always do so within the perspective of the highest level of complexity within which we expect people to be able to operate. Against the backdrop of that argument it is sad to observe how increasingly formal education, up to the highest level, is being dealt with as if it were a mere commodity (see for arguments in favor of this position Daniel, 2002, and Daniel, 2003, and for opposing arguments Jain et al., 2003).

(For references see

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