Friday, February 24, 2006

Those who went before us

Today, February 24, is the birthday of my mother. She would have been 99 years old had she not left us, the third in sequence of the four parents my wife and I share, some seven years before the last of our parents defiantly gave up her life, a year and a half ago. With all of them gone, we are now alone with our memories.

Grief, as I see it, is the painful process of learning to live with the memories of those who went before us. Everything of the relationship that once existed has all of a sudden become internal, part of our fragile selves. We are the sole guardians of the memories of those who went before us, facing the difficult task of giving those memories new meanings.

At times, memories become closely associated with objects, such as the oil lamp above. My mother used to recall a cherished image of her older brother - dead on his 31st birthday - playing the violin, standing next to that lamp, his head slightly inclined, allowing as much of the light as possible to illuminate the scores from which he was playing. That same lamp now allows me to re-create in my mind images of those precious moments that accompanied my mother's life.

Feral learning (2)

In a comment added to my earlier post on Feral Learning (February 24, 2006), Yusra Visser refers to the need for actors in a structured learning environment, such as is typically the case in an instructional context, to be able to cope with ambiguity, challenge and frustration. I imagine that an animal that escapes from domestication faces a similarly uncertain world as do learners (and their teachers) when they decide to depart from the beaten track, the given curriculum, to walk out and to walk on. The more rigorously a set curriculum is being imposed, the less it will leave scope for innovation and for the pursuit of individual pathways to learning. The curriculum, the way it is regularly interpreted as a linear sequence of knowledge and skills areas ordered according to some logical principle, however much sense that principle may make, has also a deadening influence on those who learn and teach if there is no vision present in the learning environment that allows the given curriculum to be seen as just one option and not necessarily the best one in all circumstances for all people. Flexibility is thus required in any instructional context whose primary aim is the growth of those who participate in it in accordance with their evolving needs. Thus, if feral learning is to emerge from an instructional context, the process will be enormously helped if it is accompanied by feral teaching. Few schools, whether at the K-12 or higher level, appreciate such flexibility, though. Many school administrators and deans frown on feral teachers. Indeed, as the comment states, flexibility implies trust among those who collaborative learn and those who guide and facilitate that process. Such trust is often hard to be found in schools. It is also a notion largely absent in the scholarly literature in the field of education.

Mary Hall's reflective journal on instructional design for flexible learning, started, I believe, as a course-based activity, is in and of itself an encouraging example of how a given course structure can lead someone to walk off in directions that the curriculum may not have foreseen, provided of course that the right conditions are in place. Besides, Mary's blog is an excellent resource for thoughts, experiences, findings, and links to relevant papers about feral learning. It is highly recommended.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Feral learning

Yesterday I wrote a brief contribution to an online discussion (conducted at on 'feral learning,' a term apparently coined by Ted Nunan in a paper on Flexible Delivery - What is it and why is it a part of current educational debate?. The term 'feral' can refer to the state of being wild, untamed, non domesticated; it can also refer to having become free of domestication. According to the Wikipedia, a feral animal is "one that has reverted from the domesticated state to a stable condition more or less resembling the wild."

Below follows an adapted version for this blog of what I wrote.

I think that the innate resourcefulness of learners is generally poorly recognized by those who feel they are responsible for other people's learning. While he term feral learning was unknown to me before I joined the above mentioned online discussion, the reality of feral learning has been known to me from almost the earliest moment - now more than 40 years ago - when I started teaching.

Reflecting on my own learning history, I am clearly able to identify instances when I escaped from the domestication by the formal learning systems of which I was part, going my own way, sometimes in the company of others, and discovering vistas I would have never seen had I stayed within the bounds of what was being offered to me. This happened long before I started teaching myself. I recognize, though, that I owe a number of these diversions to prompts I received from being part of formal environments, which is to say that I am not 'in principle' against formal learning structures (at least not as long as they don't become suffocating).

Over time, I've been involved in plain ordinary face-to-face teaching, traditional distance education from before the time when online communication became a major dimension of it, as well as in the current reality of interacting with students online. In all cases I've found that those who learn best are those who are best able to beat the system. By 'learning best' I do not mean 'getting the highest grades' (though normally the class of people I refer to does make good, and sometimes the best, grades). What I mean is that such people show the greatest promise of continually transcending themselves. With more than 40 years of experience I am now able to look back at what initially were mere assumptions and perceptions about those in whose learning I got involved. What I then, long ago, felt to be the case, I now know, based on longitudinal observation and experience, is the case.

In other words, as someone who occasionally gets involved in teaching other people's programs, I feel perfectly comfortable with taking the 'risks' (if that is the right word) involved in not slavishly following prescribed programs and curricula, attaching great value to the creativity of my students. I would even go as far as deliberately creating, wherever I could, the conditions in which my students' creativity would be optimally stimulated, thus complicating my life as a teacher as such creativity would continually force me to reassess the reasonableness of what I am doing.

Assessment (which was the topic under discussion in the referred online dialogue), particularly when it takes the form of attributing grades and issuing degrees, certificates, and the like, often interferes adversely with the kind of openness that feral learning assumes. There is thus a great need to reassess assessment practices in the light of the kind of learning that must be developed for citizens of the 21st century. Few people ask themselves deep questions about what learning for the Knowledge Age really means more than that it has something to do with the pervasive presence of computer tools in our daily life. Readers of this blog may want to do a search for the writings of Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia (often in collaborative partnership) who explore this area. An activists' approach to what should be done in terms of "healing ourselves from the diploma disease" can be found at Debate on what should be expected of learners in our rapidly changing learning landscape is available at

Finally, the following question was asked in the post I was reacting to: "Are your learners frustrated in their learning space?" My answer to that question is: Learners ought to be frustrated in their learning space if that space is a closed space.

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