Learning Histories

What happens to learning histories? Traditionally, in the school or college system, we treat textbooks and references built by experts as the starting point of our education. Students are encouraged to discover through the texts and teacher led activities. However, from one group of students to the other, from one year to the other, it is an ab-initio start. The only continuity is possibly provided by the teacher, who takes to her class the knowledge of any prior learning histories.

The traditional system has a short memory. Histories of student conversations, their trials and tribulations as they navigated unfamiliar terrain, are transmogrified into common mistakes pointed out by the teacher, FAQs built by experts and so on – themselves shortcuts to navigate the longer path taken by the experts to arrive at their conception of the domain. In the process, experts make some reasoned choices about what to leave out. It is important to learn and apply the Pythagorous theorem in a secular manner – never relating to Pythagorous himself or the cultural, social and political context in which he invented the theorem.

These choices are made for the learner. And in this manner, she is condemned to not “know” many learning histories. And therefore, not be able to construct many new forms of learning or adapt histories into new futures. This is typical of a system where temporality is key – competence is generated (or not) out of a structured time-space of an institution.

However, this is simply not the way competence is employed and grown at work or in life. Knowledge management is key to successful enterprises and initiatives, where processes become as important as competence. A hallmark of this competence is that it is based on non-linearity of paths taken to perform based on extensive networks of resources available for self-use.

The core issue is that our systems need several proofs of competence as entry criteria to a variety of different spaces. And they need these proofs to be socially acknowledged, presumably because they shift the burden of proving them to experts. As it happens, the provers and the system are often at odds with each other because they believe in different notions of competence and how to engender it.

Scale entrenches these vulnerable and shifting contracts deeper. With scale (numbers, diversity, globalization, technology), it becomes even more difficult to remember or place learning histories within the context of engendering competence. Someone I know told me about how one of his unofficial mentors spent forty years of his life sifting through Ramanujan’s discoveries, trying to decipher how exactly Ramanujan made his phenomenal discoveries – an anachronistic, obscure but inspiring endeavor in these times.

Learning histories are important. They are important for us to spark innovation, to facilitate the next Ramanujan in his discoveries, to place our learning in local and global contexts within which we exist today. And possibly the way we need to retain these learning histories to record the conversations, curate them, enable connections to them, and celebrate the paths that learners before us took to both fail and succeed. And hope that these inform and help develop new ways of addressing our problems today and for the future.

 

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