Things I Think I Have Learned About Learning – Part 1

The title for this entry came from a daily blog/newsletter I subscribe to called “Things I Think I Think” by Mark Horstman.  You may know Mark from the Manager Tools podcast series (if you don’t you should!) and being a former army officer he is usually pretty point blank with his opinions and advice. However, as evidenced by the title and this graphic from Manager Tools, he is also is open enough to admit that there is a lot of stuff he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know.

This past semester at school has been an experience like this.  While there are things I have learned about learning which confirmed what I feel quite certain about, I am never too quick to announce the certainty of something I think I may have learned.  Anyone who has been in education knows that there are too many moving parts and factors in the equation to be certain that something will be true 100% of the time. However, like Mark, saying that there are things I think I’ve learned also represents that there are things that the combination of research and experience tells us are true.  In the three parts of this blog over this first month of the year, I will describe three things I think I’ve learned from this past semester and apply to this current age we are living in. The first is about the social aspect of learning, the next are some thoughts about online learning from the perspective of both a student and teacher, and the third about some next steps forward for education as we prepare for the post-COVID era.

The first thing I think I’ve learned about learning is about the social component of  learning.  David Brooks writes in a recent NY Times column that “people change when they are put in new environments, in permanent relationship with diverse groups of people” and describes how learning with others is superior to traditional modes of direct instruction or training.  Learning is best seen in this way as a team sport and while this is an intuitive idea, it has also been formalized by learning theorists in various ways one of them being Communities of Practice or CoPs.  Wenger and Lave are the theorists usually credited with  this idea and describe CoPs in three specific dimensions.  

The first dimension is the common interest of the members involved in the community, referred to as the domain, and defines what the community of practice cares about.  These would be things such as photography or a public speaking or even a sport. The second dimension, called community, talks about the quality and depth of relationships which create the bonds between members and the resulting connections formed as a result.  The third dimension of practice develops as knowledge within the community is built through the social and shared learning activities that group members participate in together.  If you think about it, you are probably now or have been involved in a community such as this whether as part of a hobby, social or church group in the past.  Think about how much you learned as a result of the interplay of the common interests, relationships, and common activity which occurred in these groups and how this shared experience has spurred you on to further learning or maybe even driven a specific career pursuit or personal passion.

I know what you are thinking, this all sounds great but how does this work in an age of online learning?  We will look further at online learning in Part 2, but communities of practice are and have been popping up online in the past few years initially to connect people separated by geography and now are growing in number further as a necessity of the times.  Online communities include all three features of person-to-person CoPs (that’s domain, community, and practice) but instead of occurring face to face happen in a virtual format.  For myself in these recent times, I have been surprised and gratified from my own experience by the amount of online community which can develop whether it be withing an online class or from something external to a class.  My own experience arriving at university and not knowing a soul and only being able to get to know teachers and fellow students from an online experience confirms for me that community and connections can be developed online.  Even though separated by time and distance, our common interest of learning the subject matter, combined with our regular online gatherings and the activities which we have been able to complete together, have resulted in a remarkable degree of connection and learning for myself and I believe for my fellow students also.  I can say with confidence that in each of the classes a community of practice was established and the interaction which occurred online was a key component of the learning process. The good news arising from this is that we shouldn’t feel that we  have to wait for face to face interaction again to benefit from the social component of learning, however the structure of these online communities does have to be shaped with intention which will be discussed further. I will write more about this in Part 2 of Things I think I’ve learning about learning when we discuss the topic of learning online.

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