Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog

November 10, 2008

Learners, Students and an Ontological Issue

Filed under: Week 10 — lisahistory @ 3:10 pm

This class has me thinking a great deal about individualism, independent learning, and terminology. I’m also considering George Siemens’ shift, articulated in the Nov 7 UStream session, from the epistemological to the ontological, from talking about how we know things to discussing what we become.

All of us are “learners”, from the time we are born. It’s built in. We learn from many people and resources. To call someone a “student” is to imply formal enrollment in an educational institution. Somewhere along the way, some learners and students become educated people. I have been reading Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, and becoming familiar with economists’ definition of the “enlightened public” as meaning something between the ordinary public and economists, who to me represent “scholars”. Scholars base their life on exploring and researching academic subjects. Another word we’ve been using would be “experts”.

Learners are the focus of this course, and of connectivist theory. Not just formally enrolled students, but people who learn, however and wherever that happens. The desire seems to be to turn our enrolled students into learners, imbued with the motivation to explore that they’ve had from birth. While I see that as laudable, I am struggling with the attack on our current educational systems as being either harmful or useless. Although I personally think there should be a great deal more independence of action and fluidity of curriculum, our current education system serves a purpose in terms of acculturation, child care, socialization and other elements that society wants.

But a key factor for intellectual development is exposure to what’s possible. At the K-12 level, students are introduced to many different subjects. At the college level, most of our students are subject to a multi-disciplinary curriculum. (In this case, the term “curriculum” refers to the package of courses taken for a degree.) In a world of completely independent, self-guided learning, the learner would pursue areas of interest to fulfill his/her own perceived needs. But colleges have General Education, curriculum developed with the deliberate purpose of exposing students to subjects they might otherwise not encounter. I can cite numerous circumstances of individuals who came to college with one major, but graduated with another, or who found their intellectual direction in classes they didn’t want to take.

The battle seems to be for the minds of people in their formative years, who are in the current system distinct in their role as students, their institutionalized instructional guidance, and their exposure to multiple subjects. To replace our educational system with completely self-guided learners could mean premature specialization, and a lack of exposure to non-familiar subjects.

Learner Student Educated Person Scholar
Directedness self school self self
Motivation immediate need grades/status/degree subject learning intellectualism/status
Likely age any, begins as baby key formative years any adult graduate school and up
Likely diversity of subjects explored low high moderate low
Information source varied, depends on access and desire institutional, guided by instructor varied, depends on access and desire data, research

It seems likely to me that what makes someone an educated person (not just a student or a learner) is diversity. And while I would certainly agree that diversity of learning methods in our schools and colleges could be improved, drastically, I’m not certain that the cost should be diversity of subjects to which students are exposed. My objective in my job is helping students become educated people who know how to learn, an ontological goal to which I’ve dedicated much of my adult life.

Educated people, the “enlightened public”, have always included the ranks of the self-educated. But the vast majority of educated people, who can now learn for their own ends while at the same time recognizing the need for service to society, are dominated by those who found their way in a guided environment. In fact, many of us learned in opposition to those educational institutions, fighting the norms we found overly restrictive in our formative years. It wasn’t necessary to determine our own educational objectives to determine our destiny. Many must become learners (with self-direction and motivation determined by biology) and students (forced to see the variety of human knowledge whether initially interested or not), to become truly educated.

[Note: this class has made me quite topsy-turvy — at work I am an innovative teacher, here I’m just an “educator” — everywhere else I am considered a radical, but here I become a traditionalist — I am a supporter of Rousseau and John Holt, but here I am arguing for our current system….]



  1. […] could mean premature specialization, and a lack of exposure to non-familiar subjects.”  So, how are we going to strike a balance between an educational system and a self-guided leaning […]

    Pingback by My response to Bradley CCK08: Book Review of “Disrupting Class” by Clayton Christensen « Suifaijohnmak’s Weblog — November 10, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

  2. […] our future?” But does “depth of learning” mean in one small area, or as needed to become a thinking person? And which is necessary for the future? The idea that no one person can build an airplane or master […]

    Pingback by Paper #3: Resistance, Reassessment, & Retooling « Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog — November 13, 2008 @ 11:10 am

  3. Could we usefully conceive of both on the one hand formal education, with its teachers and students, its curriculum and social goals, and on the other connective learning, with its learners, its openness, as ideal types (in the Weberian sense)? We can then imagine a spectrum from formality to connectivism, and choose where we wish to situate ourselves (and those with whose intellectual and social development we might be charged) at the point along that spectrum that best suits the personalities, goals, and other salient circumstances involved? I don’t have to want to rip up my syllabi and renounce all authority in the classroom in order to introduce those elements of connective learning I think my students might benefit from or, more importantly, are ready to or can be helped to be ready to benefit from. If we recognize, say, the Downes vision of what learning ought to look like as an ideal type, then we can not get bogged down in whether or how it is achievable in order to start making incremental change in our practice as educators and learners in a direction that might tend in a Downesian direction.

    Comment by Ed Webb — November 15, 2008 @ 10:13 am

  4. […] back to the “training idea”. One great advantage of our general education standards, as I’ve said before, is the provision of a multiplicity of fields of study, with required introductions to each before […]

    Pingback by Universities: post-historical technocracy vs new learning models « Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog — November 18, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

  5. Well stated. I understand precisely what you mean. I just took a doctoral level course in Critical Pedagogy in Second Life and felt “topsy turvy” for months. I’m now learning to live with a permanent tilt! I’m afraid that today, I have nothing to add intellectually to your ideas, but wanted to let you know that someone agrees with you and feels as you do.

    Comment by Barbara — December 21, 2008 @ 8:04 am

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