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Knowledge is recognising: Toward personal learning

This post covers notes from 80 pages (347-427) in Stephen Downs’ book Toward Personal Learning. I started reading the book and posting about it last summer; it was initially intended as a ‘Summer Book Club‘. I’m still chugging along, and after a few busy months I’ve carved time to do some reading and thinking. I particularly enjoyed reading these pages and what follows are the themes and quotations that stood out to me and a few short thoughts about them. In these pages Downes talks about learning models, understanding of some very core concepts, and really starts to dive into the why and what behind personal learning. (This post is a 6 min read; the book will take you longer – but it’s worth it!)

Let me begin with what should be an axiom painted graffiti style on the side of one of many learning institutions: ‘learning is not remembering’ p.348

Throughout the next 80 pages, Downes takes us on a detailed tour of different aspects of learning, understanding, and perspective. Humorously he introduces us to that idea of perception talking about models and uses his thesis as an example (anyone who has written a book or thesis will empathise with the second half of that first sentence):

the subject of my Master’s thesis, which maybe three or four people have read. The model is not the reality. That’s my 235-page thesis in one sentence. The model is not the reality. (p.352)

then – next sentence:

The model has never been the reality, and worse, when you’re doing any kind of research, if you use a model, typically the answer to the questions you’re researching have been defined by the employment of the model in the first place.

THAT IS SO IMPORTANT!! Ok it is hard going if you aren’t in the flow of the whole chapter/section, but even the idea of the wake up call that the model is a constraint by which things are measured/explained and it is very tempting to confuse that with reality. The same holds true for learning. When a framework is imposed, the framework can become everything. Downes gives a concrete example of how easy it (and easy to be productive) can be when the constraints of the model and all the assumptions that go along with it are removed.

Think of a conversation where you and I have not first established a shared understanding of the meaning of all of the terms. (p.354)

Downes talks about the concepts of connection and autonomy and demonstrates how the two are not opposites. Without having to argue fancy theories, he uses an extremely effective example to demonstrate this: When visiting a city there are several options- you can have the guided tour, can explore with a map, can wander, or can be kidnapped. The institutional model of telling-teaching is akin to kidnap…(paraphrased p.358)

Allowing for autonomy, and empowering people to learn and connect requires different teaching skills- he says:

The whole idea here is to understand the concept of how individual entities are related to form patterns, data structures, and entities. (p.367)

This theme of requiring different teaching skills is going to pop up throughout the section.

He relates the future of the University as a learning institution to a ‘community of music artists’. What a lovely vision, ‘and they will be everywhere’ – I imagine it like being swimming in waters of coral reefs, with life and colour everywhere and as you travel between connections you are supported by the warm clear waters, can feel the fresh breeze and the life-giving sun on your face. That is a dream of learning. I like it.

How do we get there? It has to do with that theme of different skills. Downes explains: “shifting the definition of education away from its historical roots to a skills based, instrumentally defined enterprise — in other words, very much like speaking a language.” (p.377) –He’s talking about an historic shift and it will neither be easy nor quick, but I imagine it will be an organic growth fuelled by individuals. (-and through connection, we’ll find one another.)

He goes on to talk about the ‘skills gap’ and filling the jobs.

I think in a different way to a traditional ‘skills gap’– it’s not about filling the jobs but about honing our perception to understand what people want and how we can fill that – by preparing people through a thoughtful, skills and experience-based education. For me, I believe you have to own it, to do it in order to learn it; knowing ‘about’ it is not enough. As I go through Downes’ book, I read and when I come to something that sticks out, I write about it- maybe jot down the quote. This was one of those places where I stopped at the start of the section and put down my thoughts before reading his arguments. I very much enjoyed when I got to the end and he’s making the same point. He put it in different words: “The problem is how do you recognize, first of all, what you need in society? And secondly, what people actually have in society.”

Yep. We’ve got to think in a different way.

The really interesting, useful outcomes like “understand” and “appreciate” are almost undefinable. (Talbert, 2014) They are, in a certain sense, ineffable. We could not really express what we mean.

This is what the representation of culture as a type of language appeals to, the ineffability of learning. We cannot express in language what it means to learn a language. (p.381)

Ah this happens in music too, we can ‘see’ the concept because music is one step removed from people’s normal medium. Labels and words, Downes talks about how we represent complex systems/ideas as ‘things’ and in essence make stuff up (Downes’ words there!) and it sparked a fantastic analogy for me. His example used the heart as a pump. Downes argues that it is not ‘just a pump’ in fact it would break the delicate conduits within the body if it was completely organized by some giant pressure washer of a pump pulsing out at regular intervals. It made me think of all systems- the learner within the community, the musician and (my) component skills – it is not the technique or the sound or the instrument or the ear alone, but like the tide, one leads and pulls on the other, working in harmony. (We may be getting back to that pedagogy of harmony after all.)

I read the next section as a recording of my students (cello student and I teach or have taught the others at uni- one is an alumni) and I listened to them perform a new composition in the Cathedral (at about 9min 30 which is very odd for me, because I usually work in silence- and read the sentence asking – how do I become?

How do I become?

It was the first phrase of a paragraph, but so resonant. Earlier this morning I questioned networks, forming communities, and it comes back to a place. My place. How do I become? Step by step, and with the vision in mind, with persistence and perseverance, and the truth is I really don’t know how. I haven’t yet lived the road I walk.

Back to reading Downes book…

This short paragraph stood out, because I thought Ahhhh, and smiled before the last sentence, that was like a punch in the gut.

But I’m also a devotee of fail videos. That’s a little secret. But I love them because I see myself in those. You see somebody on the bicycle going over the handlebars, and you go “ah.” You do have that feeling. That feeling is what comes out, and that feeling does get reflected. Then Facebook analyzes it and monetizes it. (p.389)

My first reaction was: Don’t put me in your shop window. I’m not for sale.  -but how often do we keep going back to those platforms, like walking in to the shop and sitting in the display cabinet. It is like the strangest compulsion that is hard to stop.


And further on in the book there is a section to do with learning, responses, and solutions to understanding. This section responds to one person’s critical view on maths education (where a flawed logic was used). Downes presents a truism: It is impossible to study stats without higher order mathematical concepts.

Statistics is the study of change, and change can come in pretty much any mathematical form. (p.407)

That sentence relates in a larger-scale way to that previous paragraph where Facebook kicked me in the gut. Also thought, in a positive way it made me think of a larger connection: statistics are part of an ecosystem of maths, as is the heart part of the tide within us.

And then there was an antidote. After the thump with that view of reality, there was a glimpse of vision. It is the insightful commentary that makes this book more than about theory. If you are reading it to find the bare bones, you will find much more.

“That, if I may share a secret, is what has always bothered me about my work in education. In so many ways, we are either working to keep in power those who are already in power, providing them elite educations at exclusive universities, or we are perpetuating the servitude of the working people, teaching employment skills and vocational trades to the children of factory workers and farmers. And educators themselves, especially in today’s outcomes-based environment, are so often cast in the role of the butler or the maid, pandering to, rather than enlightening, the children of our employers.

I’ve always aspired to something more. I’ve always believed that at the end of my career, when I looked back, I would look on a body of work that led to something more significant than an app or a servlet.

That is why I am engaged not merely in the development of learning technology, but also engaged in the development of means, methods and mechanisms to deliver open learning – with ‘open’ being thought of in the widest and most liberating sense. And when I design educational systems – even when I am working with partners in government and industry – I am first and foremost thinking of my client as the students and learners themselves. And that is why I think in terms not of pedagogy and learning design, but in terms of self-management and personal development.” (p420-421)

AMEN to that 🙌 Very well said.

Pages 422-427 are an honest to goodness great read. Dense, and really provocative. Downes brings together a number of theories and takes the reader through a tour of understanding. (not of understanding what, but of actual understanding) and in the end he finishes the section with the point he began; knowledge is recognition.

I loved reading it, and smiled that I am not the only one in history to question people’s experience of the colour red. What I take from this as an educator is the concrete divider between knowledge as recognition and the articulation of understanding that is often asked for on assessments.

The articulation of understanding requires a whole other set of skills. Articulation of understanding is not knowledge and those with knowledge may be ill-equipped to articulate it. That distinction is important to understand as an educator.

Well this summer book club might just finish by the summer. 300 or so more pages to go! I’m more than halfway and very glad I’ve come back to reading this book. I recommend it.

Featured image CC-BY by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives

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  1. It is particularly satisfying to see “personal learning” instead of “personalized learning” at the core of these thoughts. One is something we do ourselves. The other is effectively done to us. Stephen Downes recognizes that the work of all educators needs to get individual students to grab the reins and direct themselves forward. Learners cannot simply be lead through the paces of their school activities.

    It is powerful stuff to gain on our goals by using (in our own steps) the insights of others.

    Thanks for adding your insights, coordinated with those of Downes, to my set of learning tools.

    March 9, 2018

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