Toward Personal Learning: Post 6

I started reading Stephen Downes’ book Toward Personal Learning quite some time ago, and various projects have interrupted my reading and reflecting on it. This post, number 6 in the series, is themed on communication, meaning, and of course connection in learning. What follows are my reflections and thoughts on pp478-565.

Let’s begin with a short quote from a Q&A section:

Q. “We are using terms in education that people believe they already know and we are using them in different ways. How did you grab people and help explain the complexities?

A. First we make everything as conversational and without jargon as possible. And second, we say we are not out to make the definitive lexicon of things. Words are shifting and changing.” (…the context was in a discussion about authoring Wikipedia articles) (p487)

Talking, teaching, my mind moved to the very important practice of naming things. We each have a name and it is a wonderful thing to be called and known by your name. Take us (people) as an example. I have a name, yet over the years I have developed and changed. Some of us may be quite similar to how we were a few years ago, where others are hardly recognisable. Across some periods of time in our lives we change more than others, but the fluidity of self somehow remains, and people still recognise us even after years apart.

In teaching, people name concepts, methods, even learners get labelled and categorised into boxes. Names, titles, or other words used to help us understand are absolutely essential, but no name is fixed. Ideas grow, understanding changes with changing perspectives and gained experience, and someone will invent another concept with another name. We do not have a definitive dictionary for learning, because after all, we the learners keep changing day by day.

  • Communication is essential
  • It takes a bit of wisdom to successfully communicate in ways your listeners/learners can understand, as each has a unique perspective.
  • Nothing stays the same.


That last one is so important to remember and truly realise. With use and development we expand, and with an absence of use we atrophy. We are shifting and changing, like plates on the Earth, sometimes slowly like the growth of a mountain, sometimes quickly like an earthquake or volcanic eruption, wherever we sit on the spectrum of motion, change is our constant.

“When a stone is thrown in the water: The waves do not ‘represent’ anything, they are not ‘about’ the stone, and indeed, you cannot infer to the existence of the stone merely from the presence of the waves” (p.493)

Some 50 pages later Stephen also talks about stones in water. (I will comment on this then) Hold on to this image as it is important. (image CC BY-NC-SA by Vijay)

On Learning:

Downes provides a recipe for learning and reasons to explain the associative nature of learning. I propose a small change to his definition, and for me, the reasons represent general axioms or descriptions of how-to.

“[Learning is] based in practice and reflection resulting in habitual recognition of relevant phenomena”

  • Networking and interaction are essential components of learning, that new experiences must be based on past experience, which entails the development of personal and experiential learning environments.
  • This understanding of learning necessitates a shift “from a formal class-based outcomes-based learning paradigm to an ongoing informal learning network, hands on support systems, and personal learning program.” (p497)

(Downes aimed that last point at employers, but to me it is equally for teachers and students.)

…I’d like to propose a small change to the initial definition:

[Learning is] based in practice and reflection resulting in habitual awareness and recognition of relevant phenomena.

Downes makes an interesting point on abstractions and commonalities. He says (I hope I convey this accurately) that completely different things can have representative neural maps that cross, perhaps with some commonalities between them. He gives the example of the words/concepts ‘dog’ and ‘couch’ – maybe the dog sits on the couch, and the paths for these concepts cross.

What if (this is my spin on it) it is more about something we can’t see- so if waves travel on the water and cross, it’s the medium they use. Waves in sound. I can hear the car outside the window distinctly from the bird, yet they both produce sound that agitates the air, and surely it is more than the direction that allows me to separate them or allow them to melt, whereas dog and couch do not melt. If I hear many instruments coming out of one speaker, as a recording is played, I still can distinctly hear the harp and distinguish it from the baritone – even the first and second violins. What if we can infinitely share inputs via a particular medium and something else within our perceptive or conceptual understanding allows us to separate or blur? I certainly don’t have answers, but enjoy the provocation to think.

When communicating understanding often we need support, and Downes gives a lovely nugget that demonstrates how ‘evidence’, although peer-reviewed and published can still reflect the bubbles around us. I love this on types of evidence:

“But more significant is the question regarding the type of evidence, which is specifically focused around the question of whether the evidence is representative of the population as a whole. That’s why you don’t just ask your friends how they’ll vote when you’re predicting an election; chances are, your friends will vote like you do. It should also be why a class of 50 Midwestern undergraduate psychology students should not be used as the basis for drawing conclusions about anything, but journals keep publishing the studies.” (p502)

So true… these are more thinking points than answers, and at the end of this section of writing, Downes leaves this in-depth post on p505 with a vision for the future (paraphrased and summarised) with a new understanding,… based not on power and control and collaboration and conformity, but one based on autonomy and diversity and cooperation and emergence that is for education and for life.

Mass-learning initiatives?

“The great proclamations that MOOCs were the greatest invention ever- since the pencil… and they could reach a billion students in a year….” (p514-515)

This makes me think of a parallel where people trivialise music education by presenting a large-scale outreach concert without follow-up. Don’t get me wrong, every experience is valuable, but a single trip to hear a concert without guidance, understanding, and or any explanation is… Well, I can tell you about the first time I went to the opera. I was in 5th grade and my wonderful (late) teacher Mr. Price took all the children in the orchestra programme to the Lyric Opera in Chicago. I brought my great-grandmother’s opera glasses (still have them) and I couldn’t understand a word of whatever they were singing, and sitting in the third balcony up, the stage was far away, and I fell asleep. !!

Was it worth it? taking a child with so little musical experience to something they didn’t half get?

YES. Because Mr. Price took us to the opera again, every year and several times in the year. He taught us to play the music from the opera La Traviata. We learned the rhythm and the harmonies.  We laughed while we learned as he taught us about dances in music, and even though we still didn’t understand everything about it, we loved it. He didn’t simply ‘give us a pencil’ and say ‘there, now you have a tool’.

Recent initiatives in some UK schools are so thinned out that students might get that token experience of hearing something once. Like giving them a pencil. Now, a pencil could be a tool, and might be the start to something, but if those kids were like me – without an already musical family, and without a fabulous teacher who did extra things, then what? What are they going to do with that pencil? You can play darts with a pencil, you know, or use it to hold your long hair in place, especially if you don’t know how to write with it.

Tools become useful when you know how to use them and have a context to apply your understanding.

“It’s about what it is to know and to learn at a deeper level, which can then be applied to new disciplines whatever they may be.” (p533)

I certainly believe that one of the greatest responsibilities of a teacher is to teach people to learn, and crucially, to know (for themselves) at a deeper level. Then all manner of formal learning outcomes follow.

In a discussion of the role of teachers and perspectives of students on p563 (yes, I’m going out of order just for a moment), Stephen mentions the idea that when dealing with terms like ‘authority’ and ‘expert’ these can be loaded, and there is a great difference between something presented to and ‘imposed on the student’ as opposed to something ‘recognized by the student’ (Italics are Stephen’s). E.g. when told Xx is an authority it is very different than seeking someone’s advice because you value them as an expert. Stephen goes on to qualify that an expert, in keeping with connectivism, models and demonstrates.

Downes takes a momentary deep dive into truth, value, syntax, and semantics between pp533-538, and if you are at all interested in clarity of communication and the concepts that swim in these waters, then I thoroughly recommend settling down with a nice cup of tea and having a slow, thorough read and think.

Stephen says something key thing on p539: People see what they believe. I’d go on to develop that into:

  • people pursue what they believe possible and
  • people do what they believe they can.

It brings me back to self-efficacy: that belief, the core understanding and conception of what is and what can be is very powerful.

Remember that water and stone image I mentioned, here’s the follow-up:

“Knowledge is recognition. Water doesn’t really retain the impact of rocks, which is why ponds aren’t intelligent. But other more complex and more stable entities will retain traces of the impact. One thing influences the next, and each thing preserves a trace of that influence, such that after a while characteristic patterns of input produce characteristic responses. This is recognition.”(p540)

We retain the marks of what happens to us. We carry the impacts of our experiences, thoughts, interactions and what an incredibly powerful image. Just like the impact of the stone on the water, this video presents a striking yet simple illustration of the same thing, intended for an audience of children.

I introduce this topic to my students by showing them the power of positives. We are all so capable of the negative. Last Friday I was teaching my second year students about ‘the language of achievement’ in terms of the psychology of learning and teaching, and whooooeee there is power in saying I CAN. I challenged my students to notice and replace two negative words/comments/thoughts that they had with positive versions, and then to note down what changes they made.

Make a habit of being positive. Build one another up. Thank each other. Notice our humanity. Be kind humans to one another, and I dare say, learn to love yourself too.

“I think that the reason we are alive is because it’s possible, and the reason we die is to continue to allow it to be possible, by allowing our form of existence to grow and develop and adapt and flourish.

I’m still trying to embrace diversity, and I’m still seeking harmony.”(p545)

Me too, Stephen. We’re on the same page.


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