The vulnerability of learning

In a meeting with a group of doctoral students last week, one individual shared her challenging, even emotionally draining, experience in taking her first doctoral course. Much of her experience was not focused on the learning or content. Instead, she shared her self-doubts, her frustrations of integrating doctoral studies into her personal and professional life, the fatigue of learning, and feeling overwhelmed. Personal reflections such as these are important but are usually not considered when discussing learning and being a successful learner.
In education, seemingly in tandem with the advancement of technology and online learning, growing emphasis is placed on making the learning process more efficient. Through a barrage of instructional techniques and technologies, researchers and administrators strive to reduce the time that it takes a learner master a topic or complete a degree. While this is a laudable goal, it is an impoverished and malnourished view of education.
Learning involves many dimensions, but triggered by my conversation with my doctoral students, two are relevant here: epistemological and ontological. Epistemology is concerned with knowledge. In the educational process, that means the focus is on helping students to learn the knowledge (concepts, ideas, relationships) that a teacher or designer has designated as being important. Most thinking on improving education centres on the epistemological aspect of learning. While epistemology addresses “knowing”, ontology is concerned with “being” or “becoming”. For many students, this is the most substantial barrier to learning. Our education system and teaching practices largely overlook ontological principles. Instead, the focus is on knowledge development at the expense of “learner becoming”.
Learning is vulnerability. When we learn, we make ourselves vulnerable. When we engage in learning, we communicate that we want to grow, to become better, to improve ourselves. When I first started blogging, I had a sense of fear with every post (“did that sound stupid?”), loss of sleep soul-searching when a critical comment was posted, and envy when peers posted something brilliant (“wow, why didn’t I think of that?”). When a student posts an opinion in a discussion forum or when someone offers a controversial opinion – these are vulnerability-inducing expressions. On a smaller scale, posting a tweet, sharing an image, or speaking into the void can be intimidating for a new user. (I’m less clear about how being vulnerable becomes craving attention for some people as they get immersed in media!). While the learning process can’t be short-circuited, and the ambiguity and messiness can’t be eliminated, it is helpful for educators to recognize the social, identity, and emotional factors that influence learners. Often, these factors matter more than content/knowledge elements in contributing to learner success.

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