Sunday, August 22, 2010

Liminal states and learning distress - no pain, no gain?

Cousin, G (2006) An introduction to threshold concepts. Planet. 17 (Dec)

We teachers - perhaps all human beings - are in the grip of an astonishing delusion. We think that we can take a picture, a structure, a working model of something, constructed in our minds out of long experience and familiarity, and by turning that model into a string of words, transplant it whole into the mind of someone else.

Perhaps once in a thousand times, when the explanation is extraordinary good, and the listener extraordinary experienced and skillful at turning word strings into non-verbal reality, and when the explainer and listener share in common many of the experiences being talked about, the process may work, and some real meaning may be communicated.

Most of the time, explaining does not increase understanding, and may even lessen it.

John Holt
(1923 - 1985) American Educator
How Children Learn

Before reading this paper I was rather inclined to place my mark on a sliding scale on the continuum between fixed and questionable content depending on the discipline being taught. I mean, I would have thought it was intuitive that it would be safer for the inhabitants of houses that rote learning of stress bearing weights for Engineers and Architects be encouraged rather than a 'constructivist' agreed discussion deciding the load to be placed on supporting beams.

But that is counter to the wisdom of the crowds, and that more mistakes can be made in copying from a table than can be made when you 'understand' something. You can't unlearn to ride a bike. In the last reading by Sharma I also noted how much of a 'constructivist' pedagogy was employed in the student led discussions on the topics being presented. My notion of Physics being immutable laws was challenged as much by Einsteins assertion that an imagination was more valuable than knowledge, as one is limited and other is boundless. 

The other point that sprung to mind was the 80/20 law. That 80% of our value comes from 20% of our activity. I was thinking about my Design education the other night, and realised that most of my learning occurred in just a couple of memorable exercises, or powerful assignments. One was drawing icons. Learning to reduce a drawing to its essential items demonstrated powerfully to me the maxim I had heard so many times, that 'less is more' without really understanding it. Of course the paradox is that something as simple as that statement is really so complex that I am still relishing it in the many different facets of my life. However the point is that once I 'understood' the concept it shaped all my designs from that point forward.

So I am now inclined to  believe that all disciplines should be taught as 'contestable', because it is only wrestling with the threshold concepts of a discipline that you can move from mimicry to mastery. This wrestling in a liminal space needs to be encouraged, supported and scaffolded by the learning facilitator until the learner has explorer the route until they are confident enough to scale the summit. Once the concept is conquered a new vista is laid out before you - that memory can never be taken away from you.

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