The metaphors we use in our language tell us a lot about our assumptions. I’m going to examine a few of the metaphors we use to talk about coaching and learning that reveal assumptions we may not even be aware of. Those of us who keep up with ecological psychology and more non-representational approaches to learning are aware of that our culture is currently possessed by a pervasive mind-as-computer narrative. Because this is part of a philosophy with very deep roots, we may sometimes endorse versions of it without even realizing it. Here are a few assumptions about learning that I had in the past.
1. Information must be transferred in the form of some basic unit
It’s not difficult to imagine your process of reading this as units of information (words) being encoded by me, transferred through the internet, and then decoded by you. That’s the intuitive metaphor for learning – there is some basic unit of information that must pass between teacher and student. There are several assumptions hidden in this metaphor. First, that the information being transacted exists in some outside or objective reality the way this webpage is stored in a server. Second, it assumes that what we experience must always be explained in terms of basic units. This is a belief called atomism. At various points in history, science has tried to plug things like neurons or genes into this role, but it has always come up short.
2. Information must be stored somewhere
This is closely related to the first assumption. When I first began reading on skill acquisition and saw that all the research pointed to skills being relational or interactional I instantly thought, “ok, that’s great but where are those encoded or stored.” It’s very difficult to escape the idea that there has to be something material and unchanging that we acquire. A deep understanding of learning requires that relationships be considered primary to units.
3. Teaching is different from learning
If we follow the “transfer of units” model, then it logically follows that teachers are those who have accumulated large stores of these units of information and can then dole them out to students. If this is true then teaching and learning are almost opposites. Learning is a filling up. Teaching is a giving out. Teaching is something you do when you’re done learning and your hard drive is full of bytes of information. Students learn best when the teacher or coach is simultaneously engaged in their own learning process. While the teacher is an authority and has skills and expertise that the students don’t, the teacher’s focus is on the learning about how the students learn. Instead of a dull regurgitation of known facts, the teacher is part of a dynamic interaction where understanding is co-created.
The great developmentalists such as Dewey and Vygotsky understood how complex and awe-inspiring the learning process really is. If we understand that learning isn’t something that happens inside of a person or brain, but rather the transformation of the learner-goals-environment landscape then simplistic metaphors become inadequate. Sadly, more nuanced views of learning are often misinterpreted as being only hands-off or permissive. Dewey was particularly worried about this problem and suggested that teachers intervene in the learning process with the guideline of promoting freedom that lead to more freedom, or opportunities that lead to more opportunities. Vygotsky also understood the importance of guidance in the learning process and thought that teachers should help students into something he called the “zone of proximal development” which has strong connections to the idea of the flow channel in Csikszentmihalyi’s skills-challenges matrix. None of these thinkers suggest that learning is either transfer of units or an unsupervised free-for-all.
“Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than learning. His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him, if by “learning” we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information.”