Knowledge, Learning and Community: Elements of Effective Learning

This is the title of Stephen Downes’ presentation to Week 25 of ChangeMooc

Here is the link to a Recording of the session

Also here: Slides, audio and Elluminate video recording

My notes from the session

What is knowledge? It is not memory. It is not facts or laws, which are slippery. It is not in the network. It IS the network, the recognition of the emergence of patterns. We are recognising beings. Knowing is NOT being able to NOT recognise (the double negative is important).

Emergence is how we see patterns of connectivity, how we recognise patterns as something,

Patterns form in different ways, e.g. Hebbian Associationism (based on concurrency), Back Propagation (based on desired outcome), Boltzman (based on ‘settling’ , annealing). Experience results in forming and breaking connections.

Meaning is contained within the mind itself. We cannot tie meaning to what it directly represents. The external referent is not important. It’s what is in our own mind that is important.

Theorists confuse public and personal knowledge. Personal knowledge is in our own mind. Public knowledge is out there in artefacts. They are different. There is no transformation from one to the other.

Knowledge is the organisation of connections in networks.

If a human mind can come to ‘know’, and if a human mind is essentially a network, then any network can come to ‘know’, and for that matter so can society. (Slide 13)

04-03-12 Correction: The comment from Matthias Melcher below has prompted me to listen to the recording of the session and present this more accurately. This is what Stephen said in the session about personal and public knowledge.

Knowledge is the organisation of a set of connections in a network. It follows directly that if there are different kinds of networks there are different kinds of knowledge. There are two distinct kinds of knowledge (but not only two kinds). Our personal knowledge is the organisation of the set of connections in our own mind. Public knowledge is the organisation of all the artifacts in society. The organisation of society is not the same as the organisation of a personal mind.

What is learning? Learning is to practice and reflect (teaching is to model and demonstrate). We can only create an environment in which learning can occur. For personal learning we use the social network (physical) to create neuronal connections (personal).

Developing personal knowledge is more like exercising than like inputting, absorbing or remembering (Slide 17)

We recognise neural connections by performance in the environment/network. A personal learning environment is one in which we immerse ourselves into the workings of a community. Learning is ‘being’ in an environment.

What is community?  We don’t need a personal learning environment to engage with the community. We do not need to all do things the same way. The main thing is that we are connected. Knowledge emerges from the set of connections between us. Groups work on the premise of collaboration and sameness, but networks and community work on the premise of cooperation and connection.

Networks work on the basis of four basic principles – autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction. Without these, the network will stagnate and die.

What stood out for me? One thing Stephen said really jumped out at me.

Learning is becoming more and more like the person who is doing the teaching.

I think I must have misunderstood the intention behind this statement, as on one level I find it disturbing – and on another just completely counter to my own experience.

As a teacher, I want learners to develop their own identities. The last thing I want is for them to turn out like me! Whilst some learners will choose to model themselves on their teachers, many others will make a conscious choice to be as unlike their teacher as possible. The issue is surely more about how learners develop and recognize their own identities than becoming like the person who is doing the teaching?

04-03-12 Clarification: Again, in response to Matthias Melcher’s comment  here is a bit more about what Stephen said in the session:

A person who practices in the environment is going to come to be like the person who is doing the teaching.  The person who is teaching is not presenting simply facts but presenting an entire way of being. The person who is learning is watching this and attempting to replicate it.

04-03-12 Further comment from me. I am aware that there is some risk in sharing my notes. They will be read ‘out of context’ and obviously interpreted according to the personal perceptions of the reader in their context and I am not and never will be ‘infallible’ in my interpretations. Stephen himself has said that he knows that his writing and presentations are likely to be misinterpreted however careful he is with his use of words.

I was also reminded during this presentation of a comment made in the most recent Networked Learning Hotseat  about how ‘we notice things when we are ready’.  I have heard Stephen talk about some of these ideas a few times before, but this time I noticed things I haven’t noticed before  – must be patterns emerging?

14 thoughts on “Knowledge, Learning and Community: Elements of Effective Learning

  1. francesbell March 1, 2012 / 11:51 am

    That is a really interesting quote from Stephen Downes. At one level I could see that from the point of view of a teacher modelling thinking/writing/talking behaviours then the learner’s behaviours aligning with the teacher’s behaviours could be seen as learning. However, like you I jib at the thought that this might apply to identity – also seems to contradict the principle of diversity. But then, I am always pleased to see examples of how those principles are problematic in the messy real world as I feel that they are often presented unproblematically eg in Groups/Networks discussions.

  2. Carmen Tschofen March 1, 2012 / 5:01 pm

    I am going to take quick leap at interpretation with the “becoming like” statement, in that I have always understood this in the idea of coming to “think like” those who are immersed in the modeled/performed discipline: to “think like a historian,” for example. (What this entails is actually the subject of debate with each discipline, I’d wager.) This becomes, perhaps, a bit trickier when thinking begins to cross disciplines, which seems to result in different kinds of connections– and it’s hard to point obviously to models for this in terms of a defined/named role, but yet such thinking does exist. In whichever case, I could see where this idea becomes even trickier as it raises questions about the very existence of teachers. If the implication that learning is best accomplished with practitioners/modelers with whom one (temporarily or otherwise) aligns oneself, then the idea of “teaching teachers to teach” becomes problematic. Is there an implied question– if it is possible to achieve alignment, observation and modeling through connectivity or networks or personal circumstances or whatever we want to call it, is a “teacher” as we currently understand this role a necessary intermediary in learning anything beyond teaching itself? And then what is it that needs “teaching” per se? Do, for example, historians need to be “taught” if they don’t intend on teaching history? The quote does refer to a “teacher,” so maybe the question is to what degree one might consider teaching an overt (and necessary) act towards or for another person, and to what degree it is an act of modeling and alignment in mutual experience. If alignment is a key to learning, do we redefine “teacher,” or do we redefine “teaching” …or?

    OK, sufficiently tangled for now:-)

  3. jennymackness March 1, 2012 / 6:02 pm

    Hi Frances – thanks for your comment. I’m not at all sure that I interpreted Stephen’s comment as he intended. I did make a comment about finding it disturbing in the chat, but since he was presenting, there wasn’t any time to have any dialogue about his comment.

    It is interesting though how one simple statement in an hour’s presentation can cause a jolt in one’s thinking.

    Would you be able expand on the idea that this contradicts the principle of diversity?

  4. jennymackness March 1, 2012 / 6:12 pm

    Hi Carmen – yes – ‘coming to ‘think’ like those who are modelling’ makes sense to me, but hopefully without losing any sense of personal identity.

    > If the implication that learning is best accomplished with practitioners/modelers with whom one (temporarily or otherwise) aligns oneself, then the idea of “teaching teachers to teach” becomes problematic.

    But I don’t think I’ve quite understood what you are getting at here.

    >Do, for example, historians need to be “taught” if they don’t intend on teaching history?

    This would depend on whether you think historians are historians before they have been taught or learned any history? Do you need to be taught to be a historian?

    You’ve got me all tangled up now 🙂


  5. Matthias Melcher March 1, 2012 / 8:40 pm

    When you read Stephen’s original writing, two things become more accurate again: “like a person who already knows” is not the same as “like the person who is doing the teaching”, and this is not the same as “like the teacher”. Secondly, “Public Knowledge: The organization of artifacts” (slide 13) is not the same as “Public knowledge is out there in artefacts.” It is out there in the CONNECTIONS between the artifacts.

  6. francesbell March 2, 2012 / 7:20 am

    Jenny, although I am interested in the discussion, I don’t want to pursue it as we are talking about what we think Stephen Downes meant, and I wasn’t even at the session and haven’t an hour to listen to the recording. It seems like a good time for Stephen to explain to you what he meant or you to ask him.
    Please don’t take this as dismissive.
    What I can say for myself is that I find the principles presented unproblematically and I don’t think they are. A group of us explored a range of contradictions around openness at ALT-C last year (maybe you were there). My own view is that we cannot take all of those principles as unproblematically ‘good’ per se. It’s not right for you to prevent my ideas from being ‘open’ unless maybe I am spreading untruths about someone else. How ‘open’ are broadcast OERs when the creator doesn’t ever engage with the audience or use the broadcast OERs of others? I am sure you get my drift.

  7. jennymackness March 4, 2012 / 2:20 pm

    Hi Matthias – thanks for your comment. I have listened to the recording and made some corrections to the post.

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