Meaning is the driver of learning

This is a quote from Etienne Wenger when he spoke to the FSLT12 MOOC in June. The recording is on YouTube and there are further details on the FSLT WordPress site .

Etienne briefly illustrated what he meant by referring to his son’s ‘meaningless’ biology homework on cells. I found this interesting as one of the more meaningful aspects of my own education was the study of biology – for me what could be more meaningful than the study of life – and within that the study of histology – related to the study of genetics, which I remember as being fascinating, since I could easily relate it to ‘me’ – why I have brown eyes, cannot roll my tongue and so on.

Next week the Academic BEtreat  starts and we have been asked to prepare by reading at least one section from Etienne’s 1998 book.  I have read the section on ‘Identity’ and commented on that in a blog post a couple of weeks ago.  Another section that we could choose to read is on ‘Meaning’ (p. 43-71). Slow reading is required for this book. Each sentence is densely packed with ideas. It took me a two hour train journey from Lancaster to Birmingham last week to read that small section; I am now on the train again and have two hours to digest the reading and make this post. Quite a luxury!

The key words in this section for me are: Practice, reification, meaning, negotiation and duality.

Some of the key ideas (or highlights for me) as I understand them are that:

  • we experience the world and our engagement within it as meaningful through practice (p.51)
  • meaning occurs through an ongoing process of negotiation, which does not necessarily involve language
  • fundamental to the negotiation of meaning are participation and reification
  • participation is a source of identity (p.56)
  •  ‘participation is not something we turn on and off’ …’the meanings of what we do are always social’ (p.57)
  • reification gives our meanings an independent existence and shapes our experience. These independent forms become a focus for negotiation. Reification as a constituent of meaning is always incomplete.
  • participation and reification are a duality, not opposites, not on a spectrum, not substitutions for each other, not translations of each other, not classificatory categories. They are complementary.
  • ‘The communicative ability of artifacts depends on how the work of negotiating meaning is distributed between reification and participation’. (p.64)

So from this can we say that cell biology for Etienne’s son was not meaningful because the requirements of practice, negotiation, reification and participation were not fulfilled, or was it just that he was badly taught, or simply that histology doesn’t capture his imagination in the same way as another discipline, such as music, might

My memory of histology is from my university days, where most of my study was solitary – working in the library for long hours – which was broken up by periods of sitting in vast lecture halls looking at the back of the lecturer writing in chalk on a blackboard so far away it was difficult to see. So I remember participation as passive. I don’t remember any overt negotiation, although I must have negotiated meaning with myself and the reification must have been the required essay, which I don’t remember discussing with anyone. According to Etienne ‘The meanings of what we do are always social’ (p.57) and even drastic isolation is given meaning through social participation. He also says that reification can be a process as well as a product.

So in the BEtreat I hope we will be able to discuss further

  • the relationship between meaning and social learning and, if I can make meaning in isolation, what exactly do we mean by ‘social’ learning and participation?
  • the relationship between meaning and identity. Do I have any control over my identity and the meaning I make and if so how does this relate to participation, negotiation and reification?
  • how is meaning affected by culture and context?

6 thoughts on “Meaning is the driver of learning

  1. Esty Feldman July 23, 2012 / 9:42 pm

    Interesting . I don’t quite understand how self learning can be social, but it is fascinating to know how.

  2. Glenyan July 23, 2012 / 11:48 pm

    Hi Jenny; interesting post, especially the last major paragraph there where you describe being engaged despite your isolation. I often find when I study by myself, either by reading or with audio, there’s a level of participatory reading or listening that I can achieve. Maybe it involves a certain type of Socratic questions going on in my own head, almost subconsciously, or a desire to find out what happens next kind of thing. I don’t always hit this level, so it’s not a given and probably depends on numerous factors. I think you’re right to question the meaning (liberal use) of the word ‘social’ here; there are a lot of strategies for participation. It’s almost as if we can recreate social conditions by engaging with content in particular ways…or is it the other way around?

    I like the concept here, too. I often like to think about how Intention is the Driver of Education, so this has me contemplating the connection. Thanks.

  3. jennymackness July 24, 2012 / 4:41 pm

    Hi Esty and Glen – thanks for your comments. Like you I will be interested to see how the discussion develops in the BEtreat next week about the meaning of ‘social learning’. I hope to blog if there is time, but the programme is very packed.

    Thanks for your interest.


  4. elenizazani July 24, 2012 / 8:29 pm

    Hi Jenny, I had a look at the BEtreat website and it reminded it me of the Library camps which have a similar unconference format and they are quite popular and productive in offering new meanings.

    I have put Wagner’s book in my long reading list; it’s good to know that its content is very dense with ideas and requires focus.

    Back to the social engagement and isolation, I feel that physical isolation doesn’t necessarily equate lack of social participation. Of course I have in mind the affordances of Social web and the ease of the online interactions. For instance, during the #fslt12 MOOC all participants were physically isolated but learning occurred even via online social participation. I need to say that interactions were so rich that kept me alert and I certainly didn’t feel isolated.

    I think that nowadays, with the help of technology, we can be physically isolated but still remain engaged and “socially” interactive.

    I will be reading your posts to follow with great interest!

  5. jennymackness July 24, 2012 / 9:12 pm

    Hi Eleni – I agree that interacting online does change the nature of social engagement. Last year I went to California and did the BEtreat face-to-face. I found it hard – the intensity of face-to-face participation for four action packed days was so different to the many days I sit in my office at home with just my laptop for interaction.

    I don’t feel isolated online either. In fact I feel very well connected and what I like about online interaction is that I can more easily control the amount and type of interaction I have online. I can more easily stand back, observe and reflect. I can pick and choose my interactions.

    What I was interested in, in Etienne’s book, was the idea that even in the absence of any connection with others, e.g. in solitary confinement – meaning is through social participation.

    Hopefully we will discuss this further in the BEtreat.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment


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