It’s Week 1 of the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course. This is a massively open online course led by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. I believe 1900 people have signed up for the course, so it really is huge.
With something this big, no single person can follow all the conversations or absorb all the information. It’s simply not possible. I’m planning to try to delve more deeply into a few conversations, rather than skimming lightly on the surface of many.
This week, I’m taking that to perhaps an extreme level: it’s one particular phrase and a comment about it that caught my attention. I had read Stephen’s What Connectivism Is previously, but was intrigued by the embedded comments today. Gina Minks and Diego Leal used Diigo’s sticky notes to add comments on the reading. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that you can see their annotations unless you have the Diigo toolbar installed. I want to share a snippet of the conversation here though, so anyone can read it.
Stephen argues in his post about understanding being no “more than the process of making connections”:
The point is:
– there are no mental models per se (that is, no systematically constructed rule-based representational systems)
– and what there is (ie., connectionist networks) is not built (like a model) it is grown (like a plant) (Color emphasis mine)
Gina highlighted the phrase at the end, starting with “not built,” and added this comment:
I’m not sure I agree with this. If I need to learn something, sometimes I really need to work at thinking about the new information, trying to tie it to something else I already know, or look for more information to sort the new information out in my head. It is definitely work – I search for the connections in my existing frame of knowledge, and then look through all the relevant networks I have for something to help me learn the new information. To me, his is definitly more than just “growing” a new mental model.
Here’s my response:
If you’re connecting it to existing knowledge, isn’t that sort of like a new branch growing from an existing tree? I’m not sure it’s clear here, but from Downes’ other writing, I think this is more about it growing internally, driven by the learner, rather than constructed externally. I admit I struggle with this metaphor though, and I’m not sure I quite get what he’s saying. I don’t think Downes would deny that learning can be work, but he would likely characterize that work as growing rather than building.
It may be more helpful to think of it in terms of networks of people rather than what’s happening inside your head. If you try to build a network based on a model, from the top down according to rules, is it going to be successful, or will it always be artificial and forced? On the other hand, if you can provide an environment where relationships and connections between people naturally form, you grow an organic network.
What if learning, networks of thoughts or whatever, happens the same way as networks of people grow?
I’m still not convinced that I’m not completely off-base here trying to comprehend Stephen’s argument, let alone whether I think mental models exist or not. It’s an intriguing metaphor though, especially since I do tend to be constructivist and talk about learning in constructivist terms.
What do you think: does learning grow or is it built? What metaphor for learning makes the most sense to you?
Update: This discussion continues at Metaphors and Language of Learning.
Image: ‘Reaching out‘