Box? What box? Breaking the mind-forged manacles.

Probably the only two responses to constant change are to ignore it (shrink back, retrench, go off the grid, become irrelevant, turn inwards, stay put, get run over, and so on) or keep on keeping on with the learning life.

But what happens if the mantra of: Keep moving, just try it, have a go, fail-fail-fail and then succeed and fail again just results in pushing good people over the edge in a frantic effort to keep up and manage the torrent of the new?

I don’t know the answer to that one. I guess we all have to find our own footing in that take-a-deep- breath,  one-step-at-a-time way. It’s all about selectivity, filter finesse and a determination to find balance – what some call the digital diet.

Here are some rather random and rather disconnected thoughts.

What I find helpful is a problem-solving mental template that I adopted a long time ago. It works something like this:

I go back to what I know – let’s say some learning theory – to Jerome Bruner and James Britton  for example – both of whom learned from the incomparable Lev Vygotsky.

If creativity is the capacity to generate new ideas and learning is meaningful adaptation then our brains are hard-wired specialist engines to do both.

If we see learning as adaptation rather than the traditional paradigm of gaining control then we can see discovery in learning as disciplined inquiry – an ongoing venture rather than something finite, fixed and finished.

Vygotsky characterized the development of thought processes as starting with a dialogue of speech and gesture between child and parent. Autonomous thinking  then develops as the child begins to internalize these conversations and begins to run with them independently. At that point the child begins to experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information from which to learn, adapt and grow.  And this is the learning process – a spurting and crawling forward as the child seeks to gain control over the environment and uses success to show that the direction taken is the profitable one.  And failure indicates the dead-end.

(Bruner J. On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962, 90)

The human brain has a natural capacity for observation and inquiry – essential characteristics to the learning process necessary for survival in a changing and complex environment.  This is the realm of curiosity – the capacity for that ongoing observation and questioning. This is what makes us the learners we are – that we possess a brain for learning and adaptive behavior.  And we are capable of adapting effectively depending on our capacity to derive meaning from our world and the experiences we have.

This then is the experiential learning of the edu jargon – the natural capacity of our learning brains. The brain processes new information and reads complex environmental signals and then makes decisions about adaptation.  This is thinking and  this is cognition. – the ability to see patterns and make sense of them as quickly as possible.  We are meaning seeking and pattern seeking by nature in a never-ending search to read our world and make sense of it all.

Destined to search for meaning, our survival depends on the capacity to adapt (learn) and our ability to process that information and make decisions accordingly.

The capacity to process complex environmental stimuli and make decisions that lead to creative or adaptive behavior – is meaningful learning. The act of making sense of new information – the actual processing – is a the highly developed process of thinking.  It involves the managing of all the complex matrix of thinking skills that make up learning: questioning,  organizing,  analyzing,  associating, connecting,  integrating, synthesizing, assessing and evaluating mental data.

From this comes knowledge. Cognition means linking the intellect with the affect of emotion – the way in which an individual sees the world and social reality aka world view. And that, of course, is highly variable.

James Britton had a felicitous phrase for the generation of new thinking (and writing).  He prized what he called “writing at the point of utterance”. In some ways it is akin to Allan Ginsburg’s “first thought, best thought”. The over emphasis on revision, the fetish of the writing process as a set of highly sequenced formal steps short-circuit the access to this thinking in the moment where the new idea trips from the tongue or the pen.  It doesn’t have to stop there of course, but not to allow for the process stops up the well-spring of thinking.

Teaching is like that too, and never the scripted “This is Tuesday we should be studying Belgium. Turn to page 87 of your workbook”.

In his essay, “Shaping at the Point of Utterance,” Britton noted  that concentrating on the reader in teaching writing can disturb the writer’s ability to formulate what he or she wants to say.  Writing is not something to be cleaned up and perfected later, but rather the in-the-moment creating of connections between ideas. An emphasis on the  precise and explicit mastery of the conventions can obstruct effective writing in that it prevents the flow of thinking and expression. And that – after all – is the very foundation of everything. In this sense writing is akin to speech.

This kind of thinking contradicts many of the basic principles behind models of teaching as instruction and especially the teaching of writing where there is an emphasis on the reader’s experience over the writer’s intentions and the resulting emphasis on rules, conventions and step-by-step processes of composition.   And of course it is all antithetical to the growing movement that seeks to de-professionalize the teacher and remove the discretion, judgment creativity and autonomy from teachers.

Teaching at the point of utterance does not mean making it up as you go along. Rather it means highly skilled and knowledgeable teachers and their mentors, colleague and community being able to read the environment, draw on their knowledge and make the decisions in the moment about what it best to do next in order to help children along the pathways of learning. It means respect for teachers, trust in the learning process, high expectations, and that learning in community (aka school) requires trust, relationships, dialogue and purpose. And of course experiential opportunity balanced with professional judgement and reflection.

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