I was a latecomer to the formal theories of education and learning; in my formative years I never read Dewey, Piaget, or Bloom. I am still convinced that I coined the term “problem-finding” one afternoon in 1985 as I ran our two dogs on a sage-covered hillside; certainly I had never heard it used before as a critical skill in the classroom. I, like many others, have grown my understanding of how great learning occurs by observing students and adults over decades, and connecting those observations and outcomes.
So now I am playing catch-up to the rest of you, growing as a professional educator, learning more about educational theory. This blog by “writer, philosopher, educator, journalist” Stephen Downes connected many dots using formal terms that may resonate with the educational theorists. (Thanks to Will Richardson and Angel Kytle for Tweeting out the link.) Downes argues that “connectivism” is the modality of learning most attuned to our students’ current and future needs:
According to connectivism, learning is the formation of connections in a network. The learning theory, therefore, in the first instance, explains how connections are formed in a network.
When I say of connectivism that ‘learning is the formation of connections in a network’ I mean this quite literally. The sort of connections I refer to are between entities (or, more formally, ‘nodes’). They are not (for example) conceptual connections in a concept map. A connection is not a logical relation. It is something quite distinct.
A connection exists between two entities when a change of state in one entity can cause or result in a change of state in the second entity.
Many of us are arguing that connectivity has never been more important in learning than it is now…now that connectivity is utterly integrated into our lives in ways it has never been before. Connectivity not only provides a medium and mechanism for the efficient exchange of knowledge, but for the very fabric of our ability to change and innovate. From the systems work of Adrian Bejan to a dozen prominent authors of innovation management, to my description of the evolving neural network of the cognitosphere, we understand how learning and organizational evolution are grounded in the development of shared connections.
The question of how learning occurs is therefore the question of how connections are formed between entities in a network.
This is a very different model of learning from that proposed by other learning theories.
- In behaviourism, learning takes place through operant conditioning, where the learner is presented with rewards and consequences.
- In instructivism, the transfer of knowledge takes place through memorization and rote. This is essentially a process of presentation and testing.
- In constructivism, there is no single theory describing how the construction of models and representations happens – the theory is essentially the proposition that, given the right circumstances, construction will occur.
Downes lays out how connections are formed between entities in a network; it is a roadmap for teachers to use in constructing highly effective learning environments:
- Hebbian rules – ‘what fires together wires together’ – neurons that frequently share the same state then to form connections between each other
- Contiguity – neurons that are located near to each other tend to form connections, creatinhg a clustering effect
- Back Propagation – signals sent in reverse direction through a network, aka ‘feedback’, modify connections created by forward propagated signals
- Boltzmann – networks seek to attain the lowest level of kinetic energy
The actual physical descriptions of these theories vary from network to network – in human neurons, it’s a set of electrical-chemical reactions, in social networks, it’s communications between individual people, on computer networks it’s variable values sent to logical objects.
Downes ends with a loud reminder: connectivism has “nothing to do with ‘looking up the answer on Google’ or any of the surface characteristics commonly associated with it.” Yes, we are connected via search engines to a vast learning environment. But what I drew from Downes’ post is that the role of connections in learning is deeply rooted in foundational theory that was valid way before the advent of the Internet.