Writing, Learning and Social Media (2)

Analysis of language both written and verbal, allows us to see into the motivations, expectations and often the assumptions of our readers and interlocutors. George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton are economists and over the last decade have been developing an area of economics which they called Identity Economics. "When we examine people's decisions from the perspective of their identities and social norms, we get answers to many different economic questions. Who people are and how they think of themselves is key to the decisions that they make. Their identities and norms are basic motivations. We call this approach identity economics." (Ref)

One of the most important considerations in thinking about the language we use is that embedded in what we say and what we write are numerous assumptions about who we are and what we think is important, valuable and also essential to communicate. Our identities define not only how we speak and with what emphasis, but our identities also clearly impact the very subtle nuances of intention and expectation. In other words, language counts and in ways that are not that visible and clear. 

Dialogue is the heart of language. What is often not acknowledged is that ambiguity is also crucial to the way we speak and how we write. Most of what we say in conversation is contingent, waiting in suspended animation for a response. We are never sure that the language we use actually matches what others hear. And, more often than not, there is no match, just an approximation.

I bring up these nuances in our use of language because the enterprise of teaching and learning is integrated with all and more of these composite elements. Take the activity of lecturing as an example. To speak to a large number of people is to engage in one of the most complex of human activities. Aside from the many different people who make up an audience, the dynamics of lecturing, expounding, speaking are determined in large part by a set of variables that are not in the control of the speaker. These variables range from the background of the people listening, to their personal state of mind at the time of the lecture to the state of mind of the lecturer. A good speaker can overcome these variables and bring an audience close to him or her. But most lecturers are profoundly challenged by the flux and flow of the audiences they address. So, they invest in the form and content of what they are saying, subjecting language to a set of constraints that may make communication even more difficult.

Akerlof and Kranton focus on the behavioral constraints produced by identity. They cannot however, dig more deeply into what motivates people who make choices of varying sorts depending on circumstance and position. Our modes of communication resist the simplicity of what behavior tells us about motivations and identity. They make the same mistake as many teachers which is to presume that we can read backwards from how individuals represent themselves to the reasons why they act in certain ways. Teachers know how difficult that is because their students rarely duplicate the intentions of the teacher. The challenge of teaching is how to navigate through this rather labyrinthine  and sometimes impenetrable challenge of language and understanding. (Part Three will delve into this issue in a more expansive fashion.)

The Student of Learning (1)

To me, the experience of learning is dependent upon the context in which it takes place. Educational institutions have developed in tandem with a series of grand expectations about their impact and usefulness. That history is bound up with the hope that there will be social and economic benefits from what students learn and what they become. I use the word hope advisedly because the history of education is littered with the remains of many failed experiments to fulfil those goals. There have also been many successes. The last twenty years have been difficult for the educational system.

Expectations have grown and at the same time, institutions have had great difficulty in keeping pace with demands from all sectors of our society. This is not due to a lack of effort. Quite the contrary, the story of education in the 20th century is about educators trying, at every level, to resolve the issues of learning, empowerment and student development. The problem is that institutions do not change willingly and when changes occur, they are often difficult to maintain.

The most important question that needs to be answered about the future of the educational system is how we are going to encourage the creation of new paradigms of learning. Learning is largely based on the complex circumstances and context of classroom and school culture. Learning is also profoundly affected by the ways in which educational institutions are governed, as well as the expectations of students. This mix of features is made more difficult by the challenges that faculty and staff face in keeping the educational system in good shape. The complexity of all of these elements, their interaction and the challenge of planning for improvement have become central features of the debate on the future of education as we know it.

Context is about stories and in most instances, the stories that surround and underlie learning are rather more ephemeral than we would want to believe. Many of our theories of learning and so much of the practice of teaching does not account for the profoundly subjective nature of the school experience. The desire to convey information and the social and cultural pressure to make learning into something that can be validated empirically makes it appear as if subjectivity is a distraction. It is not supposed to matter if students are experiencing some of the most turbulent periods of their lives as they move through the educational system. Somehow, they have to suffer through all of the expectations of the system and of their families, all of the social pressures and physical and psychological transformations that transitional periods of life engender and still succeed. Thankfully, many do. Because of a variety of societal pressures, the complexity of the context that I have just described is often marginalized in discussions of education.

If you add in the various layers of experience that teachers go through as they transit from one stage of life to another, then it becomes clear why there is no simple way of describing how, or even whether, learning takes place inside educational institutions. This situation has been made even more difficult by the fact that over the last decade the demands for change in schools has become very intense. The subjective space of the teacher, for example, from family problems to illness is more often than not kept in the background of institutional life. Yet, communication cannot be abstracted from the realities that people are experiencing and from the pressures that they are under. I am not suggesting a focus here. Rather, I am discussing a territory that is more complex than we are often ready to admit.