Whilst eating chips on the quay at Swanage this weekend, i was approached by a teenager with a questionnaire. I guess he was on a school geography trip, asking people whether they were residents or tourists. As the sun got hotter and the seagull kept a piratical eye on my lunch, i prepared myself for the onslaught of further questioning by his companions, but there was none. He appeared to be operating alone.
It got me thinking about the dynamics of learning, how sometimes it’s a solitary activity, whilst at other times it most firmly takes part in a crowd.
Formal learning is often done through a combination of reading (i nearly said ‘book reading’, but stopped myself when i remembered we’re in the 21st century), and discussion, usually facilitated by a ‘teacher’, in this case, the person who owns the narrative. There may be formal ‘taught’ elements, where knowledge is disseminated through lectures and talks, and there may be collaborative discussion, in seminars or activity based learning.
Essentially, the heart of learning lies in reading other people’s narratives and trying to incorporate them into your own. It lies in understanding the views, research, opinions and assimilations of stories that other people have done and then seeing how they stack up against your own, then adjusting your narrative accordingly.
When i learn alone, this is a simple process, i am simply absorbing what’s written and considering it in isolation. In a group, it’s different. Not only do we have the dynamics of different opinions, but we also have to take into account the way in which people participate or even dominate conversations. Who is the leader? Who is following? Group learning becomes more than just opinion and discussion, it incorporates dynamics of leadership and authority. Who emerges as facilitator? In formal learning situations, the power structure is usually clear, authority residing with the formal institution, learning taking place within the group. When you move into group discussions, especially when not facilitated by the ‘authority’, the situation changes.
The ‘truth’ emerges from discussion, be it discussion of post colonial literature or cognitive behavioural therapy. Individuals will draw on facts and references, but group discussion is a process of emerging consensus, driven by vested interests.
The further we move from ‘formal’, into the informal spaces of the internet, where groups work collaboratively to learn and support each other, the dynamics of group behaviour play an increasingly important role.
Within any forum or online space, we see the manifestation of familiar character, the opinionated, the people open to new opinion, the noisy, the quiet, the ‘factual’ and the determined. The learning experience is fundamentally different from the formal, classroom experience, but in more ways than just what is (or isn’t) taught. It’s different in terms of the dynamics of the group and who influences or decides what’s true.
Watching Louis Theroux on his tour of an American prison got me thinking about these types of power structures within gangs (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7181055.stm), where there was even an explicit statement of who ‘wasn’t’ the leader in a gang that clearly had leadership.
The way that people interact, whether in prison gangs or financial seminars is fascinating, and worth a moments thought as we look at learning.