Whilst working in Singapore this week, i’m exploring learning, knowledge and meaning from a variety of angles. Yesterday we looked at how meaning can emerge from apparent chaos, how learning is based upon good communication and, perhaps, understanding how what we do relates to what others do. Today, i want to explore the foundations of knowledge and meaning.
Sentosa is a resort island and it’s new. A collection of themed hotels, leisure attractions, swimming pools and shops vie for your attention. Everything is clean, developed, integrated, smooth, clad in stone and glass. So far today, i’ve not left this enclave, in fact, i’ve not left this building. I’ve travelled up three floors and descended the same distance underground, every step carpeted, every corridor and spacious hallway lit by electric light, every escalator moving me between identikit zones.
It’s a tightly defined, unified experience. There are no layers of history here: one story to be told, one meaning, as Freddie would say, one vision.
I’m used to reading the meaning in buildings: looking at the layout, the materials, the location and the physical scars to determine it’s age and history. Massive medieval timbers, scrawny Victorian rafters, Inglenook fireplaces or asbestos tiles: each tells part of the story that i can reconstruct. Each is a chapter in the book. But here, the story is simple: it’s all new, told for the first time.
Meaning is constructed slowly as our knowledge builds. At the conference today, some ideas are very familiar: i know the materials, i know how to build this story, whilst others are alien, others use unfamiliar language, unfamiliar concepts, the story is alien to me, it’s too new, i am disconnected, i have no foundations.
In the building i start to see some cracks: the service doors that lead to bare concrete corridors, the panels removed from the wall where the lighting is being fixed, the scurrying figures of the hidden workers, people who flit in and out, discretely carrying toolboxes, connected through earpieces, workers oiling and patching the dream.
As you learn to read the environment, you see the cracks, you can start to deconstruct the meaning of the place, to understand more than just the physical environment, start to understand the meaning.
Learning can be like this sometimes: you need to find the cracks and then leverage them. When a subject is totally new to us, we don’t have the frames of references. If my skills are in understanding meaning by deconstructing the materials, i am stumped when the thing has a unified facade. I either need to find new tools or search for the cracks. Once we find meaning, however small, we can start to grow it, much like when we start reading around a new topic. First we are dependant upon the views of others, learning from how they think, familiar just with their stories, but as time goes by we start to find the connections, to feel our way carefully into the cracks.
In time, we are able to start adding onto the building ourselves: maybe just repainting a wall, maybe adding a new wing. As the alien concepts become simply more tools in our toolkit, we change: learning changes us. After i have learnt and mastered something new, a new concept or idea, i am different as a result. I can’t unlearn it (a term i detest in organisational learning). I may be able to refine it or learn something new, but the very act of learning has changed me.
It’s like archaeology: when you excavate, you destroy the strata and the strata are what give the artefacts meaning. If one pot is on top of another pot, separated by a dark layer of earth, it may be that the first pot was buried in a fire, when the house burnt down and was replaced by a new house, built on top of the first. The juxtaposition of the layers is what gives the artefact meaning. It’s contextual. By it’s nature, digging both pots out destroys that context (hence why we have to document it: so we can analyse the juxtaposition now but also so that there is evidence for others to reinterpret it later). Learning destroys ignorance: we can look back and see what we didn’t know, but we can’t unlearn it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean our newly constructed meaning is ‘right’, but it may be the best we can do with the evidence to hand.
When we are looking at how people learn, we need to consider how new the building is: is this knowledge that has been constructed over time, or is it new? Does the learner have the right tools to insert into the cracks, or do we need to teach that too? Do we need to explore different ways of learning?
For myself, some of the learning at the conference this week has been very familiar, stories i know, stories that are familiar, that i can read. The meaning is already there, although i may enjoy the retelling and indeed the accent and tone of voice it is delivered in. Other stories are totally new and, like the architecture, alien and impenetrable to me. These are the ones i need to work at carefully to unlock.
Meaning emerges based upon our foundation of existing knowledge and ability to use our tools to explore and construct it. As our knowledge builds, we may reinterpret our understanding, arriving at new meaning.
As i talked to several people about Sentosa today, other stories emerged: someone who knew it when it was an old theme park, before development, before it was re-imagined. As i gathered these stories, i reinterpreted the island in a different way: no longer one story, but several. A story about aspiration and a dream. The story of an emerging country, not yet fifty years old. A story about what it is and what it wants to be.