Words convey ideas, but the meaning is something we construct from it. We often turn to written sources as our first source of information on a subject, but those sources won’t necessarily give us the ‘truth’, but rather a narration on the subject, a version of events, a collection of facts that may contribute to our understanding of the truth.
I’m on a train this morning, travelling with Gez. Whilst i’m writing, he is reading his bible. The bible is a meaningful text for many people, but meaning different things to each of them. It is subject to interpretation as we construct our own truth. For some, it’s a guide to how they live their lives, for others, just an interesting historical document. For many, it’s something they’ve heard of but never read.
I’m interested in that process of creating meaning, in how we read things, learn things and construct our ‘truths’. For Gez, as for many of us, the process of creating meaning, of building our understanding, is a combination of study of original texts paired with discussion within a community. Our own reading can build our own knowledge, but it will only ever be part of a wider picture. No matter how much we read, our knowledge of ‘facts’ will always be incomplete. Through conversations, by being part of a community, we are able to bring our knowledge to bear alongside others, to work together to create meaning.
For Gez there is a third element: an internal guide through his own belief. This spirit something that he, like many, believes can guide him. Some subjects we view as having absolute truth: the atomic weight of caesium is a constant. Once i’ve discovered it, i don’t have to revise my opinion over time. Other ‘truths’ are changeable, subjective, evolving. My view on the death penalty is a kind of ‘truth’, but it’s not absolute, not shared by everyone. Indeed, Gez and i reflected on the different types of truth and the ways that we chase them: he is a mathematician by training and i have a scientific background, so we are both familiar with methodologies for ‘discovering’ truth.
In maths, there are constants. You learn it and you know it. There may be different ways of proving things, but the meaning is there, just waiting to be discovered, for us to learn it. In many other fields, from religion to philosophy to drama and art, meaning is subjective, meaning is constructed by the individuals and the group. It is never absolute.
Gez and I both find that our learning is carried out partly as an individual activity, through our reading and reflection, but also partly through discussion, through interaction with our communities: maybe a faith group for Gez, maybe a forum like this for me. The interaction is a powerful part of how we develop our understanding, how we create meaning, and this type of social learning is something we need to work to include in our organisational learning solutions.
Thinking and talking about how we learn, reflecting on the processes we follow, be they around our own personal beliefs or about facts and figures, is valuable. We need to understand how the different elements fit together, to reflect on what adds value and to ensure that we reflect those opportunities within formal learning spaces.
As we sit here on the train now, Gez is engaging with his primary sources (his bible has commentaries included, so he is also reviewing those), whilst i am talking to him and, less directly, to you, taking my learning out into the community and using this social discussion as a reflective process, as part of my own attempts to build knowledge and meaning.