Learning Science: Mapping Learning

I’ve nearly completed the new module i’m building on Learning Science, which forms part of my new Modern Learning Capability Programme: i have been #WorkingOutLoud and sharing the content as i go, and this piece if from towards the end of the module. In the third and final section, we build an individual Map of Learning, with a view to understanding how our platform and personal discipline as a learning scientist can inform this. Below, i share my own map for 2019, and the expanded text around the ‘Knowledge’ section.

Learning: Knowledge

In an overly simplistic view, i have positioned knowledge as the building blocks, with a sense that they can be picked up, and even exchanged or traded. This is a convenient fiction, but with some degree of truth: i can learn something, and share it with you. Whilst not physical rocks, these conceptual suggest nonetheless have mass and momentum of their own.

Within the space of Knowledge, i’m considering three elements: ‘Bias’, ‘Application’, and ‘Meaning’.

Knowledge: Bias

If knowledge is a foundation, then whatever knowledge we have, or lack, impacts the end result, so we should consider aspects of context, presence, or absence. We would also need to consider the role of consciousness, and subconscious action, which swerves us into neuroscience, and cognitive psychology. Bias is not simply about the obvious topics of diversity and equality, but also reales to weighting bias, where our view is built upon uneven foundations.

A simple view would be this: neurologists such as David Eagleman present a view of consciousness which is multi layered. They indicate that consciousness is a story that is told by our brain, to ourselves, built upon a whole series of nested ‘zombie sub-systems’. Essentially, as we grow, and learn, we build out these functional systems, and once they reach a level of complexity, consciousness emerges, written upon these foundations. This view can give us an interesting view of bias, discrimination, and social cohesion, whereby knowledge is important. It may indicate that providing spaces to learn, and experience, difference, we are likely to make real shifts in consciousness.

One could interpret this work (alongside a lot of other work that shows how knowledge changes the structure of the brain) to mean that knowledge is always important, and that a core role of learning is to push as much knowledge as possible to the individual, and that the knowledge itself changes the person.

But we could take other views: aspects of sociology, which relate to social cohesion, may indicate that knowledge alone does not shift our perspective, because we are not logical (or ‘constructed’) creatures. Take Climate Change: i can push as much knowledge as i like in your direction, but i may not change your perception (as either a believer, or denier, of Climate Change). Because we are not logical!

Questions such as this veer towards belief, and membership: some things we believe because that belief is part of our dominant cultural landscape (role of women), or because we crave membership of dominant groups, so we conform.

This view of bias would indicate that our challenge is not specifically to teach more knowledge, but rather to address questions of social norms, membership, identity, conformity, etc. This would steer us towards anthropology and sociology for insight.

But we may also consider just how much bias is conscious, or unconscious, which could push us towards the theory of Unconscious Bias, and implicit association: this research, conducted for over 30 years, presents a view that we develop innate, implicit, associations, which (in the language of the research), give us a view of what is ‘normal’. But the research methodology itself has come in for criticism, so it’s validity may not be intact.

My Learning Science foundations:

  • Neuroscience (foundations of consciousness)
  • Cognitive psychology (identity)
  • Sociology (social structures, membership, collective views, social consequence)
  • Unconscious bias [1] – a theory that may provide a structure to address bias

Knowledge: Meaning

The relationship between Knowledge, and Meaning, is something that has fascinated, and informed, my own view of learning for many years, and provides a foundation for my understanding of Social Learning, and the role (and importance) rehearsal spaces in learning. Indeed, i wrote a whole book on ‘Learning, Knowledge, and Meaning’, trying to make sense of this, much of which (in the spirit of #WorkingOutLoud) i would now rewrite as my own ‘meaning’ has evolved.

The simplest way i express it is that Knowledge is a building block, and Meaning is the building. We synthesise, and ‘sense make’ knowledge, to create meaning. So Knowledge is picked up, and Meaning is created. I hope it will be clear how this view supports Social Learning: the communities, spaces, and structure, of Scaffolded Social Learning provide both access to knowledge, and also the sense making support, to create new meaning.

IF you subscribe to this view, it informs our view of learning, and our views on things like ‘digital skills’, or (as i would express it) modern learning skills: we need to be able to access knowledge, we have to understand about validity, we need to access, build, and function within, diverse communities, we need to access challenge, as well as agreement, and we need to master storytelling to share our new meaning.

Our view of Learning Science may inform this in many ways:

  • Epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge itself, may provide a foundation.
  • Sociology supports our efforts to build communities for learning.
  • Economics may provide insight into how knowledge is transacted, as well as ideas for how social currencies may operate within these hidden social structures. Or it may provide insight into how we bridge back into formal currencies of an organisation [2].


In my own map of Learning, i’ve split Application out into a separate thread, and i suppose you could view this as an exercise in calibration: so Knowledge is the building blocks, and Meaning is what we create out of this (within our sense making communities), but that is not the end point: as we put this knowledge into action, we add in subsequent layers of meaning, in an additive and ongoing process.

To put it another way, there are two forces at work: one is the mechanism of learning (driven by codification and efficiency e.g. forming new habits), whilst the other is about adaptation and change (which is actively informed by emerging experience and new knowledge).

I’ve used the term Application to describe this: the process of calibrating what we have learned already, against the ongoing friction of experience. In this map of learning, it’s a reminder to keep myself honest: capability is not one learned and embedded body of knowledge, but rather is an ever evolving, contextual, and individual, experience.

I should stress that if we relate this back to the notions of Learning Philosophy, this is not simply a constructivist approach, but rather an emergent one: it’s easy to view ‘application’ as the process of putting knowledge into action, but in my map it’s a more involved process. The very act of putting it into action changes the thing itself, which for me at any rate captures what it is to learn, and also explains why learning is such an individual experience.

Indeed, it may be this very aspect of Application which sees the purist view of knowledge as a coherent body of work, fragmented into the reality of learning being highly individualised and more something that we forge ourselves, than something we pick up from others.

My Learning Science foundations in this context would relate to Cognitive Psychology (habits).


[1] Donald Clark, one of my favourite acerbic writers, and self professed debunker of academic myth, presents a strong case here, but other views exist too: https://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/2018/06/unconscious-bias-training-waste-of-time.html

[2] I’m personally very interested in these Social Currencies right now. You can read about it in this piece: https://julianstodd.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/the-future-of-work-belief-and-currency/ although you should note that i share this work as a THEORY: i do not yet have a solid evidence base behind it. So you will need to decide if it is appealing, or actually valid.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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11 Responses to Learning Science: Mapping Learning

  1. mmasarech says:

    Thank you for this. And thank you for the link to the unconscious bias piece.
    Mary Ann

    MA Masarech

    +1 203.521.7766 | Skype: mmasarech | e: mmasarech@gpstrategies.com
    P Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail

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