#LearningFragments – The Staircase of Certainty

Most of the things i truly believe today i believe with a certainty. Sometimes a righteous one. Sometimes an indignant one. And yet they are not always the things that i was certain about yesterday.

There is a naive temptation to view learning in a mechanical sense: that there are ‘foundations’ and ‘building blocks’ as if these are literal things (rather than conceptual ones). There may be progressions of knowledge, and relationship between concepts and understanding, but how transferable or generalisable these are is frequently unclear.

My journey to understanding and competence may not be a route map for you, or for a thousand others. Not least because my context at the point i commence the journey is unique to me.

At best we may be able to define useful progressions: nested sets of knowledge, and understanding, that form a foundation for certain capability, but simple knowledge of that structure is unlikely to be deterministic of capability.

Essentially this means that it is quite difficult to define exactly how ‘learning’ occurs at the macro level of capability: we can start to understand how memories are encoded, or how we effectively convey ideas, but that does not directly equate to ‘understanding’ and ‘meaning’ – the internalised frameworks which form the foundations of our learning.

In this Learning Fragment i’m considering a playful construct: the ‘Staircase of Certainty’. This is one way to consider how we learn – and perhaps may inform our approach to designing scaffolding and structure for learning.

As i said at the start: today i am certain of some things. And yesterday i was certain about things too. In fact, it’s hard to look back to a time that i feel was dominated by uncertainty. We tend to lurch from one platform of certainty to the next.

Perhaps a useful structure and framework to consider learning is therefore to look at how we are disrupted from one space of certainty into the next – and why we tend not to regret, memorialise or reference how previously wrong we were.

Let me use my understanding of politics as an example: when i grew up, i realise that i effortlessly adopted the political views and indignations of my parents. Today my views may be based in that foundation, but they are probably more nuanced – unique to me. Kind of the ‘legacy plus one’. Them plus me.

At no point did i feel particularly adrift, and yet i have learned, and adapted my ‘understanding’ as a result. I have learnt about broader social context, about different global perspectives, and specific political parties and individual doctrine. But to me it has felt like climbing the stairs. Even when the legacy things i believed i no longer think, i do not ridicule my previous self. I simply learned new things.

And interestingly, nobody tested me on them.

I’ve written widely before about the role of disturbance in learning: how it can be found within us (curiosity) or imposed upon us (through formal power or structures of progression – or through crisis).

One strategy we could use in the design of learning is to help people to find that disturbance, and consider how they use it to question their own certainty: essentially to construct a journey whereby people turn each page willingly as they are curious – but to achieve this we may need to recognise that they may turn pages we did not sanction or agree with.

Learning is intensely personal because it re-writes the self. So perhaps i can get people to move through a programme where they honestly consider and evolve their political beliefs – but i am unlikely to be able to get them to just agree with my politics.

I can get them to climb a staircase, but not my staircase. And doubtless we will all be ‘certain’ as we do so.

But is this type of learning any good? Any use?

Well: it rather depends upon what we are seeking to achieve. In the Industrial model of learning, no. It’s not much use. We want consistency and conformity. But in a broader and more modern context (the new nature of knowledge, the need for generalised capability, and even collective capability – if that proves to be a thing) – then potentially yet. We may find value in a population in motion more so than one stuck in knowledge. And we my find that we do not necessarily need uniform certainty, monocultural dogmatic certainty, so much as curiosity and a recognition that our certainty today may simply fracture tomorrow – but held in a culture and community where we can learn again tomorrow.

This is a Learning Fragment: part of an evolving body of work to revisit and expand my core work around learning. Crucially this is not ‘performance’ work – it’s fragmentary and useful to me to unwrap and deconstruct my own certainty – and in service of finding new vocabulary and ideas. You can watch a video exploring the notion of ‘Learning Fragments’ here.

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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