How do you describe learning?

How do you describe learning?

One of the challenges my committee has given me is to describe how I view learning (Step 1 – Motivation). I began my exploration by doing some preliminary research (Step 2 – Research – actually, in many ways this was a reminder of the many years I’ve spent studying different learning theories! I wrote a post about it back in 2011). I then moved on to brainstorming my ideas of how I conceptualized learning (Step 3 – Reflect). In order to better understand my conceptualization, I needed to articulate it which I’m attempting to do in this blog post (Step 4 – Articulate). And finally, I need to have some conversation/dialog about my ideas in order to help me develop a deeper understanding, but also to ensure that I’m on the right path (Step 5 – Conversation).

A funny thing happened. I wrote up a description of learning in a Google doc for my proposal. That is what I was originally going to share here. Then, when I wrote the first draft of the paragraph above I had one of those “ah-ha” moments. I could use what I just described as a conceptual framework for my dissertation study. I went back to the drawing board (literally, back to brainstorming) to see if I could fit what I had said into a framework for learning. That caused me to add a couple more steps (my initial version only had three steps).

Here is my current thought on how I would describe learning (and really, what interests me most when I ask the research question “What learning occurs when people read, write, or comment on breast cancer blogs?

I consider learning a complex topic. From a learning theory perspective, I believe that no one learning theory describes all the ways in which we learn. I also believe that there is no way to select and combine learning theories to gain a complete picture of what learning is. In this way, I describe myself as learning theory agnostic. I do not believe we will ever completely understand how learning occurs. In this way learning is a complex topic, with no single lens through which to view it.

I consider learning to be expressed both externally by changing the way we behave, and internally by changing the way we think and the way we feel. Some forms of learning are cognitive in nature (e.g. learning facts about the disease or specific details of a medical procedure). Some forms of learning occur when we experience something, but also when someone who has experienced something shares that experience. In addition, other forms of learning are socially negotiated and are therefore deepened through conversations and reflection.

Now I’m asking myself, what theories of learning are a play when looking at learning that occurs in blogs? as these are the learning theories that will inform my research study. I can use my five step process (which could be part of a conceptual framework) as a starting point, but also wonder about overarching theories of learning that are also at play.

Looking at the step-by-step component, I have:

  • Step 1 – Motivation. The question that this step asks is “What brought you to reading/writing/commenting on a blog?”. The learning theory that best fits this phase for me is self-determined learning, also known as heutagogy (Hase & Kenyon, 2007), were “heutagogy is concerned with learner-centered learning that sees the learner as the major agent in their own learning, which occurs as a result of personal experiences” (p. 112).
  • Step 2 – Research. Since I am specifically interested in the learning that occurs through blogs, I’m most interested in the ways in which people might use blogs to support the “research” phase of learning. The learning theory that immediately interests me here is paragogy. According to Corneli & Danoff (2011), paragogy is “the critical study and practice of peer learning”. However, this makes the assumption that those who are doing the learning are peers. One might argue that what might apply more is some form of informal or unstructured learning.
  • Step 3 – Reflective Learning. For me this is where transformation often occurs. It is almost always when the “ah-ha” happens, and usually seems to come on while I’m exercising or in the shower! … I think this is in part where my model starts to fall apart.

I realize now that I’ve spent too much time trying to make this fit into the model – where the model does not fit. This is in part because I also need to look at “who’s learning am I wanting to study?”. I was looking at lens that was based upon the perspective I take when I go to write a blog post – more specifically, when I go to write an academic blog post. This is not necessarily the lens I take when I read blogs – especially when I read breast cancer blogs. In trying to use this as a framework I’ve been trying to solve the wrong problem.

Of course, then there are all the overarching learning theories which are also at play in this study. These include (but are likely not limited to): connectivism (Seimens), complexity theory (Davis & Sumara), scaffolding (Bruner), socio-constructivism (Vygotsky), experiential learning (Kolb), double-loop learning  …

There are probably 1000 more niche learning theories that could be applied to this study. Perhaps that is part of my problem. It isn’t that I don’t know enough about learning theory, in some ways I may know too much. Or perhaps it is that I know just enough to make me dangerous. And my interest in the subject is great enough that I can easily get derailed into reading about obscure learning theories.

My next thought is to perhaps to to prioritize. What are the top learning theories that I think will best describe how learning might be happening in breast cancer blogs?

(1) heutagogy and with it a link to complexity theory

(2) socio-constructivism and the social nature of learning

(3) connectivism

Now I wonder if I should be looking at things from a different angle. Perhaps I should look at some key learning theories – let’s say complexity theory, socio-constructivism, and connectivism and see what of those principles might be applied to learning that occurs in breast cancer blogs?

Part of me feels the need to take everything I’ve just written and crumple it up in a big ball and toss it in the recycle bin – hoping that a new idea comes of it after supper!



What do you think? How do you describe learning? Are their better/different ways in which I could name the different lenses?

If there is enough interest in the topic, I’d also be happy to host a Google Hangout on Air discussion (perhaps using the Virtually Connecting model/platform).

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