In a small discussion, someone asked me:
– What if you found out that learning is nothing else but acquisition of routines?
– I’d be very disappointed – I replied.
– I’m sorry I have to be the one to disappoint you – my interlocutor concluded, while moving away.
I really appreciate concise expressions, and his certain attitude started me thinking…
Trying to define the terms, I realized that the man was absolutely right! Generally speaking, learning involves a process of change – through study and repetition, a process that leads to new mental or behavioural skills. How do we learn? Most of the time by means of the “trial and error” binom or by simple repetition, keeping focus on behavioural change. At the same time, in most cases, knowledge is acquired during the course of the learning process. In other words, if by the end of learning we were doing something in a certain way (or not doing it at all), now, after learning, we do something differently; and we have added knowledge as a bonus. But all of these are based on awareness, on understanding…
(Etymologically, “understanding” in Romanian language comes from the Latin words “inter” – between and “legere” which means “to pick”, “to harvest”, “to gather”.) In order to learn something, we first have to “pick” the meanings, to comprehend what, how and when to learn. And to motivate ourselves with why… (Obviously, we’re not talking about mimetic, unconscious learning here).
Yes, we can acquire knowledge (through learning, not so much) mostly through understanding, which has entirely other mechanisms, some of them much more subtle. My disappointment in the above dialogue was somehow justified – intuitively, I refused to let myself being taught/”learned” (originally, in the Romanian language, the word “to learn” (“a învăţa”) comes from “in” and “vitium”, which in Latin language means “to corrupt”!). My routine (well, another routine – also a learned lesson…) was to refuse something I didn’t understand. In an approximate summary, we can come to understanding through learning, but knowledge does not necessarily need learning.
Cristal clear now: learning is nothing else but acquiring routines! And yet what happened with me? Where does the doubt and need for further research come from? Perhaps because I had already placed myself outside the educational framework, following not the path of learning but that of understanding? Or maybe it was a routine of a different kind – rational – but still a routine?
The answer wasn’t long in coming…
I was on the sidewalk, at a pedestrian crossing, I wanted to cross the street and the traffic light looked red for those in my direction. A group of cars passed by through the front without haste. I waited quietly for them to go, I looked along the street, not seeing any car, I set off to cross without containment. On the sidewalk, two young men stood still waiting for the green colour of free passage. I didn’t take three steps when I heard from behind me, “You do know it’s red for our direction, don’t you?” That’s when I got stuck! I froze on the road, unable to articulate anything! After two or three seconds I turned back, and I stammered something about the fact that “it’s too long… the red”, that “no car is coming so I don’t see why I should stay”… The two young people were staring at me with a look that spoke for itself: “Dude, you really don’t understand!?”.
Oh, yes, I was understanding, but I couldn’t believe it: I was captive within a routine that had broken a rule! A lot of questions had come up over me: why did those young people address to me, like that, to a stranger?; what did they actually want?; what did they get?; why didn’t they cross the street – there was no car passing?; what was the rule, in fact?; isn’t it absurd to stand still when you intend to cross and no cars pass?; is there a limit from which a social rule becomes counterproductive or even harmful?; where is that limit?; what is the relationship between social norms and individual behaviour?; how can you change a rule?; what do we do until a rule changes (when the rule is really or apparently inappropriate)?
And the final question – very important: if I had not been “corrupted” by the respective “learnings”, would I still get to have these important meanings?
Between what we know and what we do is often a great distance (sometimes a painfully large gap). For many of us, the path between “understanding” and “learning” is long and difficult to tread! But things don’t have to remain this way… That’s what we’ll talk about another time.