Learning new concepts

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Recently, my husband had his first bout of COVID-19.  He’d avoided it for a long time but finally got caught out!  Each day, when I asked him how he was feeling he said things like – “I know they said ‘loss of taste’ but I didn’t really get what they meant until now”.  The same things came up for terms like ‘brain fog’ and the feeling of tiredness.  Up until that moment, those terms were simply a list of words.  But he had to experience those symptoms to really understand what the words meant.

This led me to reflect on how – as adults – we learn new terminology, especially academic concepts.

One trap we get into is often the words themselves aren’t new ones, it’s just that they are used differently in different disciplines, contexts and practice communities.  This works okay with words for animate or inanimate objects – we get that the word “mouse” is both an animal and a computer peripheral.  But it can be easy to assume that less tangible concepts and ideas mean one thing and one thing only and that the everyday understanding of a term is the same as the way an academic discipline uses it.  For example, the word ‘evidence’ means different things in scientific research and law courts.  This means we do need to remain open to questioning our existing understanding and thinking about what a term means in an unfamiliar discipline or practice community.

Our usual approach to learning meanings is to seek out definitions or explanations written by other people and either quote them or work out how to paraphrase them.  What my husband’s experience reminded me is that sometimes looking up definitions and explanations aren’t the way to gain new understandings.  Sometimes we have to experience something to know the meaning of it.  We accept that with words for emotions like happiness, love or grief.  But it can apply with many ideas and activies too – like reflect, reflexive, iterate.

Take for example the notion of ‘design turn’ which I have written about a number of times since I started this blog.  Each time I have done so, I have treated it as a thing which can be defined and explained – something to be intellectualised about.  However, my real understanding of it comes when I experience it. A whole set of things happen – a shift in perspective, emotions, attitudes – and then I am able to say “oooh that was a design turn”.  It’s the only way I can describe what happened.

This can make ‘teaching’ ideas really difficult.  It’s not enough to provide written definitions or explanations – it is only possible to create learning activities where you anticipate an engaged learner will experience what is meant by the term.  They can be hard to define and because it depends on a learner’s engagement and participation so much it can be very hard to ‘determine’ the outcome.

Mmm now time to muse on the pedagogical implications…and links to embodiment.

PS I think this may well have been a design turn!

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