The non-linearity of learning
I don’t think the process of learning is purely linear. I started noticing this a little back in Week 2. We had some set readings and I was doing those. But I was also still doing that Gitelman and Jackson reading from the book “Raw data” is an Oxymoron from Week 1. So there I was, mid-Week 2, scooting back and forward between the Week 1 readings and the Week 2 readings (and getting anxious about falling behind). In Week 2, I also read an extra reading from the same book just out of interest — the second paper by Daniel Rosenberg. But the general point is that my reading is not straightforwardly linear: relative to how our course is structured, it’s going forward and then backward, and occasionally sideways (onto Twitter). Relatedly, I don’t really think the point of reading is to get to some pre-ordained destination either. That leaves one a little unclear about where one is going sometimes; but maybe the process of learning involves tolerating some degree of uncertainty about that from time to time. So if my reading were a person, it might be someone who isn’t quite sure of where they are going. Or, maybe it would be someone who has a vague sense of where they might be going, but who doesn’t mind dancing back and forth, and definitely doesn’t see themself as having any kind of ‘learning destiny’, if you know what I mean.
“Lost” learning: why it matters that learning is non-linear
Since January I’ve noticed that there’s this way of talking about, for example, children’s learning at school, that strongly suggests that the learning process is linear, or, even more strongly, that it ought to be linear. You can see this when you listen to the way many people in public life talk about children’s learning. There is much hand-wringing about the need for children to ‘catch up’ on ‘lost learning’ (see here, here, and criticism here). What if they don’t memorize the list of kings and queens of England! This is surely regression. Or is it? If learning is not linear, then all this talk of needing ‘catch up’ and all the worry about ‘lost learning’ is misplaced. If it is necessary — assuming it is, indeed, necessary – to memorize the list of kings and queens of England, well, that might just happen later than, say, Key Stage Two, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In the meantime, perhaps we should give children in particular the space to do and learn other things and move away from sitting in distress at their laptops (assuming they have one), trying to do homework by themselves, or perhaps, if they’re lucky, with the assistance of a frazzled and exhausted parent.
An interesting consequence: algorithms and the idea of a ‘correct’ order
Many platforms use ‘smart’ learning algorithms to adapt content to meet the requirements of an individual learner. An algorithm is “a set of defined steps that, if followed in the correct order, will computationally process input (instructions and/or data) to produce a desired outcome” [Kitchin, 2017:16] This means that in using many platforms for learning, one is often implicitly signing up to the idea that there is a ‘correct order’ for the learner to proceed. That in turn seems to leave very little room for non-linear dimensions of learning. (And, of course, I’m not saying that all learning is non-linear — I just need the claim that at least some of it is to make my point.)
The Whig view of learning
I want to draw on a famous view of history to conceptualise the more linear picture of learning and the attendant notions of ‘learning loss’ that often implicitly assume it, in order to show why such notions are problematic. The famous view of history is called the ‘Whig view of history’ and so I’ll call the analogous view of learning the Whig view of learning. Here’s the general idea behind the Whig view of history. Once upon a time, some influential British historians took an approach to historiography — the so-called Whig view — that imagined the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater enlightenment and liberty. Here in the UK, our current forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy were, and in some quarters still are, somewhat self-servingly imagined to be exemplars of such necessary, inevitable, and, of course, glorious, progress.
Now the Whig view of learning — and what’s wrong with it — comes into view. Imagine you are eight years old. Due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, you have not learned your kings and queens of England. Your parents are anxious; serious people on the telly are fretting about it too. But is this really such a great loss? After all, you’ll probably just pick it up at some other point in the future (it’s not as if the BBC is short of histories of British monarchies!). The idea that it is some sort of significant loss (often cast in terms of a loss of future ‘productivity’) seems to assume the Whiggish view that it is necessary, even inevitable, that when learning, children, for example, must be frog-marched forward, lockstep, in the correct order, towards some pre-ordained notion of what counts as progress (and often without much regard for what they want, or for the particular circumstances in which their learning is currently taking place either). But if, by the ripe old age of eight, you haven’t yet learned your kings and queens, maybe you — or your parents, not to mention the serious people on the telly — shouldn’t be so worried. Maybe you’ll learn something else instead. Or maybe — outrage of outrages — you’ll do a little idling. After all, as Russell once argued, there is much to be said in praise of idleness.