Understanding the environment: Learning and communication
Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

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Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

2 Section readings – Learning and communication

Reading 2.1: Learning and culture

As discussed in Reading 1.6, the behaviour of all living organisms that determines their resource use is mostly controlled by a set of models encoded in their genetic material. Most significant changes in the behaviour of a particular species of organism are usually a result of genetic evolution. But, some organisms are capable of modifying these models and creating new ones during their lifetime. This involves structural changes in the organism in reaction to stimulation of one or more of their sensory organs. Thus, the structural changes allow organisms to establish new models not already present in their genetic code. The Earth's species that has the greatest plasticity in modifying their internal structures is Homo sapiens, and this ability is mostly located in one specific organ, the brain.

Constantly evolving neurological connections within the human brain allow us to significantly modify the models by which we engage with our environment. You could define 'learning' as a process through which these models are changed, and a 'culture' as a set of implicit or explicit shared models which determine people's behaviour.

Shared models determine how people relate to each other (traditional ceremonies of marriage, imprisonment for committing certain crimes, etc.). Different cultures have different models of behaviour. For example, an Arab culture may allow one man to have many wives, while Western cultures favour monogamous relationships (with many going as far as criminalising polygamy). The best way to illustrate the role of culture in determining people's behaviour is to describe situations where there is a breakdown in cultural norms and values. These situations include famines and war. The most horrific atrocities have occurred in situations where cultural controls have broken down.

Complex cultures have a sophisticated set of behavioural models determining how people act in a wide range of circumstances, with significant controls on dysfunctional behaviour. But, a central aspect of most cultures is their ability to adapt. Cultures are not static. They change with changing circumstances.

As a principal aim of most decision making is to improve a problematic situation, people expect things to change (hopefully for the better) as their plans are implemented. This automatically implies that you have to observe the changes that are taking place, evaluate whether these changes are in accordance with the agreed vision, plan future actions in order to support positive change or reverse negative change, and put into action the agreed plans by allocating responsibilities and resources. These steps of observation, evaluation, planning and action, can be described as a learning cycle. In other words, in order to improve the situation, you have to be able to learn about the changing circumstances, and even learn from your own mistakes. Learning changes your personal models and can eventually change the shared models of a culture.

Even a simple animal such as an amoeba behaves as if it has a goal. If you watch one, you will at some point see it trying to 'engulf an object'. The goal here is to eat food which will supply the amoeba with material for growth and metabolism. The plan for putting this goal into action is a model coded within the animal. So the amoeba puts this plan into action by extending its fingers into the environment, identifying something it can eat, and proceeding to engulf the object. But how does it identify its food? It compares what it has observed with its plan. The inherited models will contain information on what is edible and what is not. So, some form of evaluation must occur during the amoeba's action which allows the amoeba to compare its observations with its plan.

So what happens when an amoeba makes a mistake, when it engulfs an object that is detrimental to it? Clearly, learning would involve a change in the plan – in this case, a change in the internal models. For a simple animal like the amoeba this can only occur through the mechanisms of evolution. The change will result from a change in the amoeba's DNA code through something like a mutation. With this change you can say that amoeba have learned to avoid harmful objects.

Luckily, humans do not necessarily have to change their DNA code in order to avoid harmful food. Like all animals with a nervous system, as noted previously, we can adapt our behaviour and learn from our own individual experiences.

The plan that we change is our mental model of the world around us. If we survive, we won't try to eat that harmful food again. Perhaps even more importantly though, because of our social interactions we can learn from others' experiences. Through our communicative abilities, we know before seeing the poisonous berries that eating them would be fatal, and so we already know to avoid them.

So at the end of this, can you come up with a framework that can underpin learning? Which steps do you need to take in order to make changes in your mental models/plans?

There is little disagreement that the purpose of the education system is to transmit the body of accumulated human wisdom from one generation to the next, so that we do learn from others. When it comes to how this should be done, however, there is little agreement. The common model is that teachers, experts in their chosen field, should transmit their knowledge whilst learners passively watch and listen. By this process the learners' brains will gradually fill up. However, in the early twentieth century John Dewey (Dewey, 1916, 1938), believing in the unity of theory and practice, formulated a much more useful and comprehensive approach to understanding the learning process. While this understanding was based on the belief that all genuine learning comes about through experience, this does not mean that learning arises from all experiences.

These ideas have subsequently been developed into what is now known as the learning cycle (see Figure 2.1). This was developed in its most elaborate form by David Kolb (Kolb, 1984), but here you need only the commonly used basic form.

Figure 2.1
Figure 2.1 The Kolb learning cycle

Starting at the stage of reflective observation (although since it is a cycle it could potentially start at any of the four stages), the first task is to reflect upon an experience. You assume that action has been taken and at this point you are reviewing the results of that action. It is important here to collect together all aspects of the experience, particularly if this experience involves other people. An example of this process is the military idea of debriefing. The purpose of the reflection is to uncover the hidden assumptions and the differences in views. In order to truly reflect in depth you must make explicit what it is you are reflecting upon; hence the best reflection, particularly in a group situation, is done when the data is explicitly recorded.

If the experience was one where the outcome was not as expected and reflection produces hints of unwarranted assumption, then the next process in the cycle becomes particularly important. You must dig more deeply and construct a new understanding (model) of your relationship to that situation in order to be able to take different action. On the basis of this new model you can then plan a new and different action.

Whether on the basis of new models or just those tried and tested models, planning and deciding the next action is the next important process.

Whilst our model of the learning process is drawn out as a cycle of four processes, it must be remembered that learning is not as simple as that. Examining your own learning you will see that firstly the cycling never stops, secondly you often iterate backwards and forwards between two of the stages, and thirdly there are often cycles within cycles (e.g. learning how to model better).


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