Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Learning as Interweaving

Net: Anything reticulated or decussated at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

(Samuel Johnson's definition -- why quote it here? because I've always wanted to find somewhere to fit it in ever since I read it several years ago)

I keep quoting Melissa Wiley's posts! I have been trying to catch up on learning logs over at Schola et Studium, and part of the challenge was that I want to have a way to log that represents to me how learning actually takes place, even if it is inadequate to express it fully. So as I wrote, and found myself journalling a network of informal trails of connections ( "with interstices between the intersections" , hey, I get to say it twice!) I thought I remembered that Melissa had written something about connections.... and I was right; in fact, she has a whole category.

She quotes Sandra Dodd's post Connect the Dots. In that article it says:

If one thing makes you think of another thing, you form a connection between them in your mind. The more connections you have, the better access you have to cross-connections. The more things something can remind you of, the more you know about it, or are learning about it.
Sandra quotes Kelly Lovejoy who in turn is quoting Heraclitus:

A wonderful harmony arises from joining together the seemingly unconnected.

~Heraclitus c.500BC

In her post, Melissa goes on to make the connection that comes to my mind, too:

Charlotte Mason called this understanding of education "the science of relations." Relations, connections, rabbit trails: these are the terms homeschoolers use to describe the natural processes of learning. One topic, even one word, sparks an interest or a memory, and zing, learning happens.
And that brings me to the Ambleside site, where CM says in School Education:

Education is the Science of Relations; by which phrase we mean that children come into the world with a natural 'appetency,' to use Coleridge's word, for, and affinity with, all the material of knowledge; for interest in the heroic past and in the age of myths; for a desire to know about everything that moves and lives, about strange places and strange peoples; for a wish to handle material and to make; a desire to run and ride and row and do whatever the law of gravitation permits. .... we endeavour that he shall have relations of pleasure and intimacy established with as many as possible of the interests proper to him.... plunging into vital knowledge, with a great field before him which in all his life he will not be able to explore. In this conception we get that 'touch of emotion' which vivifies knowledge, for it is probable that we feel only as we are brought into our proper vital relations.

Finally, a post about connections wouldn't be complete without this post from The Common Room: Connections. (which seems not to be connecting quite right at the moment, but if you can get to it, it's worth reading).

One of the things I've been noticing recently is that there is a sort of weaving pattern in the days. I won't talk about nets any more, to your relief, I'm sure; instead picture a tapestry, something richly colored and smooth yet textured to the touch. The warp, let's say, is the rhythm of daily life, the quotidian, the things that are repeated again and again.... meals, sunrises, homecomings, prayers. The weft is the the little moments of newness. Like the squirrel and our trek to release it into the wild; like a new developmental stage in a child; like a new interest in something that was not noticed before. These link with each other to make the texture of life -- the bigger patterns and general harmony play out upon these littler ins and outs. I'm afraid that is a bit of a cliched idea, now that I've written it out, but it has struck me anew recently.

I notice several different kinds of connections, and they overlap (or interweave). One is from person to person. The example that comes to mind: I requested The Worm Ouroboros from the library over the holidays so Liam could read it. Why did he want to read it? Because he'd read a discussion of it by CS Lewis from a book we have in the house (and while googling for a quote, I find this letter that CS Lewis wrote to the author ER Eddison in mock Tudor English). After I requested the book I decided (rightly) that it probably wouldn't come before Liam had to go back to college, so I bought him a copy secondhand which he took back to college with him. But last week the book arrived and Clare decided she would read it though she generally is not too thrilled with weird fantasy. She has been reading sections to Brendan and me beside the fireplace -- including a section on a cockatrice (which she enjoyed because it reminded her of a rooster belonging to her riding teacher).

So Liam's original interest (actually, an inheritance from someone we never knew personally, CS Lewis) has rippled outwards into the family by way of Clare and connects to all sorts of things that you wouldn't think of as being connected -- like a mean-eyed yellow rooster called Ralph, dubbed "my little pumpkin" by his owner, and Hilaire Belloc, who apparentlyadmired the Worm book as well.

That brings up another type of connection, the connection from subject to subject or skill to skill, like Paddy learning all kinds of science for fun by listening to the Magic School Bus books, or Aidan doing floor puzzle after floor puzzle just because he can, and in the process getting familiar with the subjects of the puzzles -- from fire engines, to the alphabet, to dinosaurs (which is his latest project). Today Kieron's long-abiding interest in dinosaurs led him to listen in as I read to Paddy and provide a running commentary, which led to a discussion of the immensities of time (millions and millions of years, I can almost hear Carl Sagan's voice!) and of the correspondences with the Biblical account.

Those are just two categories I have been aware of recently. There are probably more -- and infinite permutations. Sandra Dodd talks about the "universe in a drop of water", and the "sink like a stone" ways of learning.... where you follow a connection across subjects, or immerse yourself in it in ever-deeper layers. Some of these connections are repeated and built on many times in a short period of time; others are temporarily put by the way, to be picked up later or evolved into a new form, like my husband's childhood interest in movie-making translated into computer game design skills. Some translate across generations; some of my kids' favorite books are books that I loved as a child, and so reading a book to my seventh child, like Winnie-the-Pooh, that is one of my foundational memories, is like dropping through time to when I was six like he is now.

So even though it feels like there is some artificiality in keeping records of this kind of process -- even though it barely represents what is going on, really -- it does help me get a glimpse of the that the way that learning takes place.

As the article I quoted once before said:

The authors (of a scholarly book on homeschooling in the UK) discovered that these children absorbed information mainly by"doing nothing, observing, having conversations, exploring, and through self-directed learning". They liken the "chaotic nature" of informal learning to the process that leads to scientific breakthroughs, the early stages of crafting a novel, coming up with a solution to a technical problem, or the act of composing music.

"Its products are often intangible, its processes obscure, its progress piecemeal," they say. "There are false starts, unrelated bits and pieces picked up, interests followed and discarded, sometimes to be taken up again, sometimes not... Yet the chaotic nature of the informal curriculum does not appear to be a barrier to children organising it into a coherent body of knowledge."

This description has often been in my mind these past few days, as I see it taking place around me -- sometimes subtly and out of view, as the weft thread goes under the surface of the tapestry, and sometimes appearing in view again, in a hue of rich colors, with a pattern and symmetry that is their own.

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