Yet Another Response to Stephen

Stephen calls me out for being mean-spirited and rude: “There’s no call for this sort of condescending and catty response to people who are trying their best to work through some difficult issues.” I think people who know me know that’s not the kind of person I am. In rereading my response I realize that my writing may have come off this way. That wasn’t my intent. My intent was to (1) voice my frustration that academics seem to enjoy problematizing things more than they enjoy trying to help you understand things, and to (2) provide a simple answer that covers the majority of cases, which I contend my definition does. If anyone interpreted today’s post as a personal attack, I’m sincerely sorry.

I won’t respond line-by-line to Stephen’s extraordinarily lengthy post. Just the most salient point. Stephen writes, “The totality of Wiley’s example works only if both questioner and answerer speak a common language, have common expectations about the states of affairs in the world, and are sufficiently familiar with each other that most of the trappings of communication can be assumed as given.”

I very clearly said that I was talking about the overwhelming majority of learning that happens in this world – not all of it. And while it’s true that there are some very privileged people like Stephen and I that converse across timezones and fulfill the other requirements necessary for Stephen’s later problematizations to work, those people and those interactions are in the minority. If you picked a random person out of the 7+ billion alive today and examined their daily communication (in which tiny bits of learning are continuously occurring), the odds are extremely high that “questioner and answerer speak a common language, have common expectations about the states of affairs in the world, and are sufficiently familiar with each other that most of the trappings of communication can be assumed as given.” Even for someone like me, who has a technology-enlarged social circle, many of my daily communications are with my family and close friends, still fulfilling Stephen’s requirements. Using his words, “the totality of Wiley’s example works” in these very, very common circumstances. The overwhelming majority of circumstances, I contend.

Now, clearly, there are more complicated circumstances that necessitate a more complex learning process than a simple question / answer. I also stated this clearly in in my post. As I mentioned there, my thinking along these lines is heavily influenced by Pask’s ideas about conversation (and Shannon’s theory of information, which I didn’t describe in my post). I had no intention of going into my thoughts about this more nuanced and complex process in my original post, and don’t have time to do them justice now.

“People always think they can engineer things for a precise result,” he writes. I agree that this is true for the people who fail to recognize the agency (free will) that exists in every learner. As Reigeluth so cogently remarked, ‘All instructional approaches are probabilistic, not predictive.” Can we structure something that will guarantee that people will learn? I don’t believe so. Can we structure something that will increase the probability that someone will learn? Absolutely. Stephen and George must believe this, too, or they wouldn’t have invented the MOOC.

The main problem for me with Stephen’s argument is captured in his statement, “If you are open to the idea that learning isn’t transfer, isn’t transmission, isn’t even replication…” If you are open to this idea, then (and I’m genuinely asking now, hoping for an answer) why would you ever ask someone a question? If you believe Stephen’s “perfectly reasonable and well-research answer” that “nothing is transferred,” transmitted, or replicated when someone attempts to answer your question, then why would you bother asking? Why would you make a request when you are assured of receiving nothing in return?