Learners experience information events as primary source content

Every once in a while, I come up with something I think is clever. The challenge at this point is to convince others that my insight is clever and usually to try to get them to understand my insight.

Here is my new conceptual proposal – to an effective learner all content they encounter is really experienced as a primary source. The inability to experience content in this way limits understanding and eventual application. This inability can be due to poor aptitude or poor attitude. In practice, these problems can be interrelated and mutually inflammatory. Additional learning experiences are necessary to address either problem.

The context for this observation was my thinking about an upcoming discussion of direct vs. constructivist models of instruction. I decided that making this traditional distinction is flawed and actually violates what constructivism means when constructivism is used as a description of learning. Constructivism as a description of cognitive activity implies that each learner engages in unique, knowledge building activities to make sense of experiences in the context of what a learner already knows. Simulations are experiences. Daily observations of life events are experiences. Reading a book is an experience. Listening to a presentation is an experience. Constructivism is about what the learner does with external experiences and not some classification of these external experiences.

The notion of primary source (as used say by a historian) takes a similar perspective. The inputs  (data of some type) are subjected to processing in an effort to achieve meaning.The distinction between a primary and a secondary source is really most accurate for the individual who has generated the secondary source. Even a secondary source as traditionally described (say a textbook) has to be treated as a primary source by the effective learner. Processing is required for understanding.

For anyone who processes an input, flaws may arise from lack of skill or motivation. Lack of useful existing knowledge may limit integration. Lack of motivation may limit the willingness to search for relevant existing knowledge, to add new knowledge to benefit understanding, or to test alternative interpretations.

I get tired of the strange description that those of us who were educated by reading books and listening to presentations had knowledge dumped into our heads. It seems possible that we accepted this as an input (attitude) and understood our job was to think about such inputs. Additional inputs may have been necessary and helpful when personal processing was not initially sufficient, but whether learning resulted from the initial or the secondary inputs, the personal processing was what ultimately determined whether we understood or not.

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