A corrupted sense of learning

Are you doin’ this work to facilitate growth or to become famous?

Which is more important?

Getting or letting go?

John Heider, in The Tao of Leadership, sampled by J Cole in t h e . c l i m b . b a c k

Getting or letting go?

Do we see learning as accumulating, adding information to our stores, or as a process of being reshaped?

When I learnt how to ride a bike as a kid, the first step was removing the stabilisers. Then, my mum or dad would run behind me with one hand on the seat and I’d cycle away. They will have let go at some point, and the period of time I’d stay upright without assistance would gradually lengthen.

There was a letting go involved in this, partly from my parents, but largely by me plunging into a new, unstable situation (literally without stabilisers). Without letting go of what previously kept me upright on the bike, I’d never have learnt how to ride, keeping balance myself.

And so – which is more important? Getting? Or letting go?

A pedagogy of belonging

I recently came across the work of Willie James Jennings. In one of his articles, he discusses a new ecology of learning, that subverts colonialism’s legacy in education. It’s a long quote but it’s such a wonderful paragraph (my emphasis):

The pedagogy of belonging I envision begins with teachers embodying a new ecology of learning that reverses the colonial legacy of education. The colonial legacy that yet informs education created a vision where the entire population outside of Europe was seen as perpetual students and the white Christians of the West as the eternal teachers of the world (Jennings 2010). This legacy shows itself precisely in the ways we teachers often imagine ourselves in relation to our students, as those living and moving outside a shared space of life and learning. A shared space of learning does not mean that we have nothing to teach our students. It means that the work of teaching must always be embedded in the work of learning, learning not only our students’ abilities and interests, but the worlds—social, cultural, geographic—out of which they come. It means learning the deep histories of place where we teach and live, and it means being open to the expansion of our identities toward the life-worlds of our students.

Willie James Jennings (2017), p.63

Our way of learning has been corrupted, influenced by division, exploitation and status. Learning in its truest sense though, has “the potential to create deep structures of belonging” (Jennings, 2017, p.59). Though I’m fairly new to exploring the origins and characteristics of colonialism and race, it strikes me from Jennings’ writing that status is clung to in acts of colonisation. Status might even be the key trait in the choice to decide that ‘I am the teacher, only the students learn, and the learning happens in a separate space from me’. Choosing intimacy over status is a powerful thing – intimacy with each other, but also with our surroundings and with truth, which brings with it a complexity and uncertainty.

Jumping in and becoming comfortable with complexity and uncertainty is transformative.

An ecological perspective of sports coaching

Carl Woods and colleagues (2020) offer an interesting ecological perspective to learning in sport. They discuss the idea of ‘wayfinding’, an art of journeying from one place to another but doing so purposefully and in a self-regulated manner. This is in contrast to, say, using GPS whereby an individual makes simple comparisons with a predefined route. Such reliance on GPS crucially prevents the individual perceiving the richness and subtleties of the environment.

By letting go of those GPS instructions, we draw on other subtle signals in the rich, dynamic environment, and train our ability to notice and be intimate with our surroundings. Though highly translatable, this ability is particularly important in sport. As I argued in a recent review, effective movement is dependent on our ability to filter complex sensory landscapes in a task-relevant manner.

Woods and colleagues argue:

“…an individual learns of their landscape through interactions as they move through it, not by skimming across it, developing a deep, embedding and evolving individual-environment relationship as they go.”

Woods et al (2020), p.3

They even offer practical examples of how a coach can encourage the development of self-regulated Wayfinding. In a performance landscape rich in meaning, carefully targeted questions can be responded to by the athlete with movement and synergy reformation (forming new combinations of muscle contractions). Synergy reformation “will lead to a greater breadth of movement attractors (stable states of coordination) to support functionality” (p.7).

So it is about being truly in the environment, letting go of the GPS instructions and bike stabilisers, and allowing ourselves to be reshaped by the experience, not acquiring knowledge about but instead a deeper knowledge of (a distinction Woods and colleagues make).

Do we skim the edges and extract what we think we need, avoiding intimacy?

Letting go, not getting.


Jennings cites Judith Butler when asking what the performance of teaching should look like. Butler proposed our identities are not so much fixed and stable as they are ongoing works of improvisation. Perhaps then, our very identity is formed by placing ourselves into a space of novelty and complexity where we can only improvise, utilising the stories that have shaped us thus far.

As a slight aside, I wonder how connected this is with how I see the basal ganglia (BG) in the brain breaking down complex environments to guide behaviour without stable, precise internal representations of the world, or simplified external cues. This may be apparent, for example, in the sourcing of disparate signals to keep track of the passing of time in the absence of explicit time information from a clock:

“Researchers have pointed to a role of the BG in timekeeping operations [99,100]. Perhaps in the absence of explicit time information, the BG utilise disparate signals from across the brain to “stand-in” [101], form a “consensus” [102], and modulate a response accordingly. Indeed, the striatal networks appear to outperform the prefrontal cortex in timekeeping [103]. This points to the capacity to integrate useful contextual information for optimal behaviour”

Kearney & Brittain, 2021, p.8

Though this may be a more general principle of neural processing, perhaps we could view such a process as a continual formation of ourselves in space.

In closing

What is apparent to me in Jennings’ writings, is that the only thing that should be expansive is the invitation to learn and belong, not expansion by the accumulation of information and things, a philosophy underpinning conquest and commodification of land and peoples.

Moving gently and sensitively through a landscape is the image to uphold, learning by being reformed having let go and immersing ourselves with humility and curiosity.

And finally:

As skilful wayfinding can be defined through the successful (self)navigation of distances so vast they cannot be directly perceived by an individual from one standpoint, we are drawn to appreciate that it is predicated on Gibson’s [2, 17] perception-action coupling approach to human behaviour. Notably, successful wayfinding requires a deep engagement of an individual with the environment”

Woods et al (2020), p.4

Truly appreciating the vastness and complexity of natural surroundings means accepting that we cannot perceive it all at once, or ever. Our perception changes as we move (even just by moving our eyes), providing a richer engagement. But on a wider level, we perceive an even greater richness together, as community.

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