The phenomenon of learning: beyond reason and reasoning

Prakash Iyer

I am looking at the laptop and typing away with thoughts streaming from my mind. There is one moment when dear Melodrama (the dog who lives with us), turns over on the bed she is sleeping on. Her movement is only seen from the side of my eye, but in that moment, I become completely unaware of the laptop, my fingers typing…my consciousness is occupied with Melo’s movement. I feel a surge of affection, my head hasn’t moved, but the image of her is right there in my mind as if I am looking straight at her, the slight sound of the mattress when she moves is amply clear to my ears, I experience the warmth and comfort on her mattress. My body feels how it does when I hug her. My fingers are still, my nose twitches and remembers her “dog smell”. In that moment, the laptop screen, the article, the ideas…all of them were blurred. The next moment is entirely different. I see words, I am thinking of the next sentence, my fingers are tapping away and my bare feet feel as cold as they were feeling. The warmth and comfort were gone.

That is how our consciousness is – like a movie that has sight, sound, smell, touch, feelings, memories including those that our body carries (tactile feelings, smells that we relive). It is our total experience at any moment. The experience I described has nothing to do with learning, but I was reminded of how the child in my class who had this epiphanic moment of comprehending the number 1. I think I get why some philosophers of education insist that learning is not equal to understanding because understanding is only the cognitive part of the phenomenon. Understanding happens at the level of thought, of reasoning. Reasoning is necessary in order to learn, but learning is more than being able to reason. Learning is the transformation of our being. We become a different person after we learn. Our experience of every moment after learning will be different from what it was before. It is not only transformation of the way we cognize, the way we think, but also the way we “are”. Real learning happens at the level of consciousness, not thought or reasoning alone. Learning is embedded in our very being.

We are often confused why children and adults learn how to reason but don’t seem to be able to do it properly, or purposely do not do it, or just don’t see that they should be reasoning. What could be the cause for that? We need to analyze the phenomenon of reasoning to answer this.

Is learning more than reasoning?
Let me shift my attention to the work I am doing on the laptop: writing this article. I write a few sentences. Then I pause and read them again. I examine one sentence and then examine how it relates to the previous sentence. Is there continuity? Do they cohere with each other – do they fit with each other? Is the next sentence taking the content of the previous sentence further, or am I just repeating myself? Do these sentences together lead towards what I want the article to communicate?

Each question I raised has multiple answers, and each answer is a reason for writing that sentence. I then evaluate each reason and make a judgment about whether it is a good reason to write the sentence. Based on my judgment I decide whether the sentence is alright, or if I need to change it, or delete it. Reasoning necessarily involves evaluation and judgment.

But what is the basis on which I do this evaluation? I employ rules to evaluate these reasons. I use rules of logic to see if the reasons are valid or not. But is it logic alone? Obviously not. I am human, not a machine with logical rules programmed into me. In this case the objectives of this article determine the rules for evaluation. The article should communicate something, the arguments should be intelligent, it should read elegant (by my standards). Every sentence should conform with the goal of this article that I had decided. But it often so happens that logically the sentence meets all these criteria, but it still does not “feel right”.

There is something more than good logical reasons to even write a sentence. How do I feel when I read the sentence and realize that this is how someone will read it? This is a subjective process – it is entirely mine, and it belongs to me, my gut. To evaluate reasons for even writing a sentence, we have to employ more than logic and other cognitive rules. Reading it has to be a good experience; we have to “like being in that moment”.

This rule of liking “being in that moment” complicates things. I say liking, for lack of a better word. I mean liking in the sense of acceptance and agreement. This is how I feel, and I don’t want to change it. I want to continue being the way I am, and take the cognitive process further. What I like could even be a combination of discomfort, curiosity, wonder, leading to suffering. We suffer the pain of being in the process, but not arriving at the end yet. Wanting to arrive at the end creates suffering in us. “I am in the middle of something, I need to take it further. I am uncomfortable with being halfway. I need to complete it and reach the destination.”

Vulnerability is necessary in order to learn
If I fight this feeling down with arrogance, and try to control the process of thought, I will not undergo the transformation that learning ought to do to me. We need to experience the incompleteness and suffering, which will happen only if we are vulnerable. “I am vulnerable and I am going to change after this.” We have to be in a state of consciousness when we anticipate transformation, we know it is a journey, and we should be alright with the effort and suffering on the path. We have to be completely subsumed by the process, and vulnerability seems necessary for that to happen.

What do we have with us so far? Reasoning has to be logical, but people have different experiences of reasoning. This is significantly influenced by the way we experience the process of reasoning itself. In order to do that we will go through a point of suffering. The learner has to be vulnerable to anticipate and accept the suffering of the path of transformation. In a classroom, the state consciousness of the learner determines whether she engages with the act of reasoning, or continues with it. Her consciousness is transforming at every moment. How do we teachers see this, or more importantly what do we do about that?

The idea of teaching
Teaching-learning is a social process, but it is not limited to multiple cognitive processes engaging with each other. If that were the case teaching-learning processes would be predictable like a game of chess. But we teachers know it is not. How do we bring ourselves and the learners into this state of vulnerability? We need an approach that does not deny reasoning or logic, but we navigate this process of learning at the level of our consciousness. That is so complex! Does that make leading students to learn impossible? I don’t know, but if we take this into account, we would teach differently. We would also aim for this state of vulnerability. We could do at least two things to explore the possibility of this happening.

Firstly, we do something in the beginning of the teaching process that could create a sense of shared feeling and vulnerability. It could be an action all of us do together. Performing a simple and foolish action repeatedly along with others – something we would be terribly embarrassed to do – leads us into a state of accepted vulnerability. For example, I did one such exercise in a theatre workshop. We were asked to just walk in random directions in a large circle, while screaming a nonsensical verse in a rage. We had to make sure we did not make eye contact with anyone else or even graze against anyone else. The instructor kept increasing our speed until a point when we were going so fast we had to be careful not to stumble or graze against someone else. We did this for five minutes.

This exercise put us in a vulnerable situation and made us comfortable with the vulnerability. It moved our consciousness into a realm where we are no longer afraid, shy or worried. It freed us from numerous fears. This kind of acceptance of our vulnerability did wonders to the way we felt. Doing such actions which engage our body and mind, exposes our being to ourselves. It moves our consciousness into a space where we cease to care about what others think. We are prepared to embark on the process of learning.

Secondly, the journey of teaching-learning should include a meta-process that frequently pushes both teacher and learner to pause, take a step back and examine their feelings about the cognitive process. Challenging the learner in a matter of fact manner does wonders for this metacognitive process. “Why do you think this reason is bad? She is also giving the same reason, in different words.” “You don’t seem to be comfortable talking to her about this. Why?” “You are wrong!” “I don’t agree with you.”…all this as a matter of fact. Our voice should not convey our judgment.

The learner moves into a self-conscious state, when they observe their consciousness in a state of vulnerability. “I could be wrong.” This in turn makes them examine their attitude towards where they have arrived and realize the need to move further towards learning. These moments also lead everyone to see learning as a participative venture, in which everyone is doing something for their own sake, as well as for each other.

I think it is important to be clear and have an imagination of what triggers the process of learning and know that rather than mere reasoning it is our consciousness where things begin and end. Most of our endeavours including learning are to reduce suffering. In the context of learning though, we need to be vulnerable and invite the suffering of not-knowing!

The author teachers Philosophy of Education at Azim Premji University. He can be reached at [email protected].

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