Conceptualising learning – some new terms

From January 11-13 I attended the Cultural Diversity in Music Education conference in Sydney. It was an interesting conference, with a big range of workshops to participate in (Papua New Guinean log drumming, anyone? Balinese gamelan? Freedom songs from Pretoria?), papers to listen to, and some interesting plenary sessions that got everyone talking.

I presented my paper on some of the methodological challenges that I identified in conducting interviews with newly-arrived children – things like the kinds of questions you ask, things to consider when interpreting their responses, ambiguities that arise when you are working with interpreters, creative interviewing techniques and tools, etc.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that one of my early research ‘discoveries’ (for want of a better word) was a kind of map of the way that newly-arrived children first make sense of their new environment, and then work within it. I saw the way that within every aspect of schooling (from making sense of school cultural rules, to discipline-based learning like music or English) the children followed the same pattern or stages of learning:

Level 1 – where everything is learned by copying. The children don’t necessarily understand the intention behind the task, they are simply doing what they see others doing, and so figure out their participation in this way.

Level 2 – where the children begin to understand the intention, purpose and meaning behind the different things they do. They have more moments of illumination, and they begin to conect together previously separate bits of information and experiences.

Level 3 – they understand both what to do, and why/how to do it to such an extent that they can lead and show others (thus providing the ideal ‘model’ for those students who have just arrived in the country and are at Level 1).

Tony Lewis, an ethnomusicologist at Sydney Uni, hasbeen exploring a similar idea in terms of how music gets learned in different communities. He described his own conundrum when learning first African drumming, and later Papua New Guinean log drumming, where he found that all the local people learned simply by being there. There was no culture of teaching, or explanation – people just watched and listened and joined in as best they could, gradually building proficiency through an aural and visual process. By contrast he knew that for himself, as someone with a lot of formal musical training and ability to make quite detailed ‘maps’ of rhythms and sounds, the more he engaged those faculties developed through prior training and knowledge, the faster and more efficiently he would be able to make sense of the new musical language he was studying.

He has labelled that first way of learning as ontological learning – ie. learning that takes place through being there.

The second way of learning he has labelled epistemological learning – describing the emphasis on knowledge and knowing. This way of learning utilises learned skills such as analysing, and mapping, and allows theory to play a role in making connections between disparate elements.

Dialogic(al) learning takes place when the two combine and work together, so that, for example, theory can enhance learning that taskes place through being there.

Can I apply these concepts to the Language School setting? Certainly the notion of ontological learning aligns well with my ‘Level 1 learning’ stage of copying and imitation.

The Level 2 learning stage is about understanding the intention behind tasks. An example I described in my thesis showed a boy doing a words-and-sentences matching exercise. He understood that he needed to find a word from the given list that made sense in each of the different blank spaces of the exercise. However, some of the sentences seemed to have multiple possible answers from the list. However, when he realised that there was also a rhyming component to the sentences, and that the words he selected needed to rhyme as well as make sense, he suddenly was able to complete each sentence incredibly rapidly and confidently. Can I align this with epistemological learning? He is using a prior knowledge (that of rhyming words) in addition to the meaning of the words, to complete the task. He is drawing upon prior knowledge, and analysing tasks for elements that fit with his pre-existing schema.

Level 3 learning was for me, characterised by the leadership roles the children took on when they were confident, experienced students in the school. They took a lot of pride and pleasure in getting things right, in being able to engage in tasks with deep understanding, and being able to explain to newer students what was required. Perhaps this isn’t the neatest of alignments with dialogic(al) learning… but it does require them to both be present in the experience (for themselves and for their fellow students looking to them for leadership) and to be comfortable enough in how they understand something to be able to share that knowledge with others. There is a dialogue between their prior knowledge and understanding, appraisal and experience of the current task, and a kind of synthesising taking place that lets them model solutions for others.

All very interesting. I’ve looked to a few different disciplines to find a theory or conceptual model that describes the three stages that I have observed. Obviously the three are very connected to the children’s developing proficiency in English, but I feel the stages are broader than that. Writing this post today, I am not completely convinced that Tony Lewis’ 3-level model is an exact fit, but I find it interesting to consider the terms he has chosen – perhaps this model is getting close.

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2 comments so far

  1. Piano Teacher on

    This is a very nice and interesting post. I appreciate your attending conferences like that and even admire your passion and efforts in attaining professional development programs like this to modify your teaching strategies. Thank you for your generosity in sharing those inputs and ideas that can provide many music teachers out there some creative, innovative and effective music teaching resources. Thanks again and more power.

  2. […] For me, what is commonly called the oral tradition is just as aptly named the aural tradition because it focuses so heavily on the ears. I’ve learned some music skills this way – certainly all the skills I have as a percussionist have been learned through playing alongside others more skilled than myself. However, this has been coupled with the specialist music knowledge already embedded in my brain which allows me to link up concepts, map out ideas for myself in order to make sense of them, and memorise patterns by encoding them in my head using my music theory knowledge. This links back to Tony Lewis’ presentation at the CDIME [Cultural Diversity in Music Education] conference in Sydney, January 2010. Tony described three ways of learning, or three systems of knowledge – ontological, where you learn by doing, by being there and present and participating; epistemological, which is where you call upon your pre-existing knowledge and knowing in order to analyse, map, theorise and build concepts in the new discipline you are encounters; and dialogical, where these two approaches combine. (I’ve written more about Tony’s ideas in this earlier post). […]


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