First published in Dutch on the 2nd of May 2011

Learning processes consist of actions that are inextricably bound to the end goal; they determine the end goal’s identity. In my previous essay I put it as follows; “the order and prioritisation of certain activities (…) have a particular meaning within the trajectory and influence the impact of the whole learning experience.” I find this very important; so much so, that I have decided to elaborate on it further in a second essay.

No attention for actions

Practical thinking and acting receives relatively little attention in education. Students often seem to be encouraged to spend as much time as possible in the head, building a passive attitude. They are expected to mainly address their mental capabilities through listening during class sessions and reading the corresponding literature.

Students often do take practical classes in secondary school when they attend chemistry classes, biology classes or physics classes, but those classes do not build the practical skills I am concerned with. The type of skills I am referring to are based on actions that are necessary to make mental processing possible. Do students learn techniques with which to study their literature efficiently and effectively? Do they receive training in the best techniques to summarise texts or in strategies to write an effective essay? Do we give the proper attention to, perhaps, the most important actions of all; the actions which allow students to solve their own (learning) problems? I venture to doubt.

My view is based on the observation that the majority of students I meet believe that learning is supposed to be the direct absorption of the material. It is presented as a kind of osmosis that is achieved through pure thinking power, contrary to the labour-intensive and practical building process it really is.

Tools for learning, such as planners, mind maps, or systems for taking notes, by definition, represent weakness. In the eyes of many students, the ones who need such tools are weaker students than those who do well without them. This conception is widespread, which leaves me to conclude that they must have picked it up somewhere along the way, undoubtedly unintended.

An evolutionary process

To be honest, I suspect that the ability to absorb information directly is deemed the better alternative to learning by using practical tools. I also suspect that this judgement finds its basis in the pervasive perspective on our evolutionary psychological development. Our early ancestors acted first and when they observed the consequences of their actions they adapted their behaviour to stimulate a more favourable outcome. They learned by trial and error. As brain capacity increased, however, they were able to act out their trial and error experiences in their heads in order to determine which actions should be the best alternative, before they put them into practice. Nowadays, we are even capable of performing thought-experiments that cannot be acted out in practice at all. This idea suggests that our species has been internalising more and more and this is thought of as a sign of growth and improvement.

Internal processes as high ambition

It is not hard to understand the evolutionary benefits of the ability to plot and plan things. For instance, an action, based on a “just do it, we will see about the result” thought, which subsequently results in death, offers little opportunity to learn from it. The ability to dream up alternative scenarios in your head first, however, provides the opportunity to avoid some such risks. Stipulating this process even further, Einstein becomes the ultimate example of the ideal result of our cognitive development. His thought-experiments ultimately changed the natural sciences fundamentally. Some of his experiments could only be tested after his death, because of technological limitations during his lifetime that we have been able to overcome in the modern era. The ability to internalise, then, is understandably regarded as the highest ambition in intelligence.

A process gone too far  

In my opinion, we are going a little overboard in our desire to only use our heads; instead, there are disagreeable aspects I often encounter in my daily practice. Students, who find themselves hopelessly stuck in regard to their studies, no longer base their ideas on practice. They fail to measure the results of their thinking (often ruminations resulting in negative feelings, self-blame or complaints) against reality. This results in stress, frustrations and insecurities that are not so much confirmed by actual consequences of their behaviour, but rather by their own fears. A complete focus on internal processes cancels out the corrective or affirmative effect of reality, because of which negative emotions may conjure up ghosts.

A learning problem is an inability to act effectively

As I mentioned before, our actions are supposed to be the basis for reflection; the same is true for individual learning processes. This forms the basis for my perspective on learning problems. If actions are fundamental to our learning processes, then actions are also fundamental to our learning problems. In this way, learning problems are also an inability to act effectively. (I am not referring to problems that have neurophysiological causes).

Not so simple

Identifying learning problems as inability to act effectively seems a welcome assessment. After all, actions can be controlled, which should make tackling learning problems a simple endeavour. Unfortunately, reality is not this simple. Recently, I organised a week of support to a great number of students who were stuck writing their dissertations. My classes followed the above principle. First, I explained how the writing process can be divided up in concrete actions. The students loved how comprehensive the steps were. Next, I asked them to determine at which stage in the process they were and what should be their next action. At this point the students became less elated. Some of them felt uncomfortable and resisted commitment, “I am working on multiple steps simultaneously.” As soon as I asked the students to create a plan to work through the chosen step, I met with even more resistance, “I cannot plan things;” “I just do not know what tomorrow will bring;” “I also have my job to go to and my shifts are never clear-cut;” etc.

Cause of resistance

This resistance has multiple causes, but I am convinced that one of them is based on having too much appreciation for (action-less) thought processes. Students seem to resist practicality. Do students perhaps perceive practicality as detrimental to their level of thinking? Is it like “painting by numbers” to them? One can paint beautiful paintings using this system, but it is not done for an aspiring artist to use it. Painting by numbers does not turn one into an artist; after all, art has to come from the inside, with no aids telling the artist what to do or how to do it.

When inspiration becomes elusive, students tend to try and squeeze some out through pure willpower and that is the exact moment when they get stuck. After all, whenever one sticks to what one has always done, the result will always be the same. In this case, there will be no results at all. Pure brainpower will not change this.

Praxis above all else

Each creative process depends on the actions that need to be carried out. Actions are inextricably bound to creating. They provide a (mid-term) review of the effects in reality and the feedback that results from this, as I mentioned before, will have a corrective or affirmative effects. They are the basis of new building blocks. Without actions there will be no progress and without progress there is no creation. There is no way of achieving goals without using the tools that will get you there.

In my view, Einstein’s miracles also have to be interpreted in this way. His thinking power was certainly impressive, but he also based his ideas on practice. For instance, the relativity of speed was a concept that snuck into his mind when he was in a train and experienced the confusing effect of another train passing in the same direction with a different velocity. This was the basis of further thought. I perceive his elaborations as mental actions, because each time his thoughts were the basis for new ideas which he subsequently evaluated. Through this method he was able to build something with his thoughts that proved to be correct. This is completely different from ineffective ruminations and stressing which is what most of us do when we get stuck; mental dramatics turn our molehills into maintains.

Our ideal seems to be the stoic figure of Rodin’s The Thinker, but it remains a hopeless ambition that causes all the necessary frustration. Actions, whether physically or mentally, are central to our thinking power. We are Homo Praxis, as much in our limbs as in our heads.