Sunday, 22 January 2012

Learning as assimilation: a passive activity?

To take in something external and make it part of oneself: assimilation or digestion is a powerful metaphor for learning. It's a long-established one too; the Anglican 1662 Book of Common Prayer famously asks that believers should "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" the holy scriptures.  Today, "assimilative tasks" are one of the categories of learning activities in the classification system used by learning designers at the Open University. According to this system, the characteristic "assimilative tasks" are reading, viewing and listening, which even in the digital world remain the core activities of a university student.

But there's something slightly pejorative about the label "assimilative" in that classification, especially when set alongside the other categories: experiential, information-handling, communicative, productive and adaptive (simulations to you and me). Grainné Conole puts her finger on it when she describes assimilative tasks as "essentially passive in nature" (Conole 2007, p 84). Taking it for granted that we're all aiming to get students to be active in their learning, the implication is that reading text, watching video or listening to audio is somehow less active than, say, communicating, handling information or getting new experiences.

Now it's certainly possible to listen passively to a lecture or a podcast, or to read through written words passively without thinking about their meaning. But that's not assimilation: that's swallowing. To take in food takes minutes, or seconds; to digest it takes hours, and that digestion is a very active process, involving peristaltic movement, gastric acids, enzymes and so on. If we're to take assimilation as a model of learning, then the important part isn't putting the stuff in the mouth, or eyes or ears, but working on it to break it down and make it part of oneself. And that's the part on which a good teacher will focus.

This is something in which the Open University has excelled for the past forty years. The reasons its course materials are so good is not that the information is well-organised or that the explanations are clear - although they are - but that they're always accompanied by learning activities to help students build their own understanding of the subject. It's these activities, rather than the reading, viewing and listening, which are the real assimilative tasks. Here are some of the most common types, divided for convenience into three levels:

  • summarising - for example: "List the three most important characteristics of theory X." "Write a single sentence explanation of concept Y."
  • representing diagrammatically - for example: "Draw a mind map to show the relationship between the concepts of theory X., including examples from case study Y."
  • organising - for example: "List the different aspects of this topic, and create a system for arranging them."
  • classifying - for example: "Sort the instances A., B., C.… into the categories / concepts X., Y., Z.."
  • comparing and contrasting - for example: "List points of similarity and difference between X. and Y."
  • identifying - for example: "Identify the features of concept X. which make it an instance of concept Y."
  • exemplifying - for example: "Find an example of concept X. in material Y., or in your own experience."

  • interpreting - for example: "Describe the most important features of case X., according to theory Y."
  • analysing - for example: "Outline the structure of case X., according to theory Y."
  • applying - for example: "Describe what you would do in case X., according to principles / procedure Y." "Identify the salient features of case A., according to theory B."
  • reflecting - for example: "Interpret your experience of X. according to theory / framework / protocol Y."

  • contextualising - for example:  "Relate case X. to its theoretical / social / historical / political / environmental etc. context."
  • evaluating - for example: "Say how far case X. meets standards Y., and give reasons for your judgements."
  • discussing critically (in the academic sense) - for example: "Argue for an interpretation of case X., and give reasons for preferring this over other possible interpretations."

A better name for this category of tasks might be "comprehension and application", rather than "assimilative", if assimilation is going to be mistaken for simple reception of material. But whatever we call it, properly conceiving the acquisition of knowledge and understanding as an active process is vital to higher education, since every academic discipline requires it to a greater or lesser extent. In the face of subject matter experts' tendency to teach a subject just by expounding it, the reminder which we need is that good teaching requires not only clear exposition but a process for learners to assimilate it.

Book of Common Prayer (1662), Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent.
Conole, G. (2007), “Describing learning practices: tools and resources to guide practice”, and Appendix 7 “Taxonomy of learning activities”, in Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe (eds), Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age: Designing and Delivering E-learning (Routledge), pp 81-91, pp 235-237.

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