US Beliefs About Learning

Purpose of Learning. As indicated in Table 14.1, three main U.S. purposes emerged from Li's data: (a) Cultivate the mind-understand the world, (b) develop one's ability-skill, and (c) reach personal goals. The most frequent reference to purpose of learning among U. S. respondents is cultivating one's mind and understanding the world. As an essential part of the Western intellectual tradition, also explicitly articulated in Bacon's vision, the mind is assumed to have most importance in human intellectual functioning. As discussed earlier, the notion of intelligence as a capacity lies centrally in the mind. The mind enables one to learn, but it also develops or becomes sharpened as a result of exposure to stimulating environment that demands its proper use. Understanding of the world is not limited to certain aspects of the world but all that can be known by the mind or all that the person desires to know such as the physical, social, moral, psychological, and spiritual, disciplined knowledge, even common sense. In describing her model learner, one respondent wrote:

His purpose of learning is to understand as much of the world as possible. He is intrigued by everyone and everything in his environment, and he wishes to know why people act the way they do, why things work the way they do, and how to live his life best as he can.

The second large purpose of learning is developing one's ability and skills that one needs to be a fully functioning member of one's society. Important skills include those for a successful career, one's self-sufficiency and independence, as well as knowledge that enables one to solve problems in life, to help one maintain social relations, to be effective as a person, and to take control of one's life and surroundings.

The third purpose of learning is to reach one's personal goals. Even though personal goals may include developing one's ability and skill as presented in the second purpose, they more often refer to notions of self-fulfillment, personal happiness, a well-rounded person, spiritual quest, or any personal goals individuals may desire and pursue. In the words of one respondent:

One learns to gain a better knowledge of self and one's own place within the world. Learning justifies, deepens, challenges, or changes personal belief . . . The model learner sees learning as the fundamental function of growing up, and never becomes so "adult" that they stop actively seeking brain stimulation.

These three large types of purposes are inherently related. While the mind plays a central role in learning, it also needs cultivation. This very process is also one by which a person develops various abilities and skills in order to reach personal goals in life.

Process of Learning. Data analysis yielded four main processes all of which find affinity to the basics of Western learning tradition hinted at in Bacon's passage. First is active engagement, centering around the notion that learning is a process in which a person needs to be actively involved. This active nature of learning emphasizes hands on activities, learning by doing, interaction with people, and participation in other activities both inside and outside the classroom. A respondent described her model leaner thus: "most of his learning comes from practicing, for example building things, fixing things, and changing things through manipulations that involve action, and trial and error."

The second process is captured in the idea of thinking, which is what the mind does and does best. Thinking concerns the whole spectrum of mental processes that are involved in learning. This spectrum includes multiple levels and dimensions. Within levels, for example, one could move from lower-order differentiations of objects to higher-order synthesis of systems or relations. Within dimensions, for example, one could engage in rigorous deductive logic or inductive reasoning, or, as a different sort, analytical or critical reasoning. Still more, one is free to reflect or contemplate on anything of personal interest. The following are statements respondents made about the importance of thinking involved in learning: "how to think, keeping an open mind, new perspectives, arguments, and reasoning," "thinking about things in different ways," and "thinking independently."

Inquiry, the quintessential process underlying Western scientific development, is the third kind mentioned by respondents. Also as a central focus of Bacon's advocacy, inquiry stresses that learning is also discovering the unknown and inventing the new. In this process, one seeks to find out about things in the world through a variety of routine but disciplined activities of research. Key to this process is one's engagement in challenging existing canons of thought and claims, finding new problems, searching for creative solutions, and imagining the unimaginable. Many respondents mentioned the ideas of inquiry such as "finding out how things work," "learning through inquisitive questions," and "she openly questions society and why things are the way they are . . . to gain many different points of view about things learned."

Finally, the fourth process, communication, emphasizes the communicative aspect as an integral part of learning. Communication serves both as learning itself and a form of dissemination of one's knowledge and discoveries. For learning itself, one participates in oral, as well as written forms of social interactions. In these communications, one not only shares and exchanges ideas with others but also discusses, critiques, or argues with others in order to achieve better understanding of a subject, using reasoning tools such as logic, evidence, and devil's advocacy. For dissemination purposes, one presents, explains, demonstrates one's views, positions, or research findings, often using visual forms and technical devices to reach audiences.

Like the purposes, these four processes of learning are also linked coherently even though they each have distinct emphases. Active learning not only ensures fuller engagement of the mind but also maximal and effective participation with all of one's senses. The active nature of involvement promotes thinking in all levels, forms, and dimensions, which facilitates inquiry. Communication is a natural part of active learning given its interactive nature, which in turn can lead to more active engagement, thinking, and inquiry. These four processes are therefore better conceptualized as belonging to a larger system.

Kinds of Achievement. There were also three main kinds of achievement or forms of excellence of learning as shown in Table 14.1: (a) Understanding of essentials-expertise, (b) personal insights and creative problem solving, and (c) being the best one can be. Whereas understanding of essentials is not limited to a particular field of study but includes anything deemed worthy of learning by the person, expertise is a notion that applies only to an area of study or practice such as math, art, or business. Given that the purpose of learning is to understand the world, the standard for gauging achievement is sensibly the extent to which a person gains better understanding of a subject or a practice. Many respondents inserted that excellence of learning does not rest on knowing facts but deeper underlying principles of things or knowledge of how various elements are related. For example, "excellence is truly seeing and understanding 'deep' or underlying 'truth' beneath superficial things . . . the perception of the most 'truth', the perception with the least biases, and learning that displays the most wisdom."

The second standard for achievement is personal insight and creative problem solving. This standard goes beyond understanding and requires that one put one's knowledge to solving problems, as well as to creative use in new situations. This kind of achievement displays one's brilliance and creativity. Respondents gave ample testimonies for such achievement, for example: "excellence is the ability to grasp an idea or topic and think about it creatively from many different perspectives" and "excellence is just above and beyond doing something that has never been done . . . when he succeeds in applying his knowledge to discover, uncover, or invent something new."

The third kind of achievement addresses being the best one can be in learning. Compared to the first two standards that also imply social recognition, the third standard is a more intra-personal delineation of "being one's best." One sets his or her own goal of achievement and strives for it. As respondents articulated, "excellence comes from pursuing your own learning" and "striving to be your best academically, making the most of your life circumstances."

Of these three kinds of achievement, the first two are more closely related with one another than with the third one although when striving to be one's best is aligned with understanding the world, developing expertise in a field, and applying one's knowledge and skill creatively to solving problems, the three kinds of standards are synergistically linked and inform each other.

Affect. Affects imbued in purposes, processes, and achievement within the U.S. learning beliefs contain both positive and negative valences. As Table 14.1 shows, three positive affects in both purposes and processes of learning were salient: (a) curiosity, interest, and motivation for learning; (b) intrinsic enjoyment; and (c) challenging attitudes. For achievement, pride was found as one general affect. Two negative affects were found for purposes and processes: (a) indifference and boredom, and (b) extrinsic motivation. For lack of achievement, there was also only one general negative affect of disappointment and low self-esteem.

As discussed earlier, respondents did not make statements about purposes, processes, and achievement apart from affect. Instead, they frequently described their model learners with their affects intimately intertwined with their thoughts and understanding. With respect to curiosity, interest, and motivation, respondents presented integrative descriptions of these elements: "his purpose of learning is to understand more about the world, to find something that excites and intrigues him" and "just that, to learn more, this person is fascinated with many things, with almost everything." Regarding intrinsic enjoyment, examples of statements include "the most important thing is that this person enjoys learning . . . if he is presented with a topic he is especially interested in, he goes the extra mile to learn the material." Challenging attitudes, as shown earlier, are deeply rooted in the Western learning tradition that is clearly demonstrated in all four processes noted earlier. This integration is well expressed in the words of a participant: "having interest in learning more and a passion for discovery, and an intelligence that makes it possible to continue to think critically and pursue further inquiry."

It is worth pointing out that these affects mirror the fascination, wonder, and intrinsic passion about the world, as well as the inquisitive and critical spirit that characterize great scientists in the West (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993). These affects are also eloquently expressed by Bacon himself.

The general positive affect associated with U.S. model learners' achievement is pride that they display in themselves. Such pride is an expression for self-acknowledgement and self-esteem. These positive feelings about oneself in turn motivate the person to learn further. One respondent indicated that "he would see it as a source of pride. He does not mind when people praise his intelligence—he smiles."

With regard to negative affect, these data showed that model learners also encounter these feelings when the learning task is perceived as uninteresting or boring. When this happens, learners were described usually as not giving up, but continuing to learn the materials, especially if the materials are still required or important or useful knowledge. Still, they would not display intrinsic motivation and enjoyment. Instead, they would persist with some level of indifference, tepidity, boredom, even dread. Many respondents also acknowledged that these learners would stop investing time and effort into the materials if they are deemed less essential. For example, "he'd plow through it with boredom," "she would feel dread doing it," and "procrastinate from studying and complain about the materials."

Related to these negative affects, respondents also referred to extrinsic motivation as antithetical to natural curiosity, interest, and enjoyment. For example, "he would not spend time on it because the acquisition of knowledge must be an interesting and fulfilling process for him to want to pursue it. Learning to impress, or for money, or for other external rewards is not enough."

When model learners experience failure, they were described to feel a number of related negative emotions such as sadness, frustration, anger (at self), shame, low self-esteem, and depression. Naturally, these emotions stand in sharp contrast to those associated with high achievement. For example, "she would be frustrated . . . , embarrassed about her ignorance" and "he would lose his confidence and be nervous around others when engaging in conversations." However, these negative emotions were not described as having a devastating effect on these learners. Quite the contrary, model learners were believed to be able to bounce back, change their course of action, and aim at doing better next time. These positive attitudes were described as necessary and conducive to their personal goals, as well as processes of learning.

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