My favorite course to teach in Studies in Lifelong Learning program at the Mount is Lifelong Learning Processes. For several years, I have started the course by engaging students in learning an unfamiliar practice so that they might attend to their own learning processes. “What is the nature of your learning?” I ask them as they engage in an activity like juggling, playing a tune on a harmonica or mouth harp, offering a greeting in Arabic, giving a secret handshake. “What is changing as you learn?” “Where is this change taking place in you?” “How is your body involved in this change?” “How is language and narrative involved?” “What happens to your relationships with other people in this process?”
One of my favorite things to get students try to learn is to tie a well-known knot called the bowline. Well at least I thought it was well known. To my great surprise it has turned out that very few people know how to tie a bowline knot. Last summer, for instance, at a Summer Institute I taught at in Toronto only one of close to two hundred students already knew how to tie a bowline. In Nova Scotia, the likelihood of someone knowing how to tie the knot seems higher. Usually, someone in my Nova Scotia classes (around twenty students) will have sailed at some point and will have learned the knot (sailing was most likely the context where this ancient knot was first invented). I learned the knot as a Scout when I was a boy on the prairies and have used it all of my life. It is a mainstay of my current practice as a sailor.
Because so few people know how to tie it, learning the bowline is an excellent first exercise in my class on lifelong learning processes. But, there are several other reasons why knots are a good way to begin to learn about learning. Perhaps most important, I think, is that knots challenge my students to rethink prevailing assumptions they have about how we learn.
The dominant theory of learning is what I would call the “upload theory.” This theory posits learning as a process whereby a preexisting body of knowledge (like the dreaded grade-school times tables) is uploaded into the mind of a student. The very structure and process of tying a knot challenges this view. The “finished” knot (by its nature prized as something that resists transformation under varying loads and circumstances) is really not something that best be describes as something that can be “transmitted” to another person. Learning to tie a knot requires a learner to engage in a twisting, turning dance with a piece of cord. It requires an attunement of perception, cognition, and motor coordination that is only achieved through what many people experience as rather painstaking practice.
My question to my students when they are learning the bowline is, “When do we ever learn by a process that is not like knot-tying?” Learning always involves us in twisting ourselves into a flow of practices. In this view, a times table is not an external body of knowledge but is more like a knot that a student, through practice, learns how to tie.
One part of thinking differently about learning is shifting our sense of the spatiality of the process. Rather than imagining learning as a spatial relation where something outside of us finds its way inside of us, it is useful, I think, to image a spatial relation in which we (our bodies, our emotions, our perceptions, our cognitions) move into and intertwine with some sort of ongoing flow of world relations. Learning to tie a knot, in this view, is not so much internalizing a series of steps leading to its completion. In fact, students find it very difficult to learn to tie a not as a series of discrete steps (by following a series of images, for example). Rather, learning to tie a knot is more like learning a flow of movement, that twists the cord and the body together into a particular rhythmic pattern.
Sometimes, to help students learn the knot I rattle off a little narrative about a rabbit, a rabbit hole, and a tree. Actions like coming out, going around, going back in, help convey the direction and flow that that hands and cord must take to tie the knot. In this case, at the same time as students entwine themselves in the narrative (our facility for language makes this fairly easy) they become entangled in the physical maneuvers of tying the knot.
The knot for me is a powerful metaphor for knowledge and knot tying or, to pirate Yrjö Engström’s (2005) term, knotworking, is a good ways of thinking of the process of learning itself. Learning is a process of becoming entangled in the processes of life, of weaving our actions into the flows of existence.