What is linear learning?
Some aspects of our educational system reflect its machine-age origins. If you look closely you will see the ethos of the factory: The textbooks, the curricula, the classrooms, and the schedules we follow. These are products of a 19th century factory model.
They haven’t changed much over the centuries. To this day, the bell rings and we take our places for 45 mins of instruction in neat rows. Then we receive mass-produced content that was designed around standardized tests – tests that do not accommodate individual learning needs.
The delivery model is that of the conveyor-belt. If the system is to work as a whole, the content has to be delivered in a very particular way: It has to be delivered in a linear format.
You can see the linear format at work in textbooks that stagger information: In most textbooks you’re not supposed to proceed to Unit 2 until you’ve learned Unit 1. Nor will you will understand Unit 3 until you have ‘mastered’ Unit 2, and so on. Almost all textbooks are designed, literally, along such lines.
Let me give you an example from English language textbooks. For decades, they have traditionally begun with present tense (or aspect) verbs and usually with the 3rd person. He goes, and she eats, etc. These are commonly the first item in a long and linear sequence of items.
From there, the books invariably proceed to simple past tense, then past continuous, and then on to the perfect aspect, and so on. This is the order in which most newcomers to English meet the language. It’s also an example of linear delivery.
Linear is arbitrary
The striking thing about the linear approach is how arbitrary it is. The sequences of language items I mentioned have nothing to do with how and when learners actually acquire the elements - still less to do with what they would encounter in the wild. The sequence is arbitrary.
It’s also the case that, in real life (and even in school life) learners of spoken English do not acquire the very first item of the entire sequence – the simple present tense - until they reach an advanced stage of fluency. The first will be last and there’s nothing the terxtbook writer can do about this.
So, it’s interesting that Chinese speakers of English who have mastered many complex grammatical items continue to say “he go” rather than ‘ he goes’. For some reason the third persona singular ‘s’ is a late acquired morpheme – in some cases very late. Again, this is the direct opposite of what textbook order suggests.
The textbook sequence of items exists for reasons other than a natural order of learning. It’s presented out of an order of teaching expediency. This qualifies as what we might call a teacher-centric approach.
One assumption behind the linear approach is, of course, that ‘if it is taught then the learning will follow’, regardless of any natural order of acquistion. That is problematic, to say the least.
So, what is non-linear learning? On one level, non-linear learning is the way that we naturally learned for a couple of hundred thousand years. In nature, linear learning doesn’t exist. People didn’t learn to swim or hunt in a linear way – through a staggered, textbook process. We learned instead by doing, through direct experience, through dealing with things as they arose, and through discovering what it was that was important at the time. But most of all, we learned through making connections between stuff we already knew and the stuff we didn’t. This meant we actively constructed the knowledge as we needed it. It was all very subjecticve and individual and not linear.
In real life, children learn their mother tongue through random exposure. They make sense of the language by identifying patterns and they connect and store the patterns that work. Our brains are designed to work/learn this way, but it is a subjective process because each individual experiences distinct social and psychological phenomena. It is not an objective one size fit, but an experience that is entirely unique. Yet we all end up fluent in our native language.
Learning in the natural environment was not linear. There is a level on which it was actually quite random. It was situational.
Networks, not lines
If anything, non-linear learning has more to do with a network than a line. It’s about experience and connecting the dots, remembering that a certain plant could be eaten, another could heal ilness, while others should be avoided, etc.
This type of learning has a neurological basis: Our neural networks form the basis of memory/knowledge and even the brain itself. The web, like the brain, is all about links and nodes. Its network qualities have massive implications for learning that I think we’re just beginning to see. The rise of the web has meant the rise of a certain type of learning and it’s based on a network of connections rather than on linear sequences.
This doesn’t mean we have to put an end to linear learning – far from it – but it does mean we have to be open to other possibilities, and the web is providing those. Networks are everywhere and, as Jay Cross persuasively argues, they are changing everything, including how we learn. The last time that happened we had the Enlightenment on our hands.
Note: I updated this post for clarity in Sept 2012.