Learners and learning systems


November 19, 2010 by Willy Cardoso


Here I go – Something that might be taken for granted, ‘What is a learner?’

We tend to limit learner to the individual level, the isolated being that is learning. In a teacher’s context the learner is commonly the student. Teachers with a bit more awareness of what they’re doing also say they are and will always be learners themselves. Even in modern discourses that is full of socio-yyys and multi-zzzs learners are still associated with individuals.

From a complexity thinking perspective a group of learners, that one you teach twice a week at pre-intermediate level for example, is a learning system, i.e. a learner. Other examples of learners are schools, communities, groups such as the North Wales Ladies’ Association of Canastra and the London Society of Dogmeists (LSD). Learners also include cultures and languages.

A learner is a complex unity that is capable of adapting itself to the sorts of new and diverse circumstances that an active agent is likely to encounter in a dynamic world. (Davis & Sumara, Complexity and Education)

A learner, or learning system, is always nested – it is a sub-agent of a greater unity and has many embedded systems within.

An easy example, you; you have an immunological system and a psychological one that adapt to each other, you might get a bit depressed when you get a cold and recover faster if your friends are around cheering you up. You (being/body) also participate in a social group, you end up changing this group whether you like it or not, and you only do so because there are other systems/people. From this group interactions many things can emerge, things that are not the sum of the individuals that constitute the group (see post on Emergence), learning is what emerges, thus the agent/group is a learner.

The same happens with language, we create new words to new meanings, new words to old meanings too, we collectively and unconsciously forget words and they become old and obsolete, some words die, some are born and language is an ever-changing phenomenon. I don’t need to say much about this, it’s self-evident. Language is a learning/emergent system.

Back to the classroom, it’s important to emphasize that under this perspective we’re not averaging individual’s needs to come up with something for the whole. What is in fact suggested is that we expand our view of the individual, being at the same time a unique being with unique characteristics and a member of a unique group with unique characteristics. The masters in complex systems and applied linguistics Larsen-Freeman and Cameron say on this article:

Each individual acts as a unique learning context, bringing a different set of systems to a learning event, responding differently to it, and therefore, learning differently as a result of participating in it. In averaging across individuals, we lose detailed information about how those systems change in response to changes in context. When an individual participates in a group, the group as a system both affects and is affected by the individual. So, to understand language learning processes, we need to collect data about individuals (as well as about groups), and about individuals as members of groups as well as working alone. When researching groups, we need to see them as interconnecting systems of individuals.

Here, they are talking about research methods, but the concept is the same for other purposes too.

To sum it up, a learner is not limited to a thinking-talking head, a learner is a whole body nested in a context with a history. This body can be a human being or a body of knowledge, the main idea is that the interconnectedness and agency of these bodies/systems is what seem to cause learning, i.e. responses to novel conditions at both individual and group levels.

Nested learning systems


One thought on “Learners and learning systems

  1. David Warr says:

    Very interesting and informative.

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