Learning: A State of Dissatisfaction

Recently, several people have agreed with my claim, "Confusion is the beginning of learning," but disagreed with "Satisfaction is the end of learning." (See "Thoughts" in the sidebar.) One considered satisfaction to be the reward of learning, and thus the motive to continue learning. Another said that satisfication leads to exploring new avenues of knowledge and learning. They and one other considered the second claim to be negative; that is, dissatisfication, a negative term, is not appropriate for approaching learning, a positive term. After all, how many people enjoy being in a state of discomfort?

I imagine that they are referring to the sense of pleasure, a hormonal high, that results from accomplishment, whether overcoming some struggle or solving a puzzle. That pleasure can enable one to struggle and work through some confusion again, which can lead to "exploring new avenues" of learning.

Satisfaction for me, however, indicates a state of equilibrium rather than a sense of pleasure.

Learning from a radical constructivist, or Piagetian, perspective occurs through the interactive processes of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the adding of new knowledge to old by “reduc[ing] new experiences to already existing sensorimotor or conceptual structures” without changing the structures; accommodation is the modifying of old knowledge to accommodate the new or the creation of new cognitive structures, patterns of thought, and behavior. Accommodation occurs when new experiences that cannot be reduced to existing experiences create a perturbation that, leading to reflection on the situation and activity, may, in turn, cause either a change in prior cognitive structures or the creation of a new schema (von Glasersfeld, 1995b, p. 63). Both assimilation and accommodation, individual in nature and based on experience, are driven by the process of equilibration, a process of self-regulating the mental tension between the two, between internal mental states and external reality.

From the viewpoint of activity theory, learning is a process driven by contradictions, contradictions in the activity of learning between students and institutional influences or between classrooms and other activity systems. To learn and develop means to resolve or transform these contradictions (instead of merely shifting them elsewhere) at individual and system levels. In other words, learning means that one cannot be satisfied with the status quo.

From a third theory, complexity theory, adaptation, and I include learning, requires an organism to be on the edge of chaos, where forces of order and disorder interact in a balanced way. Satisfaction would be a force of stability in this model, and confusion, a force of disorder. Complete confusion would be disruptive to learning, as would be total satisfaction. Complete confusion brings anarchy, while total satisfaction with the status quo has no motivation to change, to learn.

From these theoretical perspectives, satisfaction cannot lead to learning. Then, again, neither can too much confusion. Rather, learning is recursively driven by the desire for satisfaction (or equilibrium), a desire once reached, leads to new dissatisfactions, and thus more learning. Pedagogically, then, instruction must keep students balanced on the edge of dissatisfaction with their present state of understanding.