Ladder, Learning and Lessons from Charlie – Paper Summary

The following is a summary of Bigum and Rowan’s 2010 paper, ‘Ladders, Learning and Lessons from Charlie: exploring the potential of public click pedagogy’. A copy of this paper  can be obtained using the following link.


Learning new material, developing new skills or making new discoveries can be complicated, lengthy and messy. Few of us go from inexperienced to skilled or novice to master in anything like a simple, tidy or routine manner. We often learn more from our mistakes than our successes. Yet, in efforts to ‘teach’ students various facts, skills or dispositions, formal education systems favor simplification of content and gloss the messiness of learning.

Depending upon its complexity, what we are attempting to learn is often rendered into a simpler, tidier, approximate version, one deemed suitable for our current level of knowledge by those who have greater expertise in what is to be learned. Well intentioned rendering often goes hand in hand with overlooking the specific moves or means through which individuals actually come to learn things.
Recounting our own experiences of learning to do/think/know something is difficult. The metaphor of Wittgenstein’s ladder helps here. The image of the ladder suggests that as we learn more about a particular subject, we progress further up a ladder. But, just as importantly, as we climb higher, the lower or bottom rungs fall away. We don’t necessarily remember the steps we took in the past. The questions, mistakes and missteps that occurred at the bottom of the ladder are forgotten. For the expert knower, climbing back down the ladder becomes more difficult the higher up the expert is. Remembering what it was like before we got to where we have on any particular ladder is not easy. Bringing the ladder metaphor together with the tidying or simplifying practices of education, it is possible to argue that the ladder built by an expert is always a ladder with its bottom rungs missing.

This paper is based upon a hunch that focusing on bottom rungs has a role to play in facilitating learning. The experience of coming to terms with a body of knowledge for the first time is rarely shared. Significantly, a student almost never gets a glimpse of what his or her teacher went through to achieve the understandings they now have. We draw on lessons from actor-network theory (ANT) to make a case for what we call public click pedagogy, a public sharing of the steps made as one attempts to climb a ladder: mistakes, mess and missteps as well as ‘aha’ or ‘click’ moments.

R N (Red Notebook)

  • Charles Darwin’s ‘Red Notebook’ – ‘What also strikes you is the messiness of and a kind of jumpiness in the notes…[I]n these notes we have a trace of his musings…[W]e have an inscription of learning that is now public.’
  • ‘Mistakes, however are not things that are often tolerated in formal education systems.’ (less focused on learning from mistakes)

learning how to do science

  • ‘The tidiness of the right answer offers an efficiency that wins every time over pursing sources of error in incorrect results.’
  • ‘The transition from not knowing yet to knowing can be complex.’  It is also largely depended on resources, interactions with other students/teacher/mentor and feedback.

learning from holes in walls

  • Sugra Mitra set up an experiment in which he hoped to prove that there are things that students cannot teach themselves.
  • Findings: ‘[L]earners willing to tackle acquiring new knowledge skills, or dispositions, are able to do so, often with minimal or not support.’

Climbing ladders, learning from mistakes

  • Wittgenstein’s ladder (Perloff 1996) – learning something new can be compared to climbing a ladder.
  • Learner progresses to the next rung of the ladder when they have successful mastered the skill or acquired the knowledge needed to take that next step.
  • As the learner climbs higher up the ladders, the initial learnings of the early rungs becomes more difficulty to access, ‘to unlearn as it were’.
  • ‘We see the world from where we are now, not where we were, or how we came to where we are now.  The questions, fumblings, mistakes and missed steps that occured at the bottom of the ladder are forgotten.’
  • Learning is a very personal and private endeavour. ‘There may be involvement of a coach or teacher for some, but the struggle to move up a rung tends to be the secret leaner’s business.’
  • ‘Learning what to eliminate and what to keep is, depending upon the ladder you are climbing, not always easy to decide.’
  • ‘Having the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them becomes a key element in ladder climbing.’♥
  • ‘Given the importance of making mistakes it does appear off that ready made learning pays little attention as it does to mistakes that are made climbing ladders.’ – implications for online learning?
  • ‘Ladders for learners’ – ‘How we build ladders to be climbed by learners matters.’  While ladders are usually build by experts they ‘the messiness of producing ready made learning is tidied away, and the messiness of students learning is glossed.  As a result, for many learners, the ladders appear to have the bottom rungs missing.’
  • Formal Education – ‘Ready made learning is preferred over learning in the making.’

Comment: Interesting considerations regarding the increasing focus of standardised testing in Australia.  Community judgements of teacher based largely on what is ‘produced’ by the learner, not on the processes and skills that students are adding to their tool boxes.Consider the possibilities of allowing learning to take place in public – celebrating the journey and not just the destination.

towards public click pedagogy

  • ‘Mitra’s work makes it clear that we tend to underestimate what a leaner is capable of…’ ♥
  • Mitra’s work shows that students are capable of teaching themselves ‘with only online content to draw from, even under the most difficult of conditions.’
  • ‘Much of the material and approaches to support learners is, however, still very much based upon ladders being built by experts and content between moved from paper to a digital format.  What has been made public is largely the work of knowers, of experts of the skilled.’
  • Need for ‘more accounts by experts about how they go about their work.’ Kudos to you David for your special mention about making ‘private academic business…being made public.’
  • Pedagogical benefits of written reflection of learning can constitute making learning public.
  • Need for learning experiences that are not ‘tidy’, students need the opportunity to make mistakes, makes wrong turns, abandon ideas and paths to pursue other lines of inquiry.
  • Learners need more ‘aha’ and ‘click’ moments and these come through exploration where the learner as the time and space to make mistakes, reflect upon them and learn from them.
  • The Public Click Pedagogy Approach (PCP) ‘is one in which accounts of how learners fo about their work are valued.  Instead of learning remaining private, it is made public.  Instead of valuing ready made knowledge, it values learning in the making.  Instead of glossing mistakes and missteps it records them and the steps taken.’


Bigum, C and Rowan, L. (2013). Ladders, Learning and Lessons from Charlie: exploring the potential of public click pedagogy. Working Paper (2). A paper submitted as part of an actor-network theory double symposium organised by Steve Wright for the 9th International Networked Learning Conference 2014.




3 responses to “Ladder, Learning and Lessons from Charlie – Paper Summary

  1. Did you see Chris’ reply to one of my posts in which I pointed to some critiques of Mitra’s work?

    I have a lot of time for the ideas underpinning Mitra’s work, especially that we underestimate the learner’s capability. We just need better research to illustrate that. There are some folk at USQ doing some work linked to this idea.


    • I first came across Sugata Mitra through a Ted video I watched some time again now. And also read Brendan’s blog post of his recent presentation at a conference in Brisbane which a number of my colleagues also attended. I hadn’t really explored much of his ‘research’ rather considering his views as more of a catalysis for discussion rather than ‘hard facts’. That said, I have not heard of any open critics of his work. Mitra seem to be developing a ‘guru’ type statue, at least among those I work with but will be interested to learn more about the methodology behind his findings given the work I am look to do throughout my Masters. I am assuming based on a quick internet search that Chris was referring to Donald Clark. I was particular interested to read more about how the ‘mediators’ were actually used in the project, certainly reads like ‘teaching’ to me. Donald Clark’s blog post also points to references regarding Mitra’s work including Arora and Koseoglu, definitely worth a little more read into I think! I guess though, when all is said and done, Mitra’s work is promoting conversation and debate and that has to be benefical for developing better systems of education to support our children now and in the future.

      I also looked at the link you provided to ‘some folk at USQ’. Next time I am up in Toowoomba I might try and arrange to meet with Jenny and others to see where this research might be heading. Thanks for the heads up!


  2. Pingback: ‘As a teacher’ – CLEM | EVEN ELMO'S GOT A MOBILE

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