Order and the Problem of Change

I am Here for the Learning RevolutionThe new academic year is starting and with it the return to teaching.

Teaching brings with it many joys and demands and for those about to enter the teaching profession — at any level — you are undoubtedly going to encounter ‘problem’ students. But these may not be the ones who expect: the ones with serious learning difficulties, absent motivation, or a lack of focus. As much time and energy as these students demand, my experience has been that those who exceed expectations pose more problems than any others.

These are the ones that bring chaos to the order that we expect in ways that, if nurtured, is relentless.

I used to work in a school that had could have been called “Last Chance High”: the place for those youth who were not in custody or care, yet were too disruptive to be in a regular classroom. People would come into our special setting located in the basement of an older abandoned public school (the imagery brings a sad level of irony with it) and describe much of what happened in our school as chaotic or out of control. It might not have been “in control”, but there was much order to it. My colleagues and I were there because we were trained to work with adolescents with ‘special needs’ so for us ‘acting out’ didn’t cause us much difficulty. It was when students gained insight into themselves, found something positive, grabbed hold of it and transformed their behaviour into something much more constructive that things got tough.

For most of these young people they had been given a message that they were bad, inferior, screw ups, unwanted, or any number of negative qualities. Positive comments, when they were offered, were often conditional.

The same situation happens in university — even in graduate school, where students are perhaps more likely to be self-motivated and success oriented. We expect students to want to change the world and become the best scientists and scholars in the world. But we want that ‘best’ to look like something we know (i.e., what we are expecting). For researchers in public health that means publishing papers, going to presentations, using methods and theories that are familiar to us, and doing so within the usual constraints of 4 month courses. And let’s forget about teaching — there aren’t many ways to learn how to do it at most universities.

I have students (and some colleagues) that want to do things different.

  • They want to use video to communicate, take pictures, create blogs and not just text, because they believe in reaching a broader audience than just those with university level education and high literacy rates. They also want to use these media forms as research tools;
  • They want to partner with the community — not in the imaginary way that we often do in many community-based research studies — but in real partnerships. The kind that are messy and unpredictable, like any relationship;
  • They want to put on the conferences, not just attend them;
  • They want classes that aren’t just lectures and PowerPoint. The want to learn by doing;
  • They want to get out more and see the world– and want us faculty and administration to do the same;
  • They want to translate knowledge to everyone, not just in some manner that fits with a theoretical framework for how it should be done, using the tools that might not be convention (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, podcasting)

This is ALL problematic, because there aren’t the structures in place to support this. Right now. This is introducing a little chaos to an environment that is based on a certain order that expects people to innovate in certain ways that follow a linear path. Education is not linear. Learning is a complex adaptive system, yet our education system treats it like a linear, closed system.

This all gives me a headache and creates loads of work for me and my colleagues, just like those kids at the school I taught at years ago.

And just like it did many years ago, these participating in these transformative learning experiences continues to be the best part of teaching.

Bring on the Advil.

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