Designing Education for Learning

Injecting Knowledge or Foolishness?

Education strives to prepare learners to meet the social, scientific and technical demands of a changing world, yet does so in a manner that seems antithetical to change. We put people in rows, we create arbitrary time horizons and rules, and rely on a model that looks more like a factory than a place of learning. What gives?

As a new academic term begins, the old one closes, and all those year-end lists and year-beginning previews flood the media world I’ve found myself asking the twin questions: what did we teach/learn/discover and what did it matter?

In a previous post I discussed the problem with grades and their lack of fit with learning in complex systems. Here, I want to continue that thread, with a focus on post-secondary education (although it most certainly applies to all forms of structured learning) and knowledge translation in professional practice.

Feedback is critical to adaptation and the emergence of new patterns of order in complex systems. Adaptation comes from the incorporation of this feedback into new cognitive, social or physical structures. This is learning.

Yet consider the manner in which we structure our educational environments. They are not really designed for learning much at all. At least, they aren’t if you believe that people learn at different times, in different ways, using a complex array of media that requires multiple literacies, through interaction with other people, fail and fail often in a manner that is safe, in settings that allow for “mess” and promote ways to structure or unstructure their environment.

A colleague of mine and I were walking back from a meeting of a continuing medical education committee and stopped in front of the hospital to chat about the kind of challenges she faces in professional education in the hospital with doctors.

The only time I can get people in the same room is to do continuing education is 7am. There is one hour when the night shift (which is usually 12 or 24 hours long) is ready to go home and the new shift is ready to start. And we expect people to actually learn? Nearly everyone is asleep and everyone’s mind is on something else. I have to be really entertaining to make this stuff stick.

Is this learning? This continuing education effort is a failure not of the learners, nor the teachers, but of educational design. If 7-8am before/after shift is the only time that the scheduling system will allow for face-to-face learning, then that’s what has to take place first. Shifting the system as a whole must come soon after.

What made this conversation so well timed was that it took place after a meeting in which we spoke for two hours on ways to encourage online learning in effective ways. The problem, as we noted in that meeting, wasn’t that the tools were ineffective, but that they required people to access them from home, in their private time because there were no structured time to do it on the job, and firewalls to prevent access to most Web-based programs in the first place. In this case, the system was designed to thwart learning opportunities except those that require inordinate levels of educational skill, lots of coffee, and an unreasonable level of motivation among learners (the 7am con-ed moment).

The idea of bringing design to education has started to take root. Bruce Mau, who has inspired social design through his Massive Change projects, along with his design firm has teamed with OWP/P Cannon Design and furniture maker VS America to create the Third Teacher collaboration that is aimed at bringing design thinking to education. The work, initially focused on primary schools, has expanded to include the entire Arizona State University campus. The ASU experience has adopted the idea of the purpose-driven university through use of design strategies to help the university and its community find, affirm and commit to their purpose.

The collaboration looks to explore ways to create physical spaces, intellectual spaces, and facilitate the interaction between all spaces to enhance learning. This interaction space creates the feedback potential that ignites creativity, innovation and discovery. This is what an education system for learning could look like.

(Photo credit: Education by smemon87, used under Creative Commons Licence)

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