What is quality when we speak of learning? In this third post in series on education and evaluation metrics the issue of quality is within graduate and professional education is explored with more questions than answers about the very nature of learning itself.
But what does learning really mean and do we set the system up to adequately assess whether people do it or not and whether that has any positive impact on what they do in their practice.
What do you mean when you say learning?
The late psychologist Seymour Sarason asked the above question with the aim of provoking discussion and reflection on the nature and possible outcomes of educational reform. Far from being glib, Sarason felt this question exposed the slippery nature of the concept of learning as used in the context of educational programming and policy. It’s a worthwhile question when considering the value of university and professional education programming. What do we mean when we say learners are learning?
The answer to this question exposes the assumptions behind the efforts to provide quality educational experiences to those we call learners. To be a learner one must learn…something.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines learning this way:
the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study, or by being taught: these children experienced difficulties in learning | [ as modifier ] : an important learning process.
• knowledge acquired in this way: I liked to parade my learning in front of my sisters.
This might sufficiently answer Dr Sarason except there is no sense of what the content is or whether that content is appropriate, sufficient, timely or well-supported with evidence (research or practice-based); the quality of learning.
Knowledge translation professionals know that learning through evidence is not achieved through a one-size-fits-all approach and that the match between what professionals need and what is available is rarely clean and simple (if it was, there would be little need for KT). The very premise of knowledge translation is that content itself is not enough and that sometimes it requires another process to help people learn from it. This content is also about what Larry Green argues: practice-based evidence is needed to get better evidence-based practice.
How do we know when learning is the answer (and what are the questions)?
If our metric of success in education is that those who engage in educational programming learn, how do we know whether what they have learned is of good quality? How do we know what is learned is sufficient or appropriately timed? Who determines what is appropriate and how is that tested? These are all questions pertaining to learning and the answers to them depend greatly on context. Yet, if context matters then the next question might be: what is the scope of this context and how are its parameters set?
Some might choose academic discipline as the boundary condition. To take learning itself as an example, how might we know if learning is a psychology problem or a sociology problem (or something else)? If it is a problem for the field of psychology, when does it become educational psychology, cognitive psychology, community psychology or one of the other subdisciplines looking at the brain, behaviour, or social organization? Successful learning through all of these lenses means something very different across conditions.
Yet, consider the last time you completed some form of assessment on your learning. Did you get asked about the context in which that learning took place? When you were asked questions about what you learned on your post-learning assessment:
- Did it take into account the learning context of delivery, reception, use, and possible ways to scaffold knowledge to other things?
- Did your learner evaluation form ask how you intended to use the material taught? Did you have an answer for that and might that answer change over time?
- Did it ask if your experience of the learning event matched what the teachers and organized expected you to gain and did you know what that really was?
- Did you know at the time of completing the evaluation whether what you were exposed to was relevant to the problems you needed to solve or would need to solve in the future?
- Did you get asked if you were interested in the material presented and did that even matter?
- Was there an assumption that the material you were exposed to could only be thought of in one way and did you know what that way was prior to the experience? If you didn’t think of the material in the way that the instructors intended did you just prove that the first of these two questions is problematic?
Years of work in post-secondary teaching and continuing professional education suggests to me that your answer to these questions was most likely “no”, except the very last one.
These many questions are not posed to antagonize educators (or “learners”, too) for there are no single or right answers to any of them. Rather, these are intended to extend Seymour Sarason’s question to the present day and put in the context of graduate and professional education at a time when both areas are being rethought and rationalized.
Learning to innovate (and being wrong)
A problem with the way much of our graduate and professional education is set up is that it presumes to have the answers to what learning is and seeks to deliver the content that fills a gap in knowledge within a very narrow interpretation. This is based on an assumption that what was relevant in the past is both still appropriate now and will be in the future unless we are speaking of a history lesson. However, innovation and discovery — and indeed learning itself — is based on failure, discomfort and not knowing the answers as much as building on what has come before us. There is no doubt that a certain base level of knowledge is required to do most professional and scientific work and that building a core is important, but it is far from sufficient.
The learning systems we’ve created for ourselves are based on a factory model of education, not for addressing complexity or dynamic systems like we find in most social worlds. We do not have a complex adaptive learning system in place, one that supports innovation (and the failures that produce new learning) because:
If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. – Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talk 2006
The above quote comes from education advocate Sir Ken Robinson in a humorous and poignant TED talk delivered in 2006 and then built on further in a second talk in 2010. Robinson lays bare the assumptions behind much of our educational system and how it is structured. He also exposes the problem we face in advancing innovation (my choice of term) because we have designed a system that actively seeks to discourage wide swaths of learning that could support it, particularly with the arts.
Robinson points to the conditions of interdisciplinary learning and creativity that emerge when we free ourselves of the factory model of learning that much of our education is set up, “producing” educated people. If we are assessing learning and we go outside of our traditional disciplines how can we assess whether what we teach is “learned” if we have no standard to compare it to? Therein lies the rub with the current models and metrics.
If we are to innovate and create the evidence to support it we need to be wrong. That means creating educational experiences that allow students to be wrong and have that be right. If that is the case, then it means building an education system that draws on the past, but also creates possibilities for new knowledge and learning anchored in experimentation and transcends disciplines when necessary. It also means asking questions about what it means to learn and what quality means in the context of this experimental learning process.
If education is to transform itself and base that transformation on any form of evidence then getting the right metrics to evaluate these changes is imperative and quality of education might just need to be one of them.