To Teach, To Learn: How Committed Are We to Both?

‘Back-to-school season offers a chance to revisit what education is for and what it could be.

A few years ago I posted a question on this blog: How serious are we about learning? It remains one of the most popular articles on this site, perhaps because it challenges students, teachers, parents, and employers to consider what it means to be engaged in real learning.

Through phrases like ‘culture of learning‘ or labels like learning organizations we celebrate and recognize the merits of learning and yet find few exemplars to model. Why?

As we get ready to go back to school — whether it’s as students, teachers, or trainers — its worth considering how we are all learners and what that means.

The Costs of Learning

Reminding yourself that you will die one day is useless if it doesn’t change how you live. – Shane Parrish

The picture in the heading above is a promotion for a series that was run in the Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada on the future of higher education. Years after it first ran, the issues are more central than ever — particularly with resourcing.

Scott Galloway, NYU Professor of marketing, has written extensively on the crisis of funding and purpose facing US post-secondary institutions in the time of a pandemic. Among the areas he focuses on is the price of tuition and the revenue dependencies universities and colleges have on student enrollment and participation in campus life. For these reasons, the push to continue the status quo — on-campus life, etc. — is high to the point of risking the health of students, faculty, and staff even as they raise tuition fees. The alternative is to reduce enrollment, continue classes online and to risk the financial viability of many institutions in the process.

Governments are spending enormous sums of money to equip schools with the means to support online or distance instruction, too. Preparing instructors and supplying students with the software, hardware, and network infrastructure to sustain online education in a short period of time is proving to be a costly endeavor.

While this is all expensive, what we’re failing to examine are the costs to learn. Those are different.

If we continue to do the same thing, just online or just in a physically distanced manner we still miss the bigger point and the opportunity that the pandemic and it’s cascading effects bring us.

Design for Learning (Part 1)

Learning happens within systems. We can shovel content at a person, but that won’t matter much if they are unable to remember, filter, process, or apply what they’ve been exposed to in a coherent manner. That is what learning is about. We don’t need schools to get content. The Internet allows us to find nearly anything of relevance to our interests in a volume and (sometimes) depth that obliterates anything offered within a classroom.

We succeed in our learning — even within schools — when we are given the space to practice and process knowledge and skills we’re exposed to. It’s the experience of exposure, practice, modeling, and reflection that creates learning. With most of what we are creating in our courses and programs is exposure with some practice, but with little supervision (more on that in moment).

Then there’s the whole matter of content and the fit with the format. Whether it’s online, hybrid, interactive, or passive — the format matters.

Among the most absurd things I’ve seen is this recent advertisement for a diversity and inclusion certificate from Cornell University (below) — online (note the laugh emoticon reactions to the post). It’s a real certificate for a real program from a US Ivy League school.

Clearly, Cornell thinks you can learn how to be inclusive online and do it well enough that they can assess your abilities to include people enough to grade you and provide you with a certificate. What does that mean?

What does an ‘A’ mean in that course? What does a ‘B’ or ‘C’ mean? Should we assume that if you have a certificate from this class that you’ll be positioned to make your workplace, community, place of worship, or school inclusive — and do something that organizations have struggled with for decades? If that’s the case, then that certificate is worth far more than professor Galloway’s analysis would suggest.

This program is designed to deliver content and facilitate some kind of assessment, but is it designed to learn?

Design for Learning (Part 2)

What the example above illustrates is an outdated version of education suited to a present-day challenge. Learning to work with difference does have some content and skill components that can be taught through a course, but is fundamentally about practice. Good practice involves applying what we know and combining it with what we see, hear, and experience.

Good judgement comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgement.

The above quote (attributed to Dr. Kerr White) points to the role that feedback plays in the learning process. We learn to ride a bike by tipping over, stumbling, falling off and then succeeding. Not everything is learned this way, but much of what we deal with in innovative, complex contexts — which is much of human experience — is learned by action and reflection with others. That social process — feedback — is critical.

In professional realms this comes from supervision. The term supervision within a learning context isn’t about management or even authority, it’s about the idea of a ‘super’ (above) ‘visor’ (vision): someone who can see the bigger context while we struggle with the details. When we do education in bulk — large classrooms or massive online courses we lose the opportunity for supervision and the perspective it brings. A supervisor can be a peer or a mentor — just someone who will provide you with the perspective and critical feedback to allow for integration of learning.

When we work with difference — like the topic of diversity and inclusion — we need that feedback from people to tell us we’re helping make spaces for welcoming, understanding, and acceptance. Otherwise, we risk assuming our credentials mean we know what we’re doing.

This is done by design. Without the design for real learning, we are creating a lot of costs, chaos and busywork and little progress toward something better. Just a lot of new laptops, confused students, overwhelmed instructors, and lost administrators.

We can do better. Let’s learn how.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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