The Student of Learning (1)

To me, the experience of learning is dependent upon the context in which it takes place. Educational institutions have developed in tandem with a series of grand expectations about their impact and usefulness. That history is bound up with the hope that there will be social and economic benefits from what students learn and what they become. I use the word hope advisedly because the history of education is littered with the remains of many failed experiments to fulfil those goals. There have also been many successes. The last twenty years have been difficult for the educational system.

Expectations have grown and at the same time, institutions have had great difficulty in keeping pace with demands from all sectors of our society. This is not due to a lack of effort. Quite the contrary, the story of education in the 20th century is about educators trying, at every level, to resolve the issues of learning, empowerment and student development. The problem is that institutions do not change willingly and when changes occur, they are often difficult to maintain.

The most important question that needs to be answered about the future of the educational system is how we are going to encourage the creation of new paradigms of learning. Learning is largely based on the complex circumstances and context of classroom and school culture. Learning is also profoundly affected by the ways in which educational institutions are governed, as well as the expectations of students. This mix of features is made more difficult by the challenges that faculty and staff face in keeping the educational system in good shape. The complexity of all of these elements, their interaction and the challenge of planning for improvement have become central features of the debate on the future of education as we know it.

Context is about stories and in most instances, the stories that surround and underlie learning are rather more ephemeral than we would want to believe. Many of our theories of learning and so much of the practice of teaching does not account for the profoundly subjective nature of the school experience. The desire to convey information and the social and cultural pressure to make learning into something that can be validated empirically makes it appear as if subjectivity is a distraction. It is not supposed to matter if students are experiencing some of the most turbulent periods of their lives as they move through the educational system. Somehow, they have to suffer through all of the expectations of the system and of their families, all of the social pressures and physical and psychological transformations that transitional periods of life engender and still succeed. Thankfully, many do. Because of a variety of societal pressures, the complexity of the context that I have just described is often marginalized in discussions of education.

If you add in the various layers of experience that teachers go through as they transit from one stage of life to another, then it becomes clear why there is no simple way of describing how, or even whether, learning takes place inside educational institutions. This situation has been made even more difficult by the fact that over the last decade the demands for change in schools has become very intense. The subjective space of the teacher, for example, from family problems to illness is more often than not kept in the background of institutional life. Yet, communication cannot be abstracted from the realities that people are experiencing and from the pressures that they are under. I am not suggesting a focus here. Rather, I am discussing a territory that is more complex than we are often ready to admit.