The Student of Learning (3)

Over the course of the last forty years, Canada’s universities, colleges and K-12 educational systems have performed extraordinarily well. We now have a more educated populace than at any time in our history. We have more employment directly linked to the expertise learned during school. We have more employers expecting workers and employees to be well trained, with varying degrees of knowledge and applied skills. The educational system as a whole is more attuned to the ups and downs of the economy and expectations of politicians and policymakers.

However, we are now entering a period, when policy makers are linking education exclusively to skills and outcomes. This is a return to nineteenth century values. It is as if we have forgotten all the transformative changes of the 20th century, which was arguably the period of greatest innovation in the history of education.

To learn is in fact to speculate, to develop habits of inquiry and a thirst for knowledge. Inevitably, as you learn more, the hunger to apply that learning grows. The etymology of the word learning clearly describes its scope. “Old English leornian — to get knowledge, be cultivated, study, read, think about.” When you learn less and that learning is tied too specifically to outcomes that don’t reflect your own individuality and your own aspirations, you ironically limit the scope of your expectations.

Let’s call this “narrow learning.” Narrow learning makes it seem as if the humanities for example, are completely superfluous. Why study literature when it provides you with no direct skills other than the ability to read, write, express yourself and think independently? Why study art when creativity releases inner needs and desires that cannot be quantified and most certainly cannot be directly related to the immediate future? Narrow learning suggests that human beings are linear in their expectations about themselves. It also suggests that there are simple and reductive solutions to the many different ways in which people acquire knowledge.

“Narrow learning,” creates expectations about knowledge that streamline the often difficult and sometimes contradictory ways in which people — learners — engage with information, especially information that is challenging and new. Complexity is reduced to a series questions and answers, most often within the context of examinations. Educators and policy makers have forgotten that exams for instance, only measure limited and profoundly circumscribed ideas and for the most part tell us very little about the aspirations, needs, conflicts and challenges that individual learners face.

This may sound “theoretical” but for those of us in the front lines of the educational system, we are witnessing and sometimes submitting to the pressures to rush students through their education, to seek results when none may be available. Learners are so different, so individual and often so conflicted that it is difficult to assess what they have learned. The urgency to complete a degree or a course overwhelms the slow pace that is sometimes necessary if learners are to work into new material, take ideas seriously and even translate those ideas into some form of action.

Ironically, the humanities are being studied outside of school in the informal settings made possible by social media. Take a close look at Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook and you will see people engaging with their passions and trying to figure out critical approaches to those passions. Spend some time on Reddit and you will see conversations about every topic, surrounded by suggestions and solutions to all sorts of challenges and problems. Reddit is like the Greek agoras of old. It is a public square full of conversation, with coffee tables spread throughout.

New knowledge cannot be gained through the use of old tools unless learning itself is reduced and expectations are limited. This then is the irony of  “narrow learning” and it is that expectations are reduced to narrow models, functional relationships and mono-disciplinary strategies. The broader question is, why have we not learned this and why are we returning with such force and emphasis to models that have proven themselves so weak and counterproductive?  


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.