Learning and Education

When did education stop being about learning and turn into a performance art?

I was reading over some of my students’ blogs from last semester, and one of the things that jumped out at me was their observation that education was about grades, degrees, and getting ahead and not about learning (they weren’t happy about it – often pointing out that this is what is wrong with education today).

I blogged last year about how Bjork talks about the conditioning cycle that moves both students and learners into a self reinforcing cycle of performance and reward. Students are rewarded for doing what the teacher wants (high grades) and teachers are rewarded for increasing the number of students who achieve high grades (promotion opportunities, institutional acclaim). This becomes a virtuous (vicious) cycle of mutual rewards as students learn to perform (who said passing a test had anything to do with learning), teachers recognise the performance with academic currency (grades) and institutions reward “good” teaching with recognition and praise. Who is fooling who?

Jack Rogerson (one of my students) blogged about student cheating and why. He noted work by Dweck & Vandewalle who identified performance goal oriented students as:

  • Maladaptive Students – Quickly become disillusioned with tasks and tend to discourage themselves from developing their academic abilities/skills. They instead focus their attention on the opinions of others – they are mindful of negative judgement and are therefore more likely to resort to cheating as means of maintaining a positive image of capability amongst their peers.

It is all about appearances.

I believe that there are many students who start their studies actually excited about learning, but eventually, most find themselves caught up in the performance and reward cycle.

For me, this is one of the damning features of lectures. I will stand up and tell you something that I think you should know (and/or record it as a podcast and post it to the world), and then, in the name of assessing your learning, ask you about what I told you. The better you are at fetching the information (including some tidbit that I didn’t actually share with you), the higher the reward you will receive.

I wonder what Socrates would think of our civilised approach to learning today?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Present something both interesting and useful, care about the students success, empower them to direct their own learning experience, and help them believe that they can succeed. Provide learning tasks that allow students to match their ability with your expectations, and then reward real success, not a momentary performance.

We have the know how and the tools to liberate the learning experience. We can really have students centred learning – for which lecturing is the antithesis – at every learning  opportunity. Using an information abundance model to underpin learning design, I have scaled student centred learning up to 60+ students at a time. We don’t need to have seminars and discussion of >10 students to have a real learning experience, it can be available now with reasonable resources.

Given what we have available and what we can do now, I despair at the cost of inertia.


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