Learning is what?

This past week or so I have been wondering what I am talking about when I refer to learning. I have a simple, succinct definition of teaching that I stick to, and it has served me well: Teaching is fostering learning.

However, what is learning? I read about simple slugs with only a few neurons learning, and I think, that’s not

Slug (Photo credit: Michael of Scott)

what I am fostering when I am teaching. At least I don’t think that is what I am fostering. I read about robots learning to do various tasks and wonder if that kind of learning would result from my teaching? I read about organisations learning, and wonder if my teaching fosters that?

Psychologists have identified two broad categories of knowledge, and there has been extensive studies done working out the differences between the two: procedural knowledge (knowing how) and declarative knowledge (knowing what). A third type of knowledge has emerged in recent years that has not been as extensively studied: conceptual knowledge (knowing why). The conceptual knowledge can come in a couple of varieties, shallow knowledge (oh, that’s why), and deep knowledge (I understand why).

The first two types on knowledge (procedural and declarative) come with associated learning (procedural learning and declarative learning). Studies surrounding conceptual learning has been limited to the ability to categorise items – not exactly the knowing why that I am interested in, however, there must be a learning that leads to both shallow and deep conceptual knowledge.

With all of these different types of knowledge and learning, what exactly is it that we talk about when we talk about learning in higher education? What is it that businesses are asking for when they say that students haven’t learned? When we are asked to focus on skills, what type of learning is being referred to? When we hear that students graduate, but can’t think, what are they talking about? When we look at connectivism as a learning theory, what kind of learning is are we talking about?

I know that when I am talking about my teaching, I am talking about conceptual learning for my senior level psychology in education module, with procedural learning in my statistics class (with a bit of conceptual learning thrown in) as I equip my students with the necessary tools to study psychology.

I think there a couple of blogs that arise from different perspectives on exactly what learning is about: students’, employers’, educators’, and theorists’.


Skills or Experience

I was reading Roger Schank’s blog last week, and loved his free online courses post. There are a number of points that I found refreshing to read (it is good not to be alone), however, I wonder about his complete faith in experiential learning.

The reason I wonder about it has to do with my own experience. Fifteen (or so) years ago (once you have been doing this so long, everything was just a few years ago – even the 80’s) when the skills agenda was all the rage here in the UK, I was tasked to develop a skills programme. At the time they were key skills, and they were slowly transformed into employability skills. I don’t think anyone cared what they were called, they were all the same thing. It was one of the first times I found a real disillusionment in education (prior to that, I just got on in my own little world).

According to the skills agenda, we were to embed skills into the curriculum for the students to acquire. As I went to workshops, seminars, conferences etc. etc. etc., I found that this was almost universally done in one of two ways – require the students to give a talk as an assessment in a module, and you could tick off the oral communication skill (one off embedding), or, run a key skills module for all students in their first year, and they would have the necessary skills to succeed at university (and hence, life).

Both of these approaches are phoney, for entirely different reasons. Giving someone the experience of doing something (public speaking) does not constitute teaching, and skills are, by their very definition, something that you need to initially acquire at some baseline level, and then improve on over time. By the same token, having a single class in the first year that covers a wide range of key skills does not mean that you are skilled at anything, it means that you have begun acquiring a skill at some baseline level. My attitude toward skill development is that it is something that needs to be taught and then guided. It takes time and energy. Too many of the learning opportunities that focus on experiential learning fail to ensure that the students are properly skilled at a baseline level prior to being exposed to an experience that requires the use of that skill. There is too much reliance on problem based learning without adequate background preparation.

That is why I see experiential learning as a vital and necessary component of the educational future that focuses on skills. Teach the skills explicitly (at least the basics) and then guide learners through their experiential learning environments supporting and guiding them (reminding them of the skills they have begun to acquire) and incrementally withdrawing that support while they hone their skills in a safe learning environment.

I think the skills have to be the fundamental focus, and the experiences planned and implemented to strengthen and support the skill development process. Not a world away from Roger’s thinking, but a subtle enough difference to miss the point. A person is valuable to society for what they can do, not for what they have experienced.

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.