I enjoy instructing instructors. Any long term change in our formal learning institutions will be bottom up – as educators change and experiment with new ways to maximize the learner’s experience and value. Recently, I instructed a course on “testing, evaluation, and assessment”. Some learners responded quite favorably to my approach, others felt I was downright cruel. The traditional view of education (teach and test) is strongly rooted in our schools/colleges. New methods of instructions are often seen with distrust.
One of the most disconcerting mindsets I encounter is that learning should be a clear, objective-driven process…and that confusion is a bad sign. We can still move learners toward clear, concise outcomes/competencies – even though the journey to this destination is at times confusing and ambiguous. Testing (or traditional assessment) is a powerful holdover from command and control world views. I don’t think we can substantially change our educational institutions until we take a long, hard look at how we evaluate and assess our students.
I perceive learning as a network formation process. We are not always actively constructing our learning, but we are always creating and loosening connections (even when we are constructing learning, it only becomes truly meaningful when we connect it to existing elements). Part of the experience is to evaluate and recognize patterns. In many courses, content is structured to provide progressive linear explore to new concepts and ideas. While academically effective, few aspects of life work in such a coherent fashion. Even when we design learning in a linear model, learners seek information that they find relevant (or what they think they may encounter in a test). We need to encourage learners to accept confusion and ambiguity as part of the learning process. From my experience, most learners recoil from confusion as a barrier to learning. I personally believe it is a door to learning.
Every instructor has his/her own philosophy. I believe that the learners are the ones who should adjust the content to their needs. I don’t see learners as containers to be filled. I trust learner’s ability to define what is important to them (the notion if information foraging). I trust that they will know what is needed to meet the requirements of their learning problem or opportunity. When the teacher is the king/queen of the classroom space, they control what happens, what gets adjusted, how much is “taught”, etc. When the learner is the centre of the space, the learner determines what gets reviewed, how much to read, and how to adjust. This “free” approach still occurs within the boundaries of assessment and evaluation (i.e. we can still move students toward an objective, and measure the degree to which they achieved the intended learning).
It is worth considering that different types of learning exist, and that the concept of learner-controlled exploratory learning will be more applicable in certain domains. By the same account, even when we give learners structured exposure to content, they are still only learning what they value. They may remember certain elements for testing, but long term retention consists of content that they find valuable and useful in their work/life. We are mistaken if we believe that we control learning primarily through content sequencing and arrangement. Design does have an important role in the process, but saying that our course design leads to learning is on level with saying that breathing is a process that we can manage through external influences. Our learning, like breathing, is a constant. It’s who we are. Learning can be guided, but by no means managed. Designers need to understand this key element. Good design, if not relevant, focused, holistic, motivational, etc. won’t necessarily result in better learning. The task of design is to move people toward intended targets. The learning will happen regardless of poor/good design. The key difference is whether the learner makes the connections (i.e. learns) that comprise the field of knowledge that is deemed relevant or necessary for that field.
Learners should be free to choose and learn based on their interests, but needs to express their efforts against clear evaluation criteria. Part of my intent is to eliminate the false constructs of courses (jumping through hoops provided by an instructor) and linking learning to real life. This ambiguity can be frustrating to learners, but I believe it results in deeper, more focused thinking. As I’ve stated in other posts, our goal should be to create the ecology in which learning happens, not the learning itself.
As a learner, I often learn (jump through hoops) in order to get a grade. Part of my journey has been finding ways to not focus on the grade and focus instead on the learning that I experience. I don’t remember my grades in the various courses when I was a student, but I do remember the concepts and applications. One of the reasons I try to avoid “high stakes testing” (and use a portfolio process instead) is to ensure that I’m not evaluating a learner’s ability to handle stress, but their personal philosophy of evaluation, and their ability to write test questions and pursue authentic evaluation approaches. A concept map, which is simply a learner’s representation of how pieces fit, provides a sense of how the learner has “connected the dots”. I think our evaluation and testing should not be the focus – the focus is learning, and too often, the evaluation and testing process becomes what learners are focused on – we, as educators, have to assist in shifting learner’s perspective on evaluation.
Evaluation is part of the teaching and learning process. A good grade is certainly desirable, but if our teaching/learning processes have been well thought out, learners who are competent should know they will do well. By the time a learner is finished a “courses”, she should know where she is in terms of grades. As an instructor, I should provide continual feedback against which a learner can sharpen and measure his/her own thinking. The evaluation outcome should not be a surprise to the learner. Unfortunately, we make the grades the focus (instead of the learning), and our learners think that the reason they are taking our courses is to get a certain grade. In reality, the focus of evaluation is to ensure that a learner has a framework upon which she/he can build and function within a field or within society as a whole. The grade, while mandated, is really one of the least valuable parts of the entire learning process.
Not every learning experience is one where we acquire new knowledge. Sometimes we unlearn, or learn how “not to do” something. I guess I see it as real life – in life, we don’t have clear, concise objectives or evaluation points. We learn and find new ways to recognize the patterns or highlight our own needs. Learning is secondary to the task we want to achieve/accomplish.
Our schools are at fault in not meeting the needs of learners. We mislead learners into thinking that life provides clear problems with clear solutions. It doesn’t. Life, in my eyes, provides us with the type of situations we should provide learners in courses – some data/information, some time for reflection, discussion, dialogue, and ultimately, the formation of a personal opinion or view that is not simply a regurgitation of the instructor’s view. This process of “fuzzy learning” – where we don’t have a clear outcome, but the learning happens through the act of solving the problem – is central to learning that does not have clear boundaries. Learning a particular task (where “best practices” or standards have been created) may be well-suited to formal, structured, sequential education. More and more of our work habits don’t fit into this category. Our education systems ask that we construct these problems into outcomes/objectives, and attach evaluation to each. Fine. We can do that. But it is my hope that educators will continue to extend themselves and add real life into the process. We can’t change “the institution” over night – but we can be creative and work within the confines while improving the value of the experience for our learners.
I can understand the discomfort of trying new approaches (especially for educators who are used to more traditional approaches). From my experience, the discomfort is what shocks us out of our current thinking. I have a quote on my wall by Dudley Herchbach (Nobel prize winner): “You have to be confused before you can reach a new level of understanding anything”. I imagine some learners will agree with that quote, but many others won’t. We are too used to seeing learning as a neat, tidy, 3-6 credit hour experiences.”