Learning: the journey or the desitination?

“The good is the enemy of the best” – no idea who said it…but when it comes to learning, it presents a needed perspective. At times, the pursuit of what we seek is actually antagonistic to the real opportunity before us. Education is a great example – what most learners really want is a better job, increased sense of competence, greater understanding of the world, or increased capacity to positively influence society. These I’ll term as “the best”. “The good”, however, arises when we enter courses and programs. Instead of focusing on learning as a fluid, transitive state (a learning hobo :) ), we desire to “know”…to have the right answer…to achieve high grades. We appear to be very uncomfortable with the journey of learning, constantly degrading it to secondary status in relation to the destination of learning.

Why is not knowing perceived as a stressful state? Can we blame our education system? Have we been taught that “knowing” is more valuable than “attempting to know”? Or that the destination of having learned something (i.e. a degree) is more important than the process or act of learning?

I’m teaching a series of courses currently that bring this to the forefront in my thinking. Very bright, capable learners, lament uncertainty and ambiguity. As one learner recently stated: “just tell me what I need to know – I don’t want to make the connections myself”. I’m unsure whether the issue is our education system (learners are used to being containers to be filled with knowledge), the mindset of learners themselves (discomfort with the transitory, ambiguous elements of learning), or with my own instructional approach. Regardless of the underlying causes, the expression of the problem centers on learners not valuing chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. The desire for cognitive (or emotional) equilibrium is at odds with the reality of learning today.

This is not to say that design is not important. I think design is critical to effective learning. The question is “what are we designing?” Are we designing teaching? Or are we trying to design the learning? In a perfect world, we would design the ecology in which learning occurs, and use the teaching process as one in which we move learners toward key, required levels of understanding. The learner, however, would have full control to move well beyond the concepts “taught” (and for that matter, the instructor should also be seen as a learner – active engagement in an ecology results in all elements growing). Learners can still pursue self-selected objectives…but many fields, organizations, and businesses do have certain required levels of achievement, skill, beliefs, and thinking skills. Learning, in organizational contexts, often requires a target. An ecology, as an open, free-range space, can be appropriately designed to move learners toward that target – but it’s important that educators understand that growth will occur far beyond the target (in ways that can’t be predicted – the complexity of learning enables this rich, user-defined experience. In a sense, we can say “you should learn this”…but we aren’t saying “you can’t learn that”. Learning is often more like an open door that leads to new fields of exploration than it is like a bulls eye target).

Rather than being excited that we can participate in the rich, diverse world of differing perspectives and opinions, we pull back because “we don’t know”. This will develop into a significant problem. How do we teach learners to accept (and dare I say, value) not knowing. I’ve spent many evenings assisting my children with homework – many tears have been shed (on their part, not mine :) ) because they “did not know”. Perhaps it is in our nature to want to banish the uncomfortable feelings with not knowing something. We like clear, black and white, always true answers. Often these answers exist (at least, I think so! Stephen and I had a long discussion recently on objectivity and subjectivity – my view is that what we often describe as subjectivity is simply our interpretation of an objective element – I can have subjective views of gravity (for example, diving off of a diving board versus falling out of a tree)). In many situations the answers don’t exist…or they exist, but the context changes so rapidly that we need to continually evaluate what we know and how it applies to what is happening around us. School should be a safe place that allows a learner to step outside of the destination view of learning and embrace the journey view. It’s ok to not know. It’s heathy to accept confusion as part of the learning process. Often, for myself at least, I learn the most when I’m in the greatest level of confusion. It is at this point that I’m actively trying to create connections between varying viewpoints and perspectives. I’m thinking critically of new information, I’m seeking to build a neural network that represents the physical/conceptual elements I’m encountering…while contrasting those elements with previous experiences and established conceptions.

I should state as well that I draw a distinction between not knowing and being ignorant. Not knowing, while on a journey, is entirely different from being ignorant and not caring. To not know, yet continue to acquire new understandings and accept ongoing uncertainty, places the learner in an ecology or on a journey. To be ignorant places an individual on the side of the road with no desire to walk the journey. Ultimately, I think we would do a great service to learners in our society if we provided metaphors of learning that encourage experimentation, failure, and ongoing effort. To do less is to raise the good above the best.

3 Responses to “Learning: the journey or the desitination?”

  1. Kevin says:

    Jim Collins wrote that good was the enemy of great in his book Good to Great.
    Listen to Jim Collins lecture. (mp3)

  2. As a university undergraduate I could only see as far as the grades in front of my nose. This was down to 13 years of instruction in return for (thankfully) good grades. The difference at university was that the grades started to fall off for one reason and another. As that was the only thing I could see in my blinkered perspective I was destined for a rough ride.
    However, as an adult and, as we all increasingly are becoming, almost self-employed self-driven individual I have the luxury of being able to take more time to learn how to do something. There is no exam by which time I must know how to do part of my job. This means that the stresses are lifted and here, at this moment, the creative juices start to flow and the common sense, logical part of me is able to function, too.
    I still believe it all comes back to making time for learning, realising we are best during sensitive periods, not defined periods or ages. I’ve written about this angle in more detail over at edublogs: http://edu.blogs.com/edublogs/2006/01/time_for_knowle.html
    and my action research on the 3rd Millennial Learner goes into why:

  3. Brad Hoge says:

    I think the perception that not knowing is bad comes from teachers who are uncomfortable with not knowing. I teach science content to pre-service elementary teachers. I ask them if they want to teach science in their classrooms and most of them say no. I ask why and most of them say they are scared to since they don’t know enough science. I tell them to use this to their advantage and learn along with their students. They don’t have to be too far ahead to lead, but they have to be confident that not knowing all of the answers is what makes scientific exploration fun in the first place.
    I’ve seen too many practicing science teachers resort to authoritarian teaching methods when they felt uncomfortable rather than just admitting they don’t know. What they should say is “let’s find out”.