When it comes to education, we take an awful lot for granted.
For example, we look at learning almost entirely from a behavioral standpoint.
Teachers provide inputs. Students give outputs. And those outputs demonstrate the intended learning.
Yet this framework was developed in the early 1900s. Using it today is to ignore a century of subsequent psychological advancements. It glosses over the impact of the unconscious, the social nature of understanding, physical differences, even the mediating thought processes between stimulus and response such as memory and problem solving.
Instead, we force students into inauthentic laboratory conditions (i.e. the classroom) upon which they are passive actors to be molded and shaped by expert educators.
Every time we post our learning objectives on the board or when we write our lesson plans beginning with the old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.
We are enshrining a host of assumptions long past their fresh by date:
-Learning is observable.
-It happens immediately.
-It is measurable.
-Once you learn something it never goes away.
-Most problems with learning are attributable to inputs provided by the teacher.
None of these assumptions have been proven.
In fact, there is considerable evidence against each and every one of these premises, yet our entire system of corporate education is based on them like a house built on a foundation.
If we are truly to create a 21st Century school system, the only place to begin is here. Recognize our bedrock beliefs are mere speculation and question whether we should really support everything else that’s been built on such shaky ground.
WHAT IS LEARNING?
It is an empirical fact that human beings are capable of learning. It’s something we do every day. But what exactly does it consist of? What happens when a person learns?
Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. We generally characterize learning as the acquisition of knowledge; the possession of facts, information or skills.
But how does one gain knowledge? How does one possess the intangible?
It seems that learning always involves thoughts – usually conscious impressions but sometimes unconscious ones, as well. However, not all thoughts qualify, only thoughts of a certain kind.
The notion must be true of the world. And often it is an idea that has surfaced before but that now can be recalled at will and used to create new concepts.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that no matter how you flesh it out, we’re talking about internal mind states.
Learning takes place in and of the brain. And this has consequences for our education system – an apparatus designed to make these brain states more frequent along certain prescribed lines.
IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?
That depends. Can we lop off the top of students’ heads and peer at the gelatinous mass inside?
Not really. And even if we could, we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing.
Even if learning may be reducible to a complex set of on-and-off switches among synapses, that does not make it generally observable – certainly not without greater knowledge of how the brain works and advanced neural imaging equipment.
As such, the idea that learning is directly perceptible is not necessarily true. It may be evident in some second hand manner, but this is not the same as first hand experience. At best, what we see is a pale shadow of what’s actually going on in students’ gray matter.
That alone should send shock waves through the edifice of modern corporate education. We’ve built an entire apparatus to label and sort kids based on observing students. If those observations are inadequate to give us the full picture of these internal learning states, our system is likewise inadequate.
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?
To answer this question we must start further back – when and why does learning takes place.
A student experiences a new neural state that constitutes the acquisition of knowledge. Why?
Does it happen because of the input made by a teacher? Is it the result of experience? Is it the result of some other input – reading, interacting, writing, doing something? Or is it the result of something even the student him- or herself cannot easily identify or explain?
All of these are possible. All of these (and more) are the catalyst to learning at various times.
Thus we lose another premise – that teacher input is the essential cause of inadequate learning. If we cannot place a primacy on the teacher, we cannot wholly place blame there either.
Certainly teachers are important. They can have a tremendous impact on their students. But they are not strictly necessary. They are not even the prime cause of learning. They facilitate learning in the way a doctor facilitates healing. The surgeon may set the broken bone, but it is the body that actually does the healing. And in the case of learning, the action is not entirely involuntary. It is much more active and intentional.
In short, teachers can call students attention to something that sparks learning. They can bring about optimal conditions for learning to take place. But they are not by themselves sufficient for that learning. They cannot make it happen. Insofar as it is voluntary at all, it is up to the student. To give teachers sole reward or blame for student learning is absurd.
IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?
Learning may be a response to stimulus of some kind. But when does that response take place? Is it immediate?
There is no evidence that it must be so. Certainly there are times when one has learned something immediately. When a child first puts her finger in the flame, she quickly learns to remove it. However, there are some lessons that we don’t learn until many years after that stimulus. For instance, that our parents’ advice was often more sage than we initially gave it credit.
Thus, again it is inadequate to place reward or blame on teachers for their students’ learning. You can judge a teacher for what he or she did to help, but not what you take to be the result. Just because the teacher’s input may not have sparked learning in the student now, that doesn’t mean that the same input might not engender learning at a later date, given time.
IS LEARNING PERMANENT?
Which brings up another question – once you learn something, does it remain yours forever or is it susceptible to degradation?
If learning is an internal state – if it is the result of neural connections like any thought or memory – it is susceptible to fading. It can be lost or degraded.
Therefore, when students enter a class without prerequisite knowledge, it is not necessarily the fault of their previous teachers. Like any skill, memory or thought – recall is enhanced through repetition. Using the knowledge often results in greater retention.
If we want a more intellectual society, we should habitualize critical thinking and reward intelligence in our public interactions. Not the exact opposite.
CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?
And finally, we are brought to perhaps the most vital question in the field of education – measurement.
What did students grasp and to what degree was it mastered?
There are corporations making billions of dollars based on providing this service. Moreover, the school privatization industry is almost completely predicated on the “failure” of public schools as shown by the measurements of these testing corporations.
As such, there is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to keep this premise that learning can be accurately measured. However, when looked at logically, it cannot be supported.
When we measure learning, what are we measuring? And how are we quantifying it?
If learning is an internal state, how do we calculate that? Possibly at some point in the future, we’ll be able to look at real time pictures of the brain and be able to tell which information has been learned and to what degree. But we are not at that point now. Perhaps we will never be.
Even if we were, what exactly would we be measuring? What units would we be using? Volts? Amps? Some new element susceptible to subdivision?
The fact that we can’t give a definitive answer to that simple question illustrates how vast our ignorance is of learning. We do not understand what goes on in our own heads that constitutes understanding expect in the broadest possible terms.
Yet how much importance we put on these crude attempts to measure the ineffable!
Grades and test scores are but the rudest approximations of the real phenomena hidden inside our skulls. Yet we sort and rank students on the pedagogical equivalent of cave paintings.
“It is easier to measure the number of semicolons used correctly in an essay than the wonderful ideas contained within it,” said Alfie Kohn. “The more focused you are on measurable outcomes, the more trivial your teaching tends to become.”
Or as Linda McNeil of Rice University famously observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”
Kohn has repeatedly suggested that McNeil’s statement ought to be printed out in “36-point Helvetica, framed, and tacked to the wall of every school administrator’s office in the country” for these same reasons.
When we talk about knowledge and learning, we don’t know what we’re talking about.
That should make us reluctant to say anything definitive about learning beyond our own ignorance of it.
Yet, as in so much of human affairs, when has ignorance ever stopped us?
We have to go about the business of educating. We have a society to run, markets to establish and consumers to exploit.
Imagine if, instead, we approached learning like explorers or scientists, mapping the shores of our ignorance and determining what helps us comprehend more and better.
There are so many tantalizing clues about what helps students learn, ways to foster the spark of inspiration, creativity and critical thinking.
I wish we were invested in that activity instead of a capitalist sham of education. We talk much about the skills gap between white and black kids without doing anything constructive about it – a chasm predicated on the fact that one category is predominantly poor and the other privileged.
Perhaps we would do better to talk about the ignorance gap of our own understanding of what it means to understand.
Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so bold as to monetize that which is fallacious and foolhardy.
Perhaps then we would be more curious, thoughtful and kind.
Perhaps then we could build a truly modern system of education that values students and not just how they can be transformed into profit.
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
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