Tuesday, June 9, 2009

No more "teaching to learning"

For the past decade, the conversation in Higher Ed has been about shifting from a teaching or instruction paradigm (focused on what the professor does) to a learning paradigm (focused on what the student does (or can do)). It has been a powerful conversation, one that has been able to put all sorts of reforms--service-learning, undergraduate research, multicultural education, learning communities, writing across the curriculum, assessment, etc.--under the same umbrella. It is at least possible now to imagine a movement for holistic change in higher education.

I wonder, though, if the language of the shift to learning undermines one key component of higher ed's historic mission in the US--the civic component. Here is my thinking:

1. "Learning" in the new paradigm is potentially as individualistic as it has ever been. I know that learning advocates are constructivists and believe that learning is socially constructed. But that doesn't change the fact that what students do with their learning is personalistic. So, a student does a project in a group that results in powerful learning. Great. But what is the impact on the broader community of that learning? Not sure.

2. A significant thread in the learning literature focuses on students as agents in their own learning. Especially in technologically enabled learning, students learn at their own pace, determine their own goals, etc. Again, the learning is powerful, but all students moving at their own pace undermines the sense of community that can develop if a class is jointly engaged in learning.

3. "Learning" does not have a clear civic vision attached to it. Learning advocates often claim Dewey or Freire and their politics. And most faculty in HE are liberal and so assume that learning has liberal outcomes. But there is almost no civic language out there that focuses on learning and the common good. If anything, the civic language most connected to learning is economic. That is, advocates in the public sphere call for reform in education so that students can more successfully compete in the global marketplace, or owe less when they graduate, etc.

Now, it may simply be that the civic moment in higher education is past. (Or even more likely, that I am wrong.) But if that mission continues to matter, I'd suggest rethinking the language of reform. In the simplest sense, this means ditching the "teaching to learning" phrase and replacing it with "from consumption to creation." Here is why:

1. A focus on students as creators pushes learning one step further. It is not enough to show that one has "learned" the material, but instead that one can create with it. (I know that learning advocates assume that learning includes creation, but in my experience it rarely demands such a thing. Consider service-learning--too often students learn by taking a place in an already established partnership where they fill a pre-ordained role. Learning for sure, but hardly creation.)

2. Creativity (or production, if you prefer) does have a civic vision attached to it. In fact, it is the civic vision that first animated public schooling in the US. Education exists, in this view, to help people create a life--both in the spiritual sense but also in the economic sense. And that economic self-creation, in turn, animates politics and American culture. Consider Lincoln's call for free labor as the basis of abolition. Slavery was evil, in part, because it made it impossible for slaves to create their lives. But give slaves land and education, and they become free men and women, able to create and required to accept the risk of creation. Today, both Democrats and Republicans are consumption focused. But both the sustainability movement and the economic crisis suggest that we need more producers and fewer consumers--for the health of our local economies and our own spiritual health. (See for example Matthew Crawford's new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft.) So education as an act of creation connects to a deep thread in the American culture.

3. Creativity allows students to plug in to one of the most powerful social movements in the world--open source. "Learners" are encouraged to borrow from open source learning sites--watching lectures from great sages, taking MIT courses in their own homes, etc. But if students are creators, the greater work is not in taking advantage of those resources but instead contributing to them.

4. Creativity re-connects the acts of students and teachers. In the language of teaching to learning, teaching is all about the faculty, learning largely about students. (Think of the implication of these phrases "sage on the stage" and " guide on the side" as evidence of this assumption.) But from the shift from consumption to creation places the onus for education on both faculty and students and expects that they will make similar contributions. As creators, faculty members should harness their best skills--be they as speakers, writers, evaluators, questioners--to the end of creating a great class. Being on the side is fine if it is your best creative position, but if not, don't be there. And as creators students must do the same. So the class has common purposes because it has a common practice--creation.


Peter said...

I am not sure I buy your notion that "learning" is individualistic and anti civic. If you believe that learning takes place in context, in relation to other ways of knowing, and is socially constructed then it is about communities and civics. Social, context, and other allow for the notion of learning to be very much about community involvement.

In addition, this is merely about what the student learns at college, not about what they do with that knowledge (which could also be said for the teaching model). If students are learning (or being taught) to use their knowledge and skills to build communities, be civically engaged, and to attend to the matters of public interest, then the purpose of higher education is served- whether we call it teaching or learning.

Ben said...

I really appreciate your thoughts on this. Can't wait for more.