Expansive brick wall; an archway in background has been sealed off. In the foreground, a rusted-copper waterspout is bolted to the wall.
19
May
2016

HybridPod, Ep. 10 — Questioning Learning

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Written by and
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No More Access” by Neil Cornwall; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

You can also view a full transcript of this episode.

In episode nine, I spoke with Janine DeBaise about her style of responsive teaching. It’s her answer to the idea of “best practices”. The trouble with best practices, according to Janine, is that they are created by someone else and said to be the unqualified “best” idea for everyone in any situation. Now when I put it that way, you might object, saying that I’m carrying the meaning to an absurd extreme. “Not every situation,” you might say. “Just the regular ones.” But think about learners for a minute. What’s going on in their minds? What do they want to learn about, and what importance does that learning hold in their lives right now? The answer will be different for everyone. Even in a lecture hall of medical students, they might want to understand the same material and pass the same exam, but the way they understand or remember that material will be different for each person. The associations they make among concepts will be distinctive. An oncologist and a pediatrician would take very different things away from the same session because they see things from different angles and with different interests. If you throw in personal background, previous learning experiences, and current life situations, those differences only increase.

So the idea of “best practices” is built on an assumption of standardization — standardized content, standardized delivery, and standardized humans. Those assumptions strip away the individuation and personal interest that drives us all to actually learn things for ourselves. If all we’re left with is standardization, the personal purpose is gone from learning, subordinated to the systemic purposes of cranking out more standardized, credentialed clones. But again, I may be over-stating things.

To help bring perspective and clarity, I talk with Amy Collier, Associate Provost for Digital Learning at Middlebury College. Amy talks and writes a lot about the liminal state of working through something but not completely getting it yet. It’s that wonderful (or unsettling, depending on your view) time when you’re playing around with an idea and seeing how well it works in various situations without actually feeling like you really get what’s going on. You’re working on building your understanding and experience, but you’re not quite there yet. That feeling is what Amy and her colleague Jen Ross have taken to calling “not-yetness”, and it’s the idea I wanted to chat more with her about. Amy’s been friends with the folks from Hybrid Pedagogy for quite some time, and she presented one of the keynotes at Digital Pedagogy Lab Cairo in March 2016. In her talk, Amy presented not-yetness to a group of people interested in critical digital pedagogy.

In this episode, Amy chats about the connection between not-yetness and critical digital pedagogy, the changing nature of outcomes, the learnification movement, the value of education, the need for risk in learning, and the “rhetoric of opportunity” versus the “rhetoric of brokenness” being used in education. She covers a lot of ground, and through it all, she emphasizes the importance of questioning — as a means of improving our teaching, enhancing student learning, and understanding the contexts in which we all work.


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2 Responses

  1. Patric Wallin

    Great podcast. Thank you very much for such an inspiring discussion, which generated a lot of new thoughts and put words onto some of the things that I have been thinking about lately.
    Especially, the approach to learning outcomes was interesting. I have always tried to argue that identity formation should be the overreaching learning outcome in higher education and that courses should contribute to it in different ways. However as I am at a technical university doing my research on engineering education, the response has always been that since engineering is a professional degree, which is strictly regulated by accreditation agencies around the world, there is a limit how much freedom there is. I would still argue that it might be even more important in a professional degree to help students to develop professional identities – to think and be like an engineer – but it is difficult to balance this idea with the requirements from the accreditation systems. How do you think these different parts can be combined and balanced when it comes to learning outcomes?

    1. Chris Friend

      Hi, Patric. Thanks for the supportive words and the great question. I’m glad you recognized the balance in the question, as the two can actually co-exist, though it takes a bit of work. While you can’t avoid the specific accreditation systems, you can always think about the context that surrounds them and leads to their creation and use. Talking openly with students about the difference between “thinking like an engineer” and “passing a test to be an engineer” might help align your goals. Discuss what these accrediting agencies are, who runs them, why they exist (and whom they serve), etc. Then when you get down to the business of helping them think like engineers about engineering problems, they’ll understand not only what they’re learning but how and why they’ll be judged.

      I had an interesting conversation earlier this week with a group of students, faculty, and librarians. I asked them when they knew they learned how to drive, when they learned they were a good driver, and when they learned that others weren’t. Out of the group of 20 participants, exactly zero mentioned licensing as the defining moment for any of those significant learning experiences. I suspect something similar might happen here with engineering. I don’t know from experience, but I have a hunch that people learn they are engineers by doing engineering, and that the certifications should follow naturally from (and not be the motivation for) an effective learning experience. Unless there’s some odd, specific, impractical measuring stick, I’d hope that helping them learn to think like engineers might actually do the trick, and discussing the rationale for that approach should calm a bunch of nerves.

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