Harmonizing Learning and Education

I’m the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all it’s more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Dave Cormier has written a couple of great posts on our failure to take learner motivation seriously and the difference between improving learning and improving education. In the latter post—a response to Stephen Downes’ comment on the former post—Dave writes about the tension between improving an individual’s learning and improving our system of education, essentially positing that the reason why we as a society often fail to take learner engagement sufficiently seriously is because we become preoccupied with making the educational system accountable, a goal that we would be irresponsible not to take on but that we are also essentially doomed to fail at. (I may be putting words in his mouth on that last bit.) Dave writes,

There’s definitely something wrong if people are leaving their first degree and are not engaged in learning. We certainly need to address it. We totally want to be in the business of helping people do what they want to do. Try it. No really. Just try it. Sit down with a child and help them do what they want to do. And i don’t mean “hey this child has shown up with a random project they are totally passionate about and are asking me a question” I mean “stop them at a random time, say 8:25am, and just start helping them.” You will get blank stares. You’ll get resistance. You’ll get students who will say anything you want if it means you will go away/give them a grade. You will not enjoy this process. They will also not enjoy it.

There is something wrong. The problem is that we have built an education system with checks and balances, trying to make it accountable and progressive (in some cases), but we are building it without knowing why. We have not built an education system that encourages people to be engaged. The system is not designed to do it. It’s designed to get people to a ‘standard of knowing.’ Knowing a thing, in the sense of being able to repeat it back or demonstrate it, has no direct relationship to ‘engagement’. There are certainly some teachers that create spaces where engagement occurs, but they are swimming upstream, constantly battling the dreaded assessment and the need to cover the curriculum. The need to guarantee knowing.

He suggests that we need to redesign our education system around the goal of getting students to start caring and keep caring about learning. And his argument is interesting:

Give me a kid who’s forgotten 95% of the content they were measured in during K-12 and I will match that with almost every adult i know. Give me a kid who cares about learning… well… then i can help them do just about anything.

This is partly a workplace argument. It’s an economic value argument. It’s a public good argument. If Dave is right, then people who care about learning are going to be better at just about any job you throw at them than people who don’t. This is a critical argument in favor of public funding of a liberal arts education, personalized in the old-fashioned sense of having-to-do-with-individual-persons, that much of academia has ceded for no good reason I can think of. The sticky wicket, though, is accountability which, as Dave points out, is the main reason we have a schism between learning and education in the first place. Too bad we can’t demonstrate, statistically, that people who are passionate about learning are better workers. It’s a shame that we don’t have good data linking being excited about learning, being a high-performer in your job, and being a happy, fulfilled and economically well-off person. If we had that, we could largely resolve the tension between improving learning and improving education. We could give a compelling argument that it is in the taxpayers’ interest to build an education system whose purpose, as Dave suggests, is to increase the chances that students will start to care and continue to care about learning. It’s a tragedy that we don’t have proof of that link.

Oh, wait.

The Intuition Behind the Argument

Before I get into the numbers, I think it’s important to articulate the argument in a way that makes intuitive sense even to skeptics. As Dave points out, everybody agrees with the proposition that students should love learning if that proposition is presented to them as a platitude. Where people start to waffle is when we present the proposition to them as a priority, as in, “It is more important for students to learn to develop and nurture a passion for learning than it is for them to learn any particular thing.” And in order to resolve the tension between learning and education, we need to make an even stronger proposition: “A student who develops a passion for learning about subjects that are unrelated to her eventual career will, on balance, be a better employee and more successful professional than the same student who has studied content directly related to her eventual career with relative indifference.” Do you believe this proposition? Here’s a test:

Imagine that you could go back in time and choose an undergraduate major that was exactly tailored to the job that you do today. Would you be better or worse at your job than you are now? Would you be more or less happy?

Obviously, this test won’t work for people whose undergraduate major was the perfect pre-professional major for what they are doing now, which will include most faculty. But it should work for a majority of people, including lots of folks in business and government. In my case, I was a philosophy major, which prepared me well for a career in anything except philosophy. If I could have precognitively created a major for myself in educational technology back in the late 1980s, would I be more successful today? Would I be happier or playing less ipad pokies for kiwi players? The answer to both of those questions is almost certainly “no.” In fact, there is a good chance that I would have been less successful and less happy. Why? For one thing, I didn’t care about educational technology back then. I cared about philosophy. I pursued it with a passion. This gave me three things that I still have today. First, I have the intellectual tools of a philosopher. I don’t think I would have held onto the tools of another discipline if I didn’t care about them when I was learning about them. Second, I know what it feels like to pursue work that I am passionate about. I am addicted to that feeling. I am driven to find it in every job, and I am not satisfied until I do. This makes me more selective about the jobs I look at and much, much better at the ones that I take. And finally, though it was a long and winding road, my interest in philosophy led me to my interest in instructional technology in many ways. We tend to have a rather stunted notion of what it means for a subject we study to be “related” to our work. In my philosophy classes, I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to “know” something, what it means to “learn” something, and what it means for something to be “good.” I got to see how these words are tangled up in logic, language, and culture, and how our notions of them change over time. I learned how to write and how to think, while I was simultaneously studying the first principles of language and cognition. All of these experiences, all of this knowledge, all of these skills have been directly valuable to me in my career as a professional non-philosopher (or a standup philosopher, as Mel Brooks might call me). I wouldn’t have them if I had majored in educational technology. I would have other things, but honestly, there are no deep skills in my work that I wish I had acquired through earlier specialization. Everything that I have needed to learn, I have been able to learn on the job. As Dave wrote, “Give me a kid who cares about learning… well… then i can help them do just about anything.”

If you are one of those people who majored in exactly what you ended up doing as a career, then try reversing the thought experiment. Suppose you could go back in time and major in anything you wanted. Something that you were passionate about, but something different from what you ended up majoring in. Would it have made a difference? Would you have been more or less successful in your current career? Would you have been more or less happy than you are now? For some folks, that pre-professional major was exactly what they needed to be doing. But I bet that, for a lot of folks, it wasn’t.

Survey says…?!

If any of this resonates with you at all, then you really must read the 2014 Gallup Purdue Index Report. You’ll have to register to get it, but trust me, this one is worth it. Gallup is most widely known for their political polling, but more broadly, their business is in collecting data that links people’s attitudes and beliefs to observable behaviors and objective outcomes. How likely is a person who thinks the “country is on the wrong track” to vote for the incumbent? Or to vote at all? Does believing that your manager is incompetent correlate with an increased chance of a serious heart problem? And conversely, does “having fun” at your job correlate with a higher chance of living into your 90s? Does having a “manager that cares about me as a person” mean that I am more likely to be judged a “top performer” at work and reduce the likelihood that I will be out sick? Does having a teacher who “makes me feel excited about learning” correlate with better workplace engagement when I graduate?

Ah. There it is.

To get the full impact of Gallup’s research, you have to follow it backwards from its roots. The company does significant business in employee satisfaction surveys. As with schooling, managers know that employee engagement matters but often fail to take it seriously. But according to research cited in Gallup’s book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements (which I also recommend), employees who could answer “yes” to the question about whether their manager cares about them as a person, are “more likely to be top performers, produce higher quality work, are less likely to be sick, less likely to change jobs, and less likely to get injured on the job.” Also, people who love their jobs are more likely to both stay working longer and live longer. In a study George Gallup conducted in the 1950s,

…men who lived to see 95 did not retire until they were 80 years old on average. Even more remarkable, 93% of these men reported getting a great deal of satisfaction out of the work they did, and 86% reported having fun doing their job.

Conversely, a 2008 study the company found a link between employee disengagement and depression:

We measured their engagement levels and asked them if they had ever been diagnosed with depression. We excluded those who reported that they had been diagnosed with depression from our analysis. When we contacted the remaining panel members in 2009, we again asked them if they had been diagnosed with depression in the last year. It turned out that 5% of our panel members (who had no diagnosis of depression in 2008) had been newly diagnosed with depression. Further, those who were actively disengaged in their careers in 2008 were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression over the next year. While there are many factors that contribute to depression, being disengaged at work appears to be a leading indicator of a subsequent clinical diagnosis of depression.

Which is obviously bad for employer and employee alike.

In some cases, Gallup went all in with physiological studies. For example, they “recruited 168 employees and studied their engagement, heart rate, stress levels, and various emotions throughout the day,” using heart rate monitors, saliva samples, and handheld devices that surveyed employees on their activities and feelings of the moment at various points in the day.

After reviewing all of these data, it was clear that when people who are engaged in their jobs show up for work, they are having an entirely different experience than those who are disengage. [Emphasis in original.] For those who were engaged, happiness and interest throughout the day were significantly higher. Conversely, stress levels were substantially higher for those who were disengaged. Perhaps most strikingly, disengaged workers’ stress levels decreased and their happiness increased toward the end of the workday….[P]eople with low engagement…are simply waiting for the workday to end.

From here, the authors go on to talk about depression and heart attacks and all that bad stuff that happens to you when you hate that job. But there was one other striking passage at the beginning of this section:

Think back to when you were in school sitting through a class in which you had very little interest. Perhaps you eyes were fixed on the clock or you were staring blankly into space. You probably remember the anticipation of waiting for the bell to ring so you could get up from your desk and move on to whatever was next. More than two-thirds of workers around the world experience a similar feeling by the end of a typical workday.

And here’s what Dave said in his first post:

Student separate into two categories… those that care and those that don’t care.

Our job, as educators, is to convince students who don’t care to start caring, and to encourage those who currently care, to continue caring.

All kinds of pedagogy happens after this… but it doesn’t happen until this happens.

So. In this case, we’re trying to make students move from the ‘not care’ category to the ‘care’ category by threatening to not allow them to stay with their friends. Grades serve a number of ‘not care to care’ purposes in our system. Your parents may get mad, so you should care. You’ll be embarrassed in front of your friends so you should care. In none of these cases are you caring about ‘learning’ but rather caring about things you, apparently, already care about. We take the ‘caring about learning’ part as a lost cause.

The problem with threatening people is that in order for it to continue to work, you have to continue to threaten them (well… there are other problems, but this is the relevant one for this discussion). And, as has happened, students no longer care about grades, or their parents believe their low grades are the fault of the teacher, then the whole system falls apart. You can only threaten people with things they care about.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t hold kids accountable, but if we’re trying to encourage people to care about their work, about their world, is it practical to have it only work when someone is threatening them? Even if you are the most cynical personal imaginable, wouldn’t you like people to be able to do things when you aren’t actually threatening them? Are we promoting a ‘creative/knowledge economy’ by doing this? Are we building democracy? Unless you are a fascist (and i really mean that, unless you want a world where a couple of people tell everyone exactly what to do) you can’t really want the world to be this way.

It turns out that Dave actually overstates the case for Fascism. Fascist bosses get bad results from employees (in addition to, you know, killing them). If you want high-performing workers, you need engaged workers. And you can’t force people to engage.

Wellbeing isn’t just about work. It looks at five different types of personal “wellbeing”—career, social, financial, physical, and community—and shows how they are related to each other, to overall wellbeing, and to performance at work and in the world. (By the way, there’s a lot of good stuff in the sections on social and community wellbeing for the connectivists and constructionists in the crowd.)

We Don’t Need No Education

The Gallup Purdue Index Report picks up where Wellbeing leaves off. Having established some metrics that correlate both with overall personal happiness and success as well as workplace success, Gallup backs up and asks the question, “What kind of education is more likely to promote wellbeing?” They surveyed a number of college graduates in various age groups and with various measured levels of wellbeing, asking them to reflect back on their college experiences. What they didn’t find is in some ways as important as what they did find. They found no correlation between whether you went to a public or private, selective or non-selective school and whether you achieved high levels of overall wellbeing. It doesn’t matter, on average, whether you go to Harvard University or Podunk College. It doesn’t matter whether your school scored well in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Student debt levels, on the other hand, do matter, so maybe that Harvard vs. Podunk choice matters after all. And, in a finding that will cheer my philosophy professors, it turns out that “[s]lightly more employed graduates who majored in the arts and humanities (41%) and social sciences (41%) are engaged at work than either science (38%) or business (37%) majors.”

What factors did matter? What moved the needle? Odds of thriving in all five areas of Gallup’s wellbeing index were

  • 1.7 times higher if “I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams”
  • 1.5 times higher if “I had at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning”
  • 1.7 times higher if “My professors at [College] cared about me as a person”
  • 1.5 times higher if “I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom”
  • 1.1 times higher if “I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete”
  • 1.4 times higher if “I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending [College]”

Again, the institution type didn’t matter (except for students who went to for-profit private colleges, only 4% of which were found to be thriving on all five measures of wellbeing). It really comes down to feeling connected to your school work and your teachers, which does not correlate well with the various traditional criteria people use for evaluating the quality of an educational institution. If you buy Gallup’s chain of argument and evidence this, in turn, suggests that being a hippy-dippy earthy-crunchy touchy-feely constructivy-connectivy commie pinko guide on the side will produce more productive workers and a more robust economy (not to mention healthier, happier human beings who get sick less and therefore keep healthcare costs lower) than being a hard-bitten Taylorite-Skinnerite practical this-is-the-real-world-kid type career coach. It turns out that pursuing your dreams is a more economically productive strategy, for you and your country, than pursuing your career. It turns out that learning a passion to learn is more important for your practical success than learning any particular facts or skills. It turns out that it is more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be.

So…what do we do with all this ed tech junk we just bought?

This doesn’t mean that ed tech is useless by any means, but it does mean that we have to think about what we use it for and what it can realistically accomplish. Obviously, anything that helps teachers and advisers connect with students, students connect with each other, or students connect with their passions is good. There’s also nothing inherently wrong with video lectures or adaptive learning programs as long as they are used as informational supplements once students start caring about what they learn or as tools to keep them caring about what they learn rather than substitutes for real engagement that shovel content in the name of “competency.” I’m interested in “flipping,” fad or no fad, because it emphasizes using the technology to clear the way for more direct human-to-human interactions with the students. Competencies themselves should be used more as markers of progress down a road that the student has chosen to travel rather than a set of hoops that the student must jump through (like a trained dog). Another thing that technologies can do is help students with what may be the only prerequisite to having passion to learn, which is believing that you can learn. In the places where I’ve seen adaptive learning software employed to most impressive effect, it has been in concert with outreach and support designed to help students who never learned to believe in themselves discover that they can, in fact, make progress in their education. Well-designed adaptive software lets them get help without feeling embarrassed and, perhaps more importantly, enables them to arrive at a confidence-building feeling of success and accomplishment quickly.

The core problem with our education system isn’t the technology or even the companies. It’s how we deform teaching and learning in the name of accountability in education. Corporate interests amplify this problem greatly because they sell to it, thus reinforcing it. But they are not where the problem begins. It begins when we say, “Yes, of course we want the students to love to learn, but we need to cover the material.” Or when we say, “It’s great that kids want to go to school every day, but really, how do we know that they’re learning anything?” It’s daunting to think about trying to change this deep cultural attitude. Nor does embracing Gallup’s train of evidence fully get us out of the genuine moral obligation to find some sort of real (but probably inherently deforming) measure of accountability for schools. But the most interesting and hopeful result from the Gallup research is this:

You don’t have to have every teacher make you feel excited about learning in order to have a better chance at a better life. You just need one.

Just one.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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