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.