I recently gave a talk at the Disruptive Media Learning Lab at Coventry University centred on the debates and the constructs of what might constitute ‘learning experiences’ in a post-digital higher education world. This is a difficult and sometimes divisive debate, but one that we need to have in order to ensure that the future doesn’t cascade away from us.
I offer some of the reasons for why we are where we are and then provide some examples of what learning and teaching could look and should look like (and does in a number of programmes and institutions). I called this ‘Little arguments with myself’ in reference to the sublimely brilliant song by the Minnesota band Low and a track off their amazing ‘Trust’ record. You can catch the clip at the bottom of this post, along with the aforementioned ‘Gloria’ by Patti Smith, which is also referenced in the presentation. Apologies to Alan Sparhawk for adding the ‘s’ to his song title. Enjoy!
Learning can be a strange process. I was recently at a session that explored issues around student satisfaction. This is a phrase that has many meanings, and many people arguing over those many meanings. Spending the day listening to experts, students, student experts and expert students I was struck by a few thoughts that about the notion of satisfaction, which for universities is such a key and critical concept and arguably for students and potential students will be a key factor in deciding which university to attend. Very early on in the day I was struck with the word itself. Satisfaction seems such a neutral word to describe what is often an emotional, personal and collaborative journey like university. It doesn’t engage with the highs and lows of learning. It just says ‘I am satisfied’. You can be satisfied and be happy and/or unhappy. In some ways it’s a cop-out word. It’s like answering OK when someone asks how you are. Often as we progress through our career and engage in professional practice we get things done to a point where we are satisfied or whether others are satisfied with what we do. In some ways, this description ‘satisfactory’ strips away the emotional and attitudinal connections that can occur through successful or unsuccessful attempts at practice.
Experiential learning represents a wider spectrum of emotion and experience than simply satisfaction or service can explain. Learning can be a fun process, which we sometimes forget. New things, new people and new experiences can engage the senses, encourage the mind to explore and allow you to find the humour and the funny stuff in what we do. Never mind the reward (good grades?) or punishment (bad grades?), we engage in learning because it is fun, enjoyable, interesting and most of all, transformational. I sometimes feel that I have done a lot of my qualifications because I ‘had to’. That behavioural motivation does not always, on the surface, make learning seem fun. But through teaching, practice, interaction and yes, sometimes even assessment, I had fun. I enjoyed the process and practice of learning. How does a university or survey measure this? How do we as learners feed this kind of experience back to the university, to our peers, to our teachers and to our friends? How does our institution support and nurture this kind of learning environment? And finally, how can we take this creative and fun practice out into the work force, into our daily lives and our professional practice? There is a lot of questions and there and not a lot of answers I know!
There is a movement in higher education called ‘edupunk’ which has been popularised by one of my fave education academics, Stephen Downes. Edupunk applies the principles of punk (rebellion, do-it-yourself attitudes and thinking independently) to higher education. Whilst it is a fairly incomplete theoretical approach (did punk have any lasting social impact asks one critic?) it does challenge the notions of satisfaction and positions learning as a sometimes down and dirty emotional process.
‘It’s about a culture, a way of thinking, a philosophy. It’s about DIY. Lego is edupunk. Chalk is edupunk. A bunch of kids exploring a junkyard is edupunk. A kid dismantling a CD player to see what makes it tick is edupunk.’
Matching the fun, the rebellion and the collaborative processes is a darker, more traumatic space of learning. As kids, we learn through experience, and that experience isn’t always positive. So, when I was growing up, red was my favour colour. I liked red cordial, strawberries and red candy. I noticed that when you heated up a spoon it went red. You can imagine the next step. A trip to casualty, some horrible tasting burn cream and only eating things that were mushed (red or otherwise) for weeks. I learnt through a traumatic experience.
One of my favourite writers on adult education is Stephen Brookfield. He writes about the dark side of learning. But by dark side he doesn’t see learning as a solely negative endeavour (ie: the only way to work out a spoon is hot is to taste it). He argues that the transition from these emotional and visceral experiences to a realisation about learning is where the ‘fun’ or more realistically the positive experiences can occur. For example, he talks about a negative learning experience such as ‘impostership’. This is where that by admitting that you don’t know something about your job, you feel you are an imposter as a professional. We can all think of times we have felt like this. And by acting on that feeling, by initiating learning, finding knowledge through consultation or collaboration or doing something and seeing if it works, we can use the negative space to generate positive outcomes. Alternately, by becoming a student an adult learner may also feel an imposter because they feel they have no right being a learner because it’s an admission that they don’t know something. This is a traumatic space to start learning, but the realisation can be facilitated by learning can lead to more than just satisfaction. Pride in achievement, or by reading the works of ‘experts’ feeling their views and perspectives evolve, be challenged, reinforced and then confident enough to share them with others or write their own.
Another negative reflective experience is the notion of ‘lost innocence’, where we as learners come to learning to seek answers and leave finding ways to ask the right questions. He offers an example of a learner who explains this lost innocence;
‘When I came to this university at some level I thought I was going to find the truth….There was the feeling that if truth didn’t reside in the heads of you guys – or on the library shelves – then it couldn’t be found anywhere. Then I got here and the first I heard from you all were things like ‘it’s more important to ask the right questions than find the right answers’…But after a bit I got what you all meant and I started to be a bit more sceptical about things I read and aware of clichés, things like that. Now while this was happening one part of me was saying this is really good, you’re getting more sophisticated; you’re looking beyond the surface. But another part of me was annoyed about what was happening. I used to get up in the morning thinking that life was black and white, good and bad, that there were always answers to problems. Now I say to myself ‘it all depends on how you look at things’ …’ Brookfield, S. 1994, ‘Tales from the dark side: A phenomenography of adult critical reflection’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, vol. 13, no. 3,pp. 203-16.
Going back to Edupunk and DIY education, perhaps part of this interaction between fun and challenge leads to us to the ability to take control of our learning. Not relying on a person in a ‘brightly lit fluorescent room’ to tell us what to think, how to think and then to check that we have expressed it correctly (or ‘learnt’ it) as the sole way of teaching, learning and assessing. Not accepting that satisfaction is the ultimate outcome of learning. These concepts are harder to measure immediately. They are even harder to compare and share, because they don’t exist in a dichotomous space. They are part of a bigger picture of learning. It is the type of learning that learning by experience encourages. The things we do and things we have done construct the things we know and helps us identify and perhaps rectify the things we don’t. And this kind of process isn’t about being satisfied; it is about being engaged, amused, challenged, angered, empowered and recognised.
Sometimes we can get caught up in trying to find ever more complex reasons for why something happens.We use bigger words; we divide concepts up into smaller and smaller fields, fracturing them beyond recognition.Are we missing the simplicity that can inform some of our most profound moments of learning?
Recently I have written a lot about the levels of higher education here in the UK.These levels talk about the types of skills and knowledge that is required of learners at a specific point in their higher education.The offer verbs that can be used by people writing HE programmes and by students being assessed in those programmes to describe the type of learning that may be occurring.There is an increasing complexity as we progress through a programme.For example at level 4 (first year undergraduate) you may simply know something, at level 6 you may need to apply and analyse something and when you reach level 7 (Masters level) you will need to be able to critically evaluate, share and apply that thing to new circumstances.One of the criticisms of these levels is that there is an assumption that the more complex the processes, the higher the level of learning that may be occurring.
But is higher level learning that can evolve from simpler tasks?Aside from the zen implications (!) the completion of what might appear simple or ‘easy’ tasks, or the learning of knowledge that others might think straightforward can lead to higher level learning.Identifying simplicity in something, finding the ideas, the theories and the practice that make it simple, and make it work can be a very critical and evaluative process.
Of course, being me, there is a music example.This year in a moment of sheer kitsch and fun I went to Eurovision in Dusseldorf, Germany.Now, Australian readers amongst you clearly understand why anyone would want to go to Eurovision, but it is not a universally acknowledged major tourist attraction.It is, however, one of the most watched TV events in Europe year.The songs themselves are usually criticised for their tacky lyrics and melodramatic euro-pop stylings.But the funny thing is they sell records, people vote, even people with more high-brow music tastes find joy in them.I have spent the last two days listening to Eurovision songs as background music for some difficult writing I had to do and found myself thinking critically about the way the song was written and produced.What makes them catchy and have that hook?Those of you seeking song-writing glory can rest assured that I don’t the answer, but what I did hear is simplicity; easy to sing lyrics, memorable chord changes and relatively sparse simple arrangements.
I am not going to argue that complexity is bad.There is much to be said for the ability to see new solutions to problems through complexity.Complexity also develops the ability to be flexible and responsive in the face of ever changing environments.Complexity supports multi-tasking, inter-discipline thinking and creativity.There is however something to be said for being able to see the simplicity in concepts, the beauty of a simple idea or the learning that can come from doing a simple thing very well and sharing it with others.In a world where knowledge is being constructed, reproduced and opinionated at an ever increasing pace, and where markets, practices and expertise are shattering into micro-fragments in order to find a competitive advantage or to differentiate oneself, being able to seek and find simplicity, and to be able to explain and contextualise that simplicity within your own practice, your learning and education or just to share it is something we should perhaps do more often.