‘If you spend your life looking behind you, you don’t see what’s up front’: Constructing learning through experience (and how the digital might help)

IMG_1992

‘We stood side by side
Strong and true
I just wish you’d remember
Bad times don’t get you through

When I hear you saying
That we stood no chance
I’ll dive for your memory
We stood that chance’

Dive for your memory – Go-Betweens 1988

 

Memory is a powerful tool.  It provides us with a way of reusing an experience and applying it to new and different circumstances.  The process of moving something from experience to memory is a complex neurocognitive process, still at its formative stages of being understood.  There is a strand of post-digital skill around the constructing of memory and remembering.  Social media is arguably one of the most active at supporting the development of this skill, with   Facebook (for example) helping us to do this by pulling out and sharing photos from your archive and reminding you what you were doing 4 years ago.  Maybe the photo is boring and ignites nothing, but maybe it reminds you of powerful, visceral, funny, tragic, romantic, sexy or entirely above board professional experiences.  This isn’t just nostalgia.  This is the bi-directional pathway of experience and memory, with experiences forming memories that once recalled shape lifelong learning, perhaps equally as powerful as the aggregation of new experiences.  Memory is more than simply recall.  Each memory is placed through a filter of successive and subsequent experiences.  We learn through experiences to better understand the past.  Yet in higher education, we seem to focus on memory simply in terms of recall.  Exams rarely ask for a student’s experiences to be constructed in terms of the questions we ask.  More often than not we ask our students to simply recall facts, quotes or someone else’s analysis, when in real life we remember experiences more as a sprawling portfolio, explicitly and tacitly linked by other people, strengths of connection and emotions.  In a post-digital world, social media does that so well. Flagging ways to remain and become connected through varying degrees of shared experience, committed to cloud memory.

 

Experiences create frames that shape learning far past the duration of the experience.  But experiences are most than just activities or moments.  We get students to experience ‘work’ through case studies, assessment, placements, simulations etc. This is experiential learning, textbook stylz. We can extend that even further to seeing students in work and learning through that work (apprenticeships), structuring assessments to replicate practice, accredit their existing experience as credit (work based learning), supporting skills that support the transition to practice (entrepreneurship, small business skills) and we can run our educational experience at work, customizing it for the specific requirements of firm X.  None of this is entirely controversial or indeed mind blowing, we just do it. But, in the main, the experience the student is having whilst all of this stuff is going on is framed by the same core set of processes.   The teacher-student dynamic (expert-apprentice, listen-learn, consume-repeat, study-succeed, broadcast-receive, stand-sit, performer-audience) is simply repeated and reconfigured for each new context.

 

Equally, we understand that learning can and is socially constructed.  But how does social learning contribute to learning?

 

‘Social learning is enhanced by a dynamic interplay of both community and network processes. Such interplay combines focus and fluidity as it braids individual and collective learning. The work of fostering learning needs to take advantage of this complementarity.’

Wenger, Etienne, Beverly Trayner, and Maarten de Laat. “Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: A conceptual framework.” The Netherlands: Ruud de Moor Centrum (2011).

 

It is not simply putting people in a room, throw in a group exercise, light the touch paper and see what happens.  Wegner et al point to the need to construct the environment that allows for community and networking to happen, both structured and spontaneous. Learning experiences are not easy to create.  And this is made even more complex by the structures that define educational delivery; budgets, rooms, systems, poorly used technology and quality assurance applied as control rather than enhancement.

 

A step into my memory

I was a Head of Department for 11 years, at a large hybrid FE/HE institute in Sydney, Australia.  We taught events management, marketing, advertising and arts and media.  We had nearly 1000 students and a teaching staff of around 25.  Let me talk you through the key decisions I had to make in order to structure and deliver the learning experience for those students.

 

  1. I had a nationally set curriculum (competency based) that I could not change, even if the learning outcomes were blindingly insane (which they were). I had to deliver the learning outcomes, assess them, maintain a reliable and accurate set of documents that proved I had done this, ensure the students were fully informed about the what and how and by when of their learning.  The curriculum was full to brim of content, not always relevant, but lots of it.  Transferable skills and trans-disciplinarity were hived off in favour of more focused disciplinary content.
  2. I had an indicative set of hours with which to deliver this content per course. I never had enough money to actually deliver those hours.  In fact, often the money allocated was 50% less than I needed, so we compromised.  We joined courses together where there were natural alignments (or not), we did bigger classes, lectures instead of seminars.  We had term lengths, where key points for grade submission were set in stone.
  3. I could timetable rooms, but only in fixed slots every week, for a fixed number of hours, and preferably with no gaps in their utilization. These were not my rooms; they were general purpose and as such had the same series of desks, teaching podiums and lack of decoration (other than boastful graffiti).  Capacity was always an issue and weeks 1-3 always had more students than we could fit into a room, in Sydney summer without air-conditioning.
  4. Teachers were trained to varying degrees and were responsible for the mechanics of the class as well as the learning. Start/finish times, attendance, quality assurance, assessment, marking, feedback, pastoral care, health and safety, child protection and sometimes defending students from abuse were part of the day to day operations of a teacher in my department. They also had to structure the learning design to deliver every one of the learning outcomes. All for £30 an hour, and often entirely casualised and without any guarantee of work next term.

 

Much of this will sound familiar.  These are the constraints we deliver teaching and learning in.  We can now add the structure of learning that our VLEs privilege (week-to-week, content as king, aligned and structured) and the systems that collect, check, verify and return assessment, all leading to the precious 2:1 and above, verified by external examiners, assessment boards, double blind marking and moderation.  Every one of these systems, processes, policies or practices seem to lock in the established set of practices of HE. Teach through talk; learn through listen. Every week becomes an episode on a TV show (wait until next Tuesday for next exciting installment of Introduction to Statistics, woo!), when modern TV is not watched weekly, but binged in one hit or deconstructed into youtube’able bits.  How does an academic change that?

 

Great idea Peter! Do something different, but what about the {timetable} {rooms} {semester} {student information system} {quality} etc? Have you thought about children???? HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT THE CHILDREN??

 

Back into the now…

But what if we could construct learning through an experience, not simply by having one? Curricula is set and often jam packed, teaching methods are a product of the constraints we work under (budgets, time, hours, the desperate drive to make all learning practice equal as a surrogate for making it better, thanks QA), assessment that is aligned and structured to bell curve it like it’s hot.  What’s left in your toolkit? The thing that joins these together, learning experiences.  It is the one lever that you as the teacher have control over.  It is how you construct learning through the experience.  It is what Knowles describes as the art, the design, the creativity and the ‘line, space, colour, texture and unity’ of teaching.  It is the intangible.  What makes one person standing at the front of the room boring and the next a person who inspires, challenges and uplifts?  Why does an experience that makes you worried, a little nervous and even scared prepare you for the next time far more effectively that knowing exactly what is coming next? Why is being asked your opinion and having that opinion debated, argued, defended and shared so critical?  It is because we as teachers have the opportunity and the capacity to create the experiences that shape and make learning.  Here is the irony of this.  Knowles talks about adult learners as the neglected species, disparaging the pedagogical theories that underpin modern education as being inadequate for the complexity of adults.  And he is right (IMHO).  But these learning experiences are exactly the way kids learn when they are learning independently.  They try something because they don’t know what will happen, and when it hurts they don’t do it again.

 

Another memory recalled…

‘A recent study of traditional introductory course students bears out some of the deepest fears of those who teach debits-credits at the introductory level. You know what I mean-that gnawing pain in the pit of your stomach when no matter how many times you explain adjusting entries, all a student wants to know is what to debit, an expense or a prepaid…students’ accounting knowledge begins to fade even before the course is over, so that end of-course performance begins to revert back to the level of beginning-of-course performance. The reason: student learning appears to be based on memorization, without real understanding.’

Pincus, Karen V. “Is teaching debits and credits essential in elementary accounting?.” Issues in Accounting Education 12.2 (1997): 575.

 

For me one of the most powerful and effective learning experiences happened in 1989, my first year of UG study.  We were doing financial accounting and everyone of us in my study group found it impenetrable.  Why do we do this double entry bookkeeping? It made NO SENSE.  Every successive week of lecture then tutorial made it worse, not better.  The lecturer for the course who we called ‘Big Ronnie’ (not because it was his name, but because he told us day one that his name was always ‘Ronald’ and never ‘Ron’ and definitely not ‘Ronnie’) was awful, teaching from old notes that simply repeated the same impenetrable scripts from the text book he wrote (the names have been changed to protect the innocent). His tutors were even worse, first year out graduates with no frameworks or knowledge of education, given 10 questions each week that they were made have us answer.  Sometimes they ran out to stuff to talk about after 20 minutes because they were given no agency, just a directive.  Just onto the next ten worked examples, which each week we couldn’t do.  None of us got it.  Attendance declined, the bar filled up at tutorial time because we were timetabled for a 7-9pm tutorial after a 9am lecture the same day with nothing in between.  And then we did the first exam, mid semester and almost everyone failed, or just passed.  And none of us had ever experienced that before.  It was a shock and it hurt.  We sat down to the tutorial after the exam and were angry. Every one of us.  And I remember it vividly, the tutor started on the next weeks questions and we all stopped.  We refused to speak and we said to her ‘what happened? We failed and we don’t why?’ As she had no theoretical framework t reflect on what happened she just reverted to the only thing she knew, her own experiences of learning, and for the first time she opened up. ‘This must have sucked guys, I am so sorry, I had the same experience with Ronald 4 years ago and if it was me who get it wrong….’ She trailed off. We said to her, teach us. Teach us like little kids and start at the beginning.  We stopped learning in week 1 and the lecturer couldn’t care.  In those days you had failing quotas, pass marks at 70% and the belief that failing when you actually passed was character building.  Teach us like children.  We pushed all the desks away, we sat on the floor, she sat on the floor with us and started talking about what she did as an accountant and how she used double entry bookkeeping.  She went back to first principles and for two hours, no one left, no one blanked out. Every one asked questions and after a while it was our own peers who were answering as different bits of the puzzle connected.  She constructed a learning experience, a campfire where she told her story and we found things that we could hook our own fragile, emerging understanding.  And we got better, each week, we engaged and talked and built a relationship.  And even better, she learnt as well through the process of constructing an experience.

 

Yes, there was a curriculum.  There was knowledge.  There was assessment.  There was teaching.  But there was not learning.  Simply using levers to create a mix of education based on the traditional four processes of curriculum, teaching, content and assessment is not enough, especially in a post-digital world where those things are (to varying degrees) more easily accessible and more plentiful than any other time in human history.  The value that we offer as teachers and as institutions comes how we use experience and how we construct experiences for our students.  As Knowles says, the opportunity is for experience to be the connective tissue and sinew for successful adult teaching.  Herein lies the opportunity to take post-digital learning experiences, made possible by the digital to help students make connections between knowledge, find contexts within their own memory to understand them and commit them to the portfolio of learning they have opened up and to share those experiences with others.  This is also an opportunity to change the way we use those levers.

 

How the digital might help?

  1. Change assessment and shape the environment that rewards the construction of and critical reflection on experiences.  Stop standing at the front and droning on.  Afford and indulge some risk.  Social media provides for safe spaces to do dangerous things. Classrooms the same.
  2. Let students speak their opinion and have it challenged and defended.  Let them bring their experiences of learning through play, imagination and creativity that have dominated their lives since they were born to a supposedly adult field. Can their shares those experiences with a network wider than the one in the classroom? How does the fluidity of an online existence (which to be fair is the same fluidity we apply to any other form of existence) become integrated into teaching?
  3. Accredit and recognize experiences in all learners as both formative and summative.  Students aren’t empty vessels when they walk through or sometimes august gates, they have opinions that are formed and informed to a wide variety of degrees. Find ways to draw those experiences of identify formation, sharing, expression and remixing into your teaching. Interrogate their understandings through the ways they consume media, or develop trust and networks, or the way they play.
  4. Give them the opportunity of knowing what it’s like when their next step is into the unknown.  Use scenarios, games or simulations to make this feel real, but be safe.  Introduce a small amount of fear through discontinuity, throw a curve ball in your teaching experience, so that week 1 doesn’t feel exactly the same as week 9.  Use technology to disrupt the norm then challenge why they were or weren’t ‘disrupted’.
  5. Tell them how something ends so that they have to work out how it begins.  Use media to show how something is completed then navigate through the field, using smart searches, fluid approaches to knowledge and an open mind to link discourses and narratives.
  6. Let them use their experiences and those of others to help form an identity within their professional or personal communities.  Use technology to develop identity, shape identify, know what identity means in the context of being a professional, understanding how their identity shapes their learning.  Social media, portfolios, critiques, being a digital citizen, crowdsourcing can all contribute towards shaping and sharing identity.

 

Let them sit around in a circle on the floor and figure out why does double entry bookkeeping exist and how do you match all the debits and credits in order to complete balance day adjustments? And have those very same students still remember how to do it nearly 30 years on.

 

I recall a bigger brighter world
a world of books
and silent times in thought
and then the railroad
the railroad takes him home
through fields of cattle
through fields of cane
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older

Cattle and Cane, The Go-Betweens, 1983

 

This post is dedicated to the memory of Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens, from whom I respectfully borrow the title of this post (from the track Was There Anything I Could Do? released on 16 Lovers Lane in 1988)

Little arguments with myself: Disrupting how we ‘do’ learning Slideshare and Video

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!