This blog started as a response to Felicia M. Sullivan’s blog “The Story We Tell Ourselves” #edcmooc
In her blog, Felicia states that “we can rethink and recreate the processes by which we engage learning — both with and without technology enhancements. We can find ways to increase individual motivation and passion for learning while building the confidence and agency for the learner. It’s just that we have for too long been conditioned to expect that learning happens in prescribed ways.”
Felicia proceeds to describe traditional way of learning and traditional institutions of learning:
“A class has a set format, defined goals and roles, activities set forth with a set duration. The learning is contained within the class with some structured amount of outside work which is structured and tied back to the class. Admittedly there is a certain amount of variety within this format. Yet, we are often motivated by external demands such as grades, tests, and degrees that we forget or ignore our own curiosity and passion for learning.”
I would like to explore the idea of structure in higher education.
While, agreeably, traditional universities are an archaic model of where and how learning happens, I would argue that there is some value to the structure that institutions and teachers provide to their students. (Please note that I am usually an ardent critic of traditional education but still find some positive aspects in it.) Learning is a life-long process that requires intellectual curiosity, motivation, and discipline – and none of these are necessarily natural or innate characteristics to the human being.
Curiosity is often sparked by sharing an exciting discovery with another human being: a parent shows her child the stars and explains to the kid the mystery behind them; a parent or a teacher reads a book to a child and tells a wonderful story about a princess in a far land; a group of kids roam the streets and discover hidden treasures. Universities usually provide a sense of shared community of individuals with similar interests, which, ideally, stimulates one’s curiosity and desire to explore and learn.
While tests, grades, and degrees are artificial motivators, we have not really come up with a much better way to motivate students, especially, because education is driven by the demands of the market, and what students want to learn often has nothing to do with the many drab jobs that the market offers. So how do we motivate students to want to study or work something that otherwise they would not pursue? I recently met a wonderful Chinese graduate student who said that she had a passion for nature and animals, but she is currently studying finances because her family expects her to get a degree, which would help her have a successful career. So how do we motivate this young woman to pursue her passion?
Discipline – I do not like this word and it reminds me of the military, but anyone who has been a student or a teacher knows that one cannot achieve virtually anything without discipline and that not all learning is fun; instead, it involves painstaking work and perseverance – and here lies the role of a boring teacher who imposes an artificial structure on the otherwise chaotic lives of most students. Unfortunately, students also learn the hard way that life is not only about entertainment, but it is about responsibilities, meeting deadlines, taking orders from bosses and giving orders to those below (driven by the hierarchical structure of most workplaces), and often working with people one may not like.
This leads me to an interesting idea: perhaps, our educational system is a reflection of the society at large and, perhaps, while changing our educational institutions we also need to change ourselves. Simply “liberating” learning from the chains of traditional education would not do much without similar changes in the society at large.
We live in an information age and the pool of knowledge expands exponentially each year. Knowledge is also so specialized that it would take one person a life-time to master all the knowledge in a particular field, and it would take the ability to cooperate with others in order to advance scientific discoveries. Within this environment, I would argue, students would need guidance, structure, and focus.
Students also need someone to help them sort through the avalanche of information out there. What would graduate students, for example, take away from the old-fashioned way of learning? They may appreciate being exposed to the most current and best literature in their field, having the ability to discuss ideas with other graduate students, and having a professor-mentor who guides them through the whole process. Studying in educational institutions is not only about learning but also about acculturation of the student, about getting the student ready to function within the larger society.