Discovering Learning or Delivering an Education

Learning to flyI’ve been thinking a lot about learning over the last couple of years, more so than at any other point in my life. While I spent 22 years teaching and administrating in a public school, I can’t say that I spent a lot of time thinking about learning during my career, specifically how kids learn. And I don’t remember “learning about learning” in my teacher preparation programs either. It’s taken a decade of being out of schools to finally focus on what is the most important part of schools. The irony is not missed, believe me.

One of the questions I’ve started asking teachers and leaders in my travels is how often they have conversations about learning and how kids learn. It’s not surprising that only a handful report that such conversations are a regular (or even a sporadic) occurrence. Most of the conversations teachers have when they get together either formally or informally are about their practice or about helping students achieve at higher levels or even just pass a class. Those aren’t bad things, mind you, but they don’t focus on what, exactly, learning is or how to help students do it better.

I was reminded of this when I was using Google Books to nose through a Seymour Sarason book from about a decade ago titled “Productive Learning.” On the second page, Sarason (whose book And What Do YOU Mean by Learning should be required reading for all educators) writes this:

We have concluded that one basic reason for the failure of educational reform movements is a superficial and fuzzy conception of learning. More specifically, the criteria for distinguishing between contexts of productive and unproductive learning do not exist in any readily available form and go undiscussed.

The fact that this book lists as around the 3.7 millionth most popular book on Amazon aside, there’s no doubt in my mind at least that Sarason nails the problem completely. And I think it can be articulated in another way that resonates even more with my experiences in visiting hundreds of schools over the years. In most schools, learning is less important a goal than is an “education.”

I’m not saying that teachers don’t want kids to learn. But most think about that only in the context of “learn the curriculum.” There’s very little learning for learning’s sake, learning that focuses on stuff outside of the curriculum, the stuff that’s required to get the grade to get the diploma to get a good life (even though a high school diploma doesn’t mean as much these days.) Which is why when we talk about “improving student learning” in schools, it’s more about the technical aspects of teaching (pacing, management, assessments, etc) than creating conditions under which kids can learn more powerfully and deeply in their lives.

In short, I think it’s arguable that we are focused on education at the expense of learning, because the fact is that most of what constitutes an “education” is quickly forgotten and/or never used. An “education” is more about checking a series of boxes than it is developing the skills, literacies, and dispositions to learn. And I get it; an “education” as it’s currently constructed is a heck of a lot easier to assess than that learning thing.

But let’s also remember that defining an “education” at any given moment is just a guess. What serves as being “educated” today is different from what “educated” will mean a few years from now, right? I mean can we really apply, say, a year 2000 definition of “educated” to today’s student? I mean if we count literacy as being a big part of being educated, then no, we can’t. The literacies required to navigate the world today are much different from those even a decade ago. (See here and here if you don’t believe me.) And that’s just one part of it.

And let’s not ignore the consequences. An emphasis on education reduces agency for the individual learner, because an education must be “delivered” and the easiest way for that to happen is if the system and the teacher organize it and mete it out in a fairly standardized way. If we set learners free, who knows what type of an “education” they would get? This scares us deeply because it reduces our certainty of the outcome, (even if we may know that the outcome is just a guess to begin with.)

And an emphasis on education drives us toward a culture of teaching in schools rather than an culture of learning. (In my experience, many struggle with what a culture of learning even means.) Innovation, risk-taking, learning from failure, using technologies to make things…all of those and more suffer in the process.

Finally, an emphasis on education sustains old narratives around what schooling should be, and about what learning looks like. In other words, it sustains a “superficial and fuzzy conception of learning.” I’m not surprised that we don’t talk more about learning in schools on a regular basis because those conversations force us to see our work and our systems for what they are.

No question, our kids need to leave us “educated.” And the two, education and learning, are not mutually exclusive. But right now, now that “learning is the work,” the big question to me at least is how do we shift the emphasis away from what is arguably an increasingly irrelevant, bloated, all too predictable definition if “educated” to one that embraces an emphasis on the learner and his or her ability to self-organize his or her own education in an era of increasing access to knowledge, information, tools, and people?

That would be a great question to start some conversations around learning in schools, wouldn’t it?

Would love to know what you think.

Image credit: Juan José Aza

4 thoughts on “Discovering Learning or Delivering an Education”

  1. Mark L

    I could not agree with you more, Will. Further, educators almost never talk about what their graduates really need from them. It is assumed that if students get through the curriculum with good grades then I (educator) have done my job. And yet more than 50% of college graduates today cannot get a job or at least a job using their degree. We cannot reform education for today by doing better what we have always done. Turning out graduates prepared for jobs that are no longer there has little value. We must change what is done in education so graduates are prepared for a very different world. It turns out that today’s world is characterized by constant change and turmoil, so being able to tackle new, complex, ambiguous issues is the gold skill. That skill is closely tied with learning how to learn.

  2. Christine B

    Thanks for this helpful articulation of the difference between education and learning. School was never the only place to learn, but new tools and resources make independent learning ever more possible. Could schools support independent learning? Could they cultivate curiosity? I’m developing systems to do that for adults, but I’d love to be part of them in school settings, too. “What do you want to learn?” is such an under-asked question!

  3. Barry D

    As someone who spent the last five years helping high school students answer & pursue the question, “What do YOU want to learn?” this piece (and your books) resonate with me. I’ve had many, many conversations with students (and some teachers) about what it means to learn and what learning has (or doesn’t) to do with school. I have a few hours of video asking people to define learning where most struggle to find a response that they can personally own.

    As of June 30, I quit my public school teaching job of 26 years (MB, Canada). I am momentarily tired of the struggle of trying to show the drivers of the local system of education that when they use the word “learning,” they mean delivery-of-curriculum education. The desire to control, with the best of intentions, strips away the voices of students and teachers. It would seem that the Tree of Knowledge, which leads to self awareness, is still a forbidden fruit.

  4. Pamela M

    This so resonates with what I have have identified as my teachable point of view. Have we shifted from schools that serve as institutions of learning to schools that serve as institutions of teaching?

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