Learning: What and How?

Dear friends,

On coincidences? Speaking of Richard Elmore—as I was in the last letter I wrote you. Right after writing that blog, I came across a booklet he wrote for the Albert Shanker Institute in 2002. Almost ancient history. Title: The Imperative: Investment in Human Skill and Knowledge. It reminds me why I have always admired him—and had caveats.

His argument in short is that we need to recognize that performance-based accountability, if it is to do what it was intended to do, ”requires a strategy for investing in the knowledge and skill of educators.”

His definition of “what it was intended to do” is not bad: “improve the quality of educational experience for all students and the performance of schools.” But? To what end? How would one measure “the quality” of an experience or a school? Current tests surely do not do that job. Elmore slips over this issue too quickly. I think that accounts for where we begin to part company.

If teaching is done right, he says, students will learn what has been taught. I hope not! Given how many parents, teachers and other “instructors”(including TV, et al) are likely to be teaching/preaching stuff that is plain untrue, or partially inaccurate, or accurate only in part, the rest “we’ll cover later.” (Think of how what we say to children is intentionally not quite true, but they will get the unvarnished version when they are older!)

The “misunderstandings” that occur between the best teachers and the best students (and mostly we have to contend with less than the “best” of either) are where all the fun of learning actually takes place. This begins at birth. Humans are not only born curious, but they are born with a capacity for rather rigorous mechanism for correcting mistakes. They build and rebuild their “theory” of the world based on trial and error—over and over, with modifications and side paths, and adjustments and sometimes huge revisions! Sometimes this process stops—in face of too much uncertainty or not enough—and we fixate, obsessively, on a theory that never gets revised even when faced with its “obvious” contradictions.

I apologize for getting so “up in the air” with this, but I’ve more and more come to believe that this assumption—which academics call constructivism—that I hold about learning is much more controversial than I wish it were. Not only do some disagree with me about what “being human” is like, but insofar as they agree, they think it is one of those qualities that serves us poorly, a bad habit that gets us into trouble. There are those who think that schooling is needed precisely to eliminate that quality of infantile investment in our own ideas, our resistance at just doing or believing what we are told. Yes, we may have to give some of that egotism up, but we need also to hold onto it as we learn also to conform a bit more. We have to watch out for what the trade-offs are—or the adults in our life have to watch out that we do not give up too much.

If we think that the central core of what publicly supported education is about is passing on the best and wisest of our traditions, but simultaneously questioning and revising them, we have a problem with schools as they are. E.g. Which traditions, and whose traditions? There are many. Personally, I expect schools in the USA to pass on the fragile claim that democracy, for all its faults, is the best form of governance. Even as I know too much about how well or poorly it often (mostly?) works! How to pass on the habits and knowledge that will solidify such a claim is a risky business.

But if that is a central purpose, then we need to beware of the idea that what is taught (especially in school) can be measured by whether the learner agrees with what he/she has been taught.

Yes, it is true that you cannot learn anything new if you have no facts and knowledge to build on. But the accuracy of that knowledge is always contentious—from birth on. Sometimes it seems like ”we all know,” “obviously” and “of course.” How could we finish a sentence if we didn’t accept the idea that there is a consensus on most things. But what do we do when we realize there is not? Those phrases—“we all know” and “obviously” and “of course”—often stop us from revisiting past learning. This is one reason children’s rate of learning so far surpasses that of their elders—there is no shame yet about ignorance. It may be why Richard Elmore’s colleagues turned down his idea of revisiting old beliefs.

Finding the balance between accepted facts and truths and questioning them is an art, and a bit of a science—i.e. informed trial and error. But the problem is that we are easily intimidated from publicly exposing our possible ignorance in ways little children are not. This leads in turn to testing them out, often just in our heads. Or sometimes it means we settle, at least for now, on those that feel most comfortable or more polite. Most damaging of all is when we avoid even any inner doubts or questionings. In short, we learn to become non-learners. Except, ah yes, there are always exceptions. Such as when we are fired up by powerful charismatic ideas, people or “movements” which upset our comfortable old theories. At least temporarily. The joy that occurs when a new ideas clicks in place is sometimes even a signal: be cautious. “Conversions”—when we wholesale drop old ideas for new ones, or sometimes just graft one set of ideas onto another—need revisiting from time to time too

The two authors, of many, that I return to when trying to make sense of this are David Hawkins and Jean Piaget. But my most powerful teacher of all is observing with care children’s experiences in schools and elsewhere, and finding the parallels in my own life.. Then I fall back to a favorite quotation from Eugene V. Debs. “I would not lead you to the promised land even if I could. Because if I could lead you into the promised land, others could lead you back again.” How can we embrace solidarity but not group-think?

When Elmore argued for revisiting—as educators—our old ideas, what caught my eye was his unusual willingness to re-explore—not just changing his mind. I live so much within a world that disagrees with me that sometimes I over-cling to that subset of people and institutions that are on my wave length. Finding the right balance is hard for me.

I’m hoping to use this blog (unlike Bridging Differences with Ravitch) to explore what I believe.

So challenge me (if you keep reading these letters).


12 Responses

  1. Having just attended Educon in Philadelphia last weekend you have hit on something I noticed there. Rather than traditional conference sessions we had facilitated discussions. Often, as a discussion began we would have to take a step back and talk about our definitions and beliefs. We couldn't get into the meat of the question until we understood each other's schema to some extent. It was fascinating to realize that things we assume we all believe or define in some way can actually be much more varied.

  2. Debbie – I like being "up in the air" with you, though I call it "inside the wild triangle." This is David Hawkins's triangle – I-you-it – where the I is the teacher, the you (plural) the students, and the it the "thing" we're teaching/learning. All three angles of this triangle are continuously changing in values which makes for a kind of wrestling match in there. Not a "transaction" at all.

  3. It IS hard, isn't it? The solidarity 'vs.' group-think thing? I sometimes find myself silently terrified that a colleague or friend will exhibit a 'fatal' (how it seems to me) disagreement with some important concept or knowledge that lives in my heart about who children are and how we all learn and grow…and sometimes they do…and sometimes it is almost fatal-to our relationship…

  4. "I live so much within a world that disagrees with me …."Know that I agree with just about everything I've read of your writings. Know also that I only recently became aware of your work and long-time efforts to put the right spin on what goes on in the name of education in the US. Let's take, for example, your listing of the class sizes of the children of the notable people youlisted. I was thinking (independently) almost the exact same thing the other day! Thirdly, know that, for people "like us," it's a sign that we are on the "right" track when the world disagrees with us. One of the best definitions of a professor I ever heard was: Someone who thinks otherwise. I am in academia and I should write a book about my various entanglements with the establishment. Finally, when it comes to direct instruction and rote learning, they have their place; costructivist techniques in those instances are probably better off given a rest. After all, I would claim, one should be adept at all styles of learning

  5. There is something to learn in the ideas of others, even those some patronizingly refer to as elementary because it's the elementary ones that have the possibility of developing. Can teaching at any level be anything but elemental? I really don't teachers should 'teach' a subject in the traditional sense. We should teach 'learning'; it's really the only thing in which we all have great experience.

  6. If teaching is done right, he says, students will learn what has been taught. Elmore's statement is the never ending belief that we teachers are pouring this "stuff" into kids and they are simply receiving it – where is he getting this. This just plays into the idea that we have to get rid of all the teachers who are not doing it "right".

  7. If teaching is done right, he says, students will learn what has been taught. Such simplicity! I can not understand why the drop out rates are so high. Must be all those teachers not "doing it right". Exhausting! We will never get to the real solutions with that type of mentality.

  8. A powerful post. Thanks. And as you wrestle with your beliefs, here's a thought from Rene Descartes "To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares and am happily disturbed by no passions, and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions."

  9. Wow – what a great quote. Could I ever free myself from my opinions? Especially since they are so correct? just joking – thanks for the reply jimmyboy.

  10. Brilliant! To think otherwise is a disrespect of our students, of our democracy!

  11. And that is the issue is it not? The total disrespect of those students of the less fortunate in our country. We who know better and know they are not getting their fair share, but never be silent.

  12. woops – MUST never be silent! Should practice what I preach about proofreading your writing…

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