Learning About Learning


LEARNING – The traditional approach

What do you mean when you say “learn?” Stop and think about this for a minute. Do you have a definition of learning- what does it involve?

  • Learning usually is understood to mean acquisition of new information which can be explained either orally or in writing.
  • Learning is knowledge acquisition. When I say I know something, I have information that allows me to explain it to others.
  • Learning is usually considered cognitive. The information is organized into “facts,” which are considered objects in the mind. If you learn about patterns of urban development, for example, you have a “pile” of information in your mind that you can express to other people or describe on a test.
  • These facts exist independently of any person’s opinion about them. They are considered to have objective existence. Anybody who knows these facts is assumed to know the same information.
  • If a person has an emotional reaction to the facts, that is generally not considered part of the learning process.

Learning: The transformative approach

Actually, learning is much more than knowledge acquisition. Emotions are always a part of real, deep learning. If people don’t care, they don’t learn.

What have you learned lately? Why do you remember it? Does it matter to you? In what parts of your life might this new learning make a difference?

  • Learning that matters, that influences perspective and changes understanding, always involves emotions. In Molecules of Emotion, Pert (1997) talks about describes emotions as the physiological anchors and connectors of all human awareness. Zull, in The Art of Changing the Brain, (2006) has discovered that emotions anchor all learning and affect all learning processes.
  • The basic issue is that most teachers in academic settings don’t teach the way people learn because they don’t intentionally include emotions (or caring) in the learning process.
  • They also don’t often discuss the inevitability of personal perspective and meaning making on an individual’s understanding of “the facts.”
  • When emotions are excluded from learning, learning is made trivial and irrelevant and students are bored.

TEACHING:  The traditional approach
Traditional teaching intentionally excludes questions of personal meaning and emotional reactions to subjects being taught. Emotions are presumed to interfere with learning by clouding objectivity.

  • Traditional teaching typically focuses on “objective facts.”
  • Students are asked to recall facts, to use facts to solve problems and to connect facts into theories that explain how the world works.
  • They are not often asked to stop and consider what these facts might mean for them as individuals.
  • This approach to teaching is only effective if a student is really interested in the subject matter.
  • In the liberal arts, students are required to take general education courses and they are often not interested in the subject matter because they believe that it does not pertain to their major field of study.
  • All of these ideas are discussed extensively in Of Education, Fishbowls and Rabbit Holes (Fried, 2016).

QUESTION: Why are teachers, who are fascinated with their subject matter, often unable to convey their enthusiasm to their students who are required to learn this subject?
ANSWER: Because the teachers really care about the subject and the students don’t. If a student is an engineering or nursing major why would they care about the significance of the pickle dish in Ethan Frome (Wharton, 1911)?
Teaching: The transformative approach
It is possible to teach both the facts and raise questions about personal meaning without compromising the quality of learning. Actually, the transformative approach enhances learning because students become more curious, more engaged and are more likely to risk asking questions that challenge their own belief systems.

  • Transformative learning helps students stand outside their own perspective and learn to value the perspectives of others.
  • Students can learn to agree on the facts and disagree on their meaning.
  • In order to accomplish this kind of learning, students also need to learn to manage their emotions so that dialogue can occur. Dialogue involves both speaking and listening carefully. The goal is mutual understanding, not the designation of a “correct” answer or the creation of a dominant interpretation. When discussing controversial topics, this is a very difficult skill to practice.
  • Most teachers have not been trained in dialogic methods. Training is available and not hard to find. Any group facilitation text will help. The group facilitation appendix in Of Education, Fishbowls and Rabbit Holes (www.amazon.com)introduces the basic facilitation skills.
  • This approach also helps students learn to consider two different opinions simultaneously ( also known as “compare and contrast”). This is a critical skill allegedly taught in most first year writing courses, but increasingly difficult to learn in an age of polarization of perspective, politics, religion and almost every other aspect of human experience.

STUDENT ENGAGEMENT: Caring about learning, even in required courses.
When students are not engaged in the learning process, it is typically because they don’t understand why they need to know whatever they are expected to learn. “I’ll never use algebra (fill in any other subject you have heard a student mention) after I finish this course,” is a typical comment. Academic advisors are frequently asked by students why they need to take a particular “gen ed” course. “It’s required to graduate” is simply not a motivator.

What is Self-Authorship?

  • “Self-authorship involves the notion that attitudes toward authority change as people mature” (as cited in Fried, 2016).Students’ attitudes toward teachers and other authority figures change as they mature. The more mature a student becomes, the less likely that they will accept “because you need it to graduate,” as a reasonable answer.
  • Self-authorship involves “three core assumptions about learning: knowledge is complex and socially constructed, one’s identity plays a central role in crafting knowledge claims, and knowledge is mutually constructed via the sharing of expertise and authority” (as cited in Fried, 2016,  p.xxix, www.amazon.com)
  • Self-authorship as a foundation for learning incorporates new research on the biological elements of learning with the integration of self/identity and knowledge acquisition. This approach transcends our traditional information-transfer approach. Information transfer becomes part of the learning process, not the whole process.
  • The notion of self-authorship forces us to place “objectivity” as a subcategory of learning rather than elevate it to the dominant aspect of the process.
  • Self-authorship accurately reflects what we know about learning in the 21st century. Previously, our teaching/learning paradigm was grounded in 19th and 20th century ideas that are now considered quite limited.

Self-Authorship and student engagement

  • Teaching for self-authorship is challenging and complicated.
  • It involves overcoming the historical thinking/feeling split, understanding the values and beliefs of students in a particular learning situation and teaching students about the learning process concurrently with teaching them about the subject matter. None of these skills is typically part of a doctoral program for academic faculty.
  • “Self-authorship combines learning about the external world, learning about self [ and possibly the culture that produced each individual student self] and learning about the creation of [reliable and trustworthy] systems of interpreting world events (Fried, 2016, p.xxix, www.amazon.com).
  • Teaching that includes self-authorship allows students to co-construct knowledge and outgrow any limiting need to rely completely on an authority figure’s interpretation of events and meaning. This is also called “critical thinking,” a goal of most undergraduate education that is rarely achieved.
  • This approach teaches students to critique their own ideas and listen carefully to other’s ideas rather than compete for the teacher’s approval and the ‘right’ answer.
  • Students ultimately learn what they think, how to support their ideas with accurate information and to listen to what others think.
  • Classrooms become sites for conversation and questioning because students understand why they might want to know about the subject.

Just think about the changes that might occur in our national discourse if there were more teaching for self-authorship. Think about the conversations we might have about race, gender, economic policy, international relations and religious differences if people actually learned to say what they think, listened to what others think and didn’t have to figure out the “right” answer. Think about family life. Think about bullying. Think about election campaigns.

  • These changes in our interactions with one another would begin to occur if we learned to have difficult conversations and manage our emotions in the process.
  • Right now, most of educational institutions do not teach about self-authorship, do not teach emotional self-management and do not teach students how to listen for understanding instead of listening to prepare their own arguments.
  • Students are not engaged in much of the learning process, especially in the general education aspect of the liberal arts, because they don’t understand what any of it has to do with them AND NOBODY IS TELLING THEM OR HELPING THEM UNDERSTAND.

Time to get moving on this if we want a viable democracy with an educated citizenry.

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