This essay was first published in Dutch om the 28th of April 2014
Why do we learn? What do we learn? How do we learn and when have we learnt? If you ask these questions to pupils or students, you often receive clear answers. We learn because it’s compulsory (public education law) or because we want a decent job later on (diploma). We learn facts from books and texts that we often never need again. We learn by reading these books, summarizing and memorizing them. And we have learnt well when we pass the test.
These answers may be a bit negatively formulated but most teachers and supervisors will have heard them often. I am willing to juxtapose them to more positive perspectives. There are many students full of curiosity and ambition. They ravish the books, study till late in the night and in the weekends, have had a vision about their future employment from early childhood and will not settle for less than an A or A+, because the study is the gateway to that job. Both perspectives are applicable to what I wish to shed light on in this essay.
Everything in the name of
The common aspect of both groups is that they relate all of their activity (or lack thereof) to the study itself. I often hear students blame themselves for “not having done anything this week”, or shout with relief that they “have a week off” or “don’t have to do anything for tomorrow”, while others lament that they “have no free time”. Some students do not allow themselves any breathing space: “if I don’t succeed, I am dumb”, “if I don’t graduate from this study then everything has been for nothing!”.
These are remarkable comments if you take them seriously (something I try to do as much as possible!), because you cannot do nothing. We do nothing when we lay dead in our graves. At all other times, we are busy as bees. It is remarkable to talk in terms of “free” or “not free” in relation to learning. We learn continuously, and, in effect, we cannot have “free time” even if we wanted to (but why would you want to?). We are unceasingly active in creating all sorts of knowledge constructs in our heads. This is in no way an exaggeration. We literally learn with every step we take because we activate certain regions in the brain that are necessary for our thinking and memory (Professor Erik Scherder has given a clarifying lecture about this at the University of the Netherlands). It is from a psychological point of view impossible that all kinds of actions could be “for nothing”.
Monopoly of learning
Is clarification really still needed to explain that a fail for a test does not mean that someone is dumb and that failing your study also doesn’t mean that you have lost all this time senselessly? Yet, this idea is deeply ingrained in a lot of students. They interpret the activity of learning apparently completely from the perspective of education. Education (in the form of teachers, syllabi, regulations, political or societal discussions) apparently determines how we view learning. It determines what we mean by learning and what acknowledged learning activities are. In addition, the institutions determine whether or when you are free, useful, and how smart you are.
I must admit that I come across professionals in the work field that also seem to believe that education has a monopoly on learning.
In short, we are in a situation where educational institutions provide an unusual large contribution to how we view learning, even though, in reality, it only plays a minor role in our actual learning. This would not be so problematic if learning in schools would be aligned seamlessly to the learning processes elsewhere. Sadly, this is not the case. Educational institutions employ an exceptionally narrow interpretation of learning. Which means that students, in turn, also have narrow interpretations of learning (see my essay Homo Praxis) . This is what makes the comments above so poignant to me. The students judges and condemns themselves on the basis of seriously limited information.
Our current education system is the result of two influential historical periods: The Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution (the education expert Sir Ken Robinson has made a famous video about this). The influence of both is, after all this time, still extremely strong. Thanks to The Enlightenment, we see learning primarily as rational knowledge acquirement. Aside from language and mathematics, it is primarily about content filled subjects like geography, history, biology and so on, subjects in which a lot of information is poured into the students. At an early age, we learn about tectonic plates, Romans, William of Orange, etc. My daughter knew the ten largest cities in the Netherlands and the capitals of all surrounding countries even before she had learnt to use the city map to find her quickest way home.
In elementary education, there is some attention for playfulness, personal expression and the practice of everyday life, but on secondary schools, this soon has to make room for “real” subjects in all abstract seriousness. English, Dutch and Mathematics are mandatory subjects and all profiles are filled with hard science. Creativity, social emotional development and self-exploration have to be given attention outside of school. At least, there is no room for this in the all-determining final exams.
The Industrial Revolution might even have had more (bad) influence. The most important characteristics are: scale, quantification, standardization, and efficiency, characteristic of all learning and testing methods in our current regular education system. The individual is completely subservient to the organization. As a pupil you have nothing to say about it, and as a student it is not much better.
Multiple-choice tests are a typical product of this way of thinking. I know study programmes that literally hinder their students from finding out what they did wrong precisely on a test; they merely receive the answer sheet. The testing method is already problematic from an educational point of view, but this lack of decent feedback is fundamentally wrong. Yet, this is what happens; frequently and shamelessly.
In my essay, “true scientists” I claim that we are not the sober empiricists that people in education think we are. I referred to the misconception of viewing the individual as someone who critically and objectively goes through the learning cycle of Kolb (because they do not). But my reading of these ideas in educational systems is, on second thoughts, too optimistic. I see little of the ambition to develop empirical skills in pupils and students. Rationalism dominates with the idea that true knowledge can be completely transmitted via books, lectures, assignments, and multiple-choice tests.
I would not go as far as Sir Ken as to say that the education system “murders” the creativity of the pupil, but I see apparent negative consequences in my practice. Doing “nothing” and being “free” are only the most innocent signals. The pupils and students that I meet are decidedly conservative in their learning methods and conform completely to their institution. They want to learn techniques and strategies that all fall within the paradigms of The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. They want to read faster, memorize better, and write more effortlessly. They want to attain this behind their desks and laptops by employing concrete, standardized (read: immediately employable without changeover or measurement) techniques. The menacing condemnation of “being dumb” that constantly hangs over their heads is seen as a given and they want to avoid it at all costs. Conclusion: eyes on the prize and avoid all risks.
Nowhere is this rigid working method more prominent than in the phase of writing the thesis. This “highest” level of education ought to be filled with citizens who have managed to achieve the summit of their learning capacity. They ought to be critical and creative minds that dare to lean on their learning capability and that take on all intellectual challenges with confidence. They should, in other words, be intellectual hotshots.
Some students undoubtedly match this description, but the majority does not, and I dare to claim that those hotshots that did come this far have done so despite the system and not thanks to it. Many of the students I come across in this period have no idea what the academic level is that they should try to attain and know just as little about what they want to show at this level. They also consider their capacity to show it of a very low standard. They wrestle with a lack of overview, goal-orientedness and self-confidence and would rather write grammatically correct sentences with the proper academic depth, off the cuff.
Broadening the Horizon
In my work, I try to broaden their horizon – which is full of rigid conceptions and working methods (see also: “Let’ Play ”, “Chaos in the Order” and “Fear of Failure”). I let them formulate their confusion and frustrations and show them that these largely stem from preconceived assumptions and misconceptions. Applicable alternatives can be put in use. One does not have to begin at the beginning and go through everything. You do not have to understand everything in one go. A text does not have to be perfect at the first try. You are allowed to ask stupid questions and to write down nonsense (in the first draft!). Put down your laptop for once and pick up large leaves of paper and colour pencils. Take your study book out on the street, talk aloud to yourself, to your dog, or with each other. Organize a “battle” on the subject and go wild in taking extreme positions. Almost everything is allowed in the learning process, as long as the action at hand sincerely explores the subject (!). Every action, no matter how crazy, serves the purpose of the learning process. Only when you have made yourself independent from the paradigms of the education system, have you reached the highest level of learning. More often than not, I manage to widen the students’ blinders. Would it not be beautiful if we could achieve this with the educational institutions?