First published in Dutch on the 13th of March 2011

Costs and Benefits
I often encounter students who seem to think exclusively in terms of costs and benefits or means and goals. Due to this way of thinking some of them refuse to attend any voluntary seminars they deem unnecessary, without the slightest hint of embarrassment. In their minds certain means/costs do not add anything to their goals/benefits (passing the exam). Whenever these students do attend class, they want to know (again, without embarrassment) exactly what information presented in class will be part of the upcoming exam. They are also in the habit of expertly trading readers and summaries. They are true masters of accumulating barely sufficient grades and demonstrate impressive rhetoric whenever their mathematical skills fail them and they need to turn a 5,4 out of 10 into a 5,6. These are students who are looking for tips and tricks to study more efficiently, plan their studies better and experience less stress. The solutions must be instantaneous and well-fitted with their busy schedule; the results must be immediately visible, otherwise they will look for something new to try.

The description above may be an exaggerated version of the truth, but most teachers and counsellors will probably recognise the pragmatism and have experienced it as irritating. Such behaviour may be goal-oriented and efficient, but it sure is not what we all had in mind. We would like to see our students intrinsically motivated and ready to appreciate the depth of our seminars. We would like our students to strive for an 8 out of 10 mark, instead of settling for 6 out of 10.

It may be tempting to look for the cause of this behaviour in the casual, perhaps even lazy, attitude of most of our adolescents today. I can withstand the temptation, because I am faced with similar attitudes whenever I present workshops and courses to teachers; in this case they are the students: “Do you have any advice on how I can…?”, “What should I do if…”, “What does this all mean for my seminars?” or “Can I get a copy of the hand-outs? I need to leave at half past 2.” These are all phrases I am confronted with regularly. I wish these teachers would prioritise their passion for the processes of learning over such “business-like” remarks. I am not arguing here, that I am by any means any different; I believe that every one of us in education suffers from a similar kind of pragmatism.

Anchored in the System

The problem, I believe, should not be found in some human shortcoming; instead it is anchored in our own system of education. In large educational institutes, such as universities, the emphasis lies largely on the organisation of education. In many ways this development is quite understandable: due to expansion many institutes resort to segmentation, quantification, and developing protocol and policy in order to provide the large numbers of students all with an educational path of equal quality and value. And the benefits of this approach shows! In the Netherlands, we now have more people who went through higher education than ever before.

However, we are faced with a secondary effect of this approach that has an important influence on our educational systems. There is a corporate mentality which has become a dominant factor in our organisations as well as in the execution of our education. Even I have not been free from this type of discourse. I often find myself discussing targets with students and pointing out that self-management should serve as a means to realise a student’s goals. I sometimes even compare studying to being in a profession and I have students write requirements for the job.

I do feel forced to work within this discourse, however. The curriculum of universities is built from a business perspective, focusing on costs and benefits: one has to earn up to 180 credits (ECTS) to be eligible for a bachelor’s degree and 240 credits for a master’s degree. The first year needs 40 credits should one be allowed to continue their studies at all.

The European Credit Transfer System, which is tied to courses in higher education, is in itself a typical expression of a corporate mentality. It represents a kind of currency in which it is not the content of an assignment or course that determines value, but rather the number of ECTS.

Of course it is not all about ECTS. The goals and requirements of each course are determined and communicated to students; for instance, “At the close of this course a student is able to … analyse/determine/put in practice”. However, there is surprisingly little attention in those descriptions for what exactly students need to learn in order to get to these final requirements. Instead, they express mostly terms and conditions; “Students have to attend 80% of all course days and can only skip 1 self-study assignment.”

No wonder students resort to pragmatic thinking!

End Goals are Not Learning Goals
In education end goals often seem equated with learning goals. In my view this premise is very questionable; learning goals are fundamentally different from end goals. This difference is similar to the difference between the product-oriented approach and the process-oriented approach I discussed in another essay (Let’s Play 15.09.2010). A product-oriented approach follows a process of manufacturing; the journey is designed to produce this one end product. In order to build a table, for instance, one follows the processes of sawing, sanding, and drilling. The justification and success of the process depends wholly on the quality of the end product it produces; a table of the right quality means the manufacturing process is sound. Within this context the saying “the end justifies the means” is understandable and even legitimate.

However, when we address the process of learning the end product is not the primary concern. It merely expresses a result which naturally flows from the learning process itself. End goals provide a certain direction to the learning process, but the process itself, along with its learning goals, are supposed to be the main concern. There is another saying which is much more fitting here: “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”.

The end goal within a learning process is not even a ‘product’ like a table is. Rather, it is a condition of “having learned”. That condition is nowhere near as objective as the table. We do tend to score it using objective methods of testing, but since everybody is different, each of their learned conditions will inevitably be different. That condition is meant to be adaptive as well. The person in question has to use what they have learned in unique situations so that the things they have learned will be expressed differently in any given situation.

No Manufacturing Process

A manufacturing process consists of goals and the means to get there. The means are separate from the (end) goals like a saw is a separate entity from the table being built. However, a learning process cannot be divided up so simply in goals and means to get there. Each activity within a learning process is part of the process as a whole. This means that the order in which activities are carried out and the prioritising of activities influences the learning process as a whole. Whenever one implements obligatory attendance as a means to stimulate students to study, one has to be aware that this act cannot be separated from the course. Obligatory attendance has an influence on how students experience their courses in the same way a teacher’s teaching skills have an impact on that experience and in the same way the style and layout of a handbook do.

The Poetics and the Praxis

Aristotle defined two types of human action which may clarify my argument further; he called them poetics and praxis. Poetics refers to goals that are separate from the action at hand, such as sawing wood in order to construct a table later. The sawing of the wood is not inherently bound to the end goal (building a solid table). Praxis, however, denotes an act which has the end goal contained within itself. A game, for instance, is not usually played to generate results outside of that game, but rather it is played to enjoy the game itself. In this instance there are no actions which can be separated from the content and goals of the game. My argument is that the same is true for learning processes.

Disadvantages of Corporate Mentality

A corporate mentality which treats actions within education as poetics holds important disadvantages. The pragmatism I demonstrated at the beginning of this essay is one of them. Another disadvantage is that most students seem to think that learning consists of 3 consecutive stages in which the previous stage becomes a means to get to the next. During the first stage students observe, listen and make notes like they do, for instance, during lectures and seminars. In the next stage students collect and recap their findings, and in the third and final stage students begin to thoroughly study and memorise their collected data.

Since the first two stages are perceived as a means to get to the final stage, students believe it is justified to copy teachers’ Powerpoint presentations unchanged and buy summaries – after all, the end justifies the means. This is a strong encroachment on the learning process, because making notes and summarising using one’s own words is part of the learning process. They are not tools with which to learn. Rather, they are part of that learning. Even the third stage, the stage of actual studying, is often reduced to a tool to rake in credits by students. Often students will start cramming right before an exam and continue to do so until the sun rises; they will create memory aids or perhaps even attempt to cheat. Whatever the strategy, the result is that everything will be forgotten a few days after the exam. Did the students actually learn anything, or did they merely reach their target?

Ferry Haan, economics teacher and columnist with the Dutch newspaper the Volkskrant, recently wondered whether gaming could not be used as a tool for learning in education (Vk 16-2-2011). After all, millions of youngsters are more than willing to spend a great deal of time, energy, and focus on games on the internet, while the same youngsters turn their backs on traditional education. The interesting thing is that the fanaticism of these gaming adolescents cannot be explained away by the momentary rush of winning points. On the contrary, the internet contains an enormous number of websites which gamers use to share information with one another, offer each other gaming advice and help each other grow within the game. Teachers can usually only dream of their students doing the same thing during their studies.

I agree with Haan; how wonderful it would be if our adolescents were to demonstrate similar behaviour (effort, perseverance, creativity, helpfulness) in education too. Haan’s willingness to pick up on such a creative project to facilitate this, shows his passion for this cause. However, for this to work, poetics must be replaced by praxis in education. And as soon as an activity has a goal that transcends that activity it becomes problematic. Learning is playing – I have said it before – and praxis is essential here. Unfortunately education is imbued with corporate mentality, focusing exclusively on means and goals, because of which the Homo Praxis has trouble to demonstrate his true power.