Over the years I have on many occasions heard students say “We need something more concrete” or “If you give us a check-list and your expectations, then we will know what to do”; and I have often heard myself trying to explain that the goal of an assignment is to get students to think critically and or differently about a complex problem. I have on many occasions had to explain that the directions are intentionally vague or ambiguous and that the expectations is that students adapt assignments to their learning interests and contexts. I have found it frustrating that, when trying to teach students to think differently, inventively and creatively that they so often continue to place emphasis on the grade of an assignment rather than on the learning process or on their own individual development.
As many others have been increasingly stating, this is a fundamental problem with an out-dated approach to education that permeates most classrooms and levels of education, but in a program intended to help people be innovative and creative focused on self-directed and experiential learning, where the problems of health and care are rarely simple or straightforward, I guess I assumed that students selected and who self-selected for the graduate program would understand that there is (currently) no concrete and absolute formula for innovation.
But telling students that concrete and rigid approaches to learning to abstract where absolutely antithetical to the purposes and goals of the program they had signed up for, wasn’t working. So, I decided to do something that is somewhat antithetical to my approach, I turned to the literature. Self-directed experiential and integrative learning are based on the idea that students achieve deep learning by reflecting and abstracting from experiences. Kolb (2001), includes abstraction and integration as key steps in the learning cycle. Knowles (1972), in his seminal work on adult self-directed learning discusses how adult learners are interested in problem-based learning that has immediate implications for their life or work experience.
It seems that these two concepts have actually capture a tension that permeates most approaches to higher-level education and is particularly true for adult education. On the one side is a desire to understand the forms and rules of a domain, skill or competency: “teach me what to do.” On the other hand, is the notion of how do I use this: “let me do it.” It is an old tension. The tension between form and function; between standardization and independence; between the establishment and the path-less traveled; the difference between following instructions and learning how to develop your own instructions; between being given a fish, and being taught how to fish. This is not a new problem.
Unfortunately, many students have been educated in a system that prioritizes the standardization of processes towards a harmonized assessment process for purposes of credentialing and certification of basic levels of competence over the focus on individual development. Most students have learned to prioritize external evaluations and metrics over individual interests, strengths and development. In essence, ‘good students’ have learned how to play the educational game well.
This makes them ‘good students’ but bad independent thinkers. In an age where memorization, repetition and following a predetermined formula is increasingly the role of intelligent algorithms, creativity, collaboration, abductive thinking, navigating complexity are becoming increasingly important for human agents. To become better independent thinkers, creative thinkers and innovators, we must first un-teach what has been taught. Without this step, the people who are currently in the system, the young and the experienced (though particularly the ‘experienced’) continue mapping everything ‘new’ being taught into their established mental models. They frame new learning in terms of their established understandings. For andragogy, this is a particularly difficult challenge. It’s harder to mobilize people with lower neuroplasticity out of their cognitive biases, but to push people to be more creative, more innovative and better problem solvers, we have to break-down old patterns and challenge established assumptions, we must get learners to learn to “UNLEARN”. This must be the priority before we can start to think differently.
But the question remains, how? Or maybe not how—since there are ways that do seem to work—maybe the question is: how do we do it better? This is the question that keeps me up at night.
Knowles, M. S., Holton, E., & Swanson, R. (1972). Andragogy. NETCHE
Kolb, D. A., Boyatzis, R. E., & Mainemelis, C. (2001). Experiential learning theory: Previous research and new directions. Perspectives on thinking, learning, and cognitive styles, 1(8), 227-247.