education vs. learning

photo by emagic:

I normally don’t wait three months to write about something that bugs me. At the time, I thought it would pass, but that was May 21. It’s now almost August 21 and I can’t quite shake how bothered I was… still am… by some things that I heard at the The Future of Learning event at the 92nd Street Y put on by THINKR.

My notes are sketchy… thoughts with no names, really… but I remember continually being struck by the idea that was shared by most, though not all, of the panel: education and learning are different things and at odds with each other. As someone who spends at least some of every day in a classroom – and spend every day working alongside, talking to, and breaking bread with teachers who give all that they have for the students that they teach – I’m going to caution everyone against ever buying completely into this idea.

According to this line of thinking, education is a means to an end, a linear and degree-oriented experience, a mandate rather than a choice, that exists for three reasons:

  1. It’s a coming of age ritual
  2. To expand minds, make better citizens
  3. To prepare you for your economic life

That’s it? Really? Whether one is talking about K-12 or higher ed, that list makes up an extremely narrow view of education, one that doesn’t pay enough attention to fostering intellectual curiosity, community-building, and life-changing experiences that I know that I had during any of my stints as a student and that I hope to help my students have.

But, sure, not all learning takes place in a classroom. Like anyone who self-identifies as a lifelong learner, I love making sure that I’m never in the same place, always learning something new, always trying something that I haven’t tried before. But I think that, rather than separate learning and education, we might want to instead think more about informal education. Does all “education” have to be teacher-student oriented, or is there room for non-classroom experiences to be part of one’s overall education and not necessarily something that falls into a separate “education” bucket. Where do we make room for informal educational experiences in what we do every day in the classroom?

The idea that “educational institutions aren’t good at teaching skills that students need” is ridiculous. You don’t only see student engagement and achievement “when you are learning something based on your creative ideas.” There are better teachers, better schools, even better students, but to come to the conclusion that all of formal education is worthless because it is all available somewhere else is, I think, missing the point.

“What do I want to learn tomorrow?” That’s the question that makes post-education institutions (places like General Assembly and Skillshare, which were both represented at the panel, as well as even more ad hoc experiences) so valuable right now.  But I think that question gets so much traction because it’s one that adults can ask and pursue at any time and make something happen. So how do we make it possible for students to ask the same question? What happens when a whole class of students asks “What do I want to learn today?” (Tomorrow? P’shaw…)

Authentic. Challenging. Relevant. Timely. When we mix any of these adjectives into what we do in the classroom, we can build learning experiences that have as much engagement and achievement as specific courses that one can pay $25 to take at any number of online avenues, even when it’s in the context of mandatory, linear, degree-focused education. There are completely separate discussions to have around this one that involve credentialing, badging, and alternative delivery of courses, but I think they’re all at least in the same ballpark, or at least will be when the focus is not on why education is but instead on how and what education is. And what if we stopped treating education and learning as two different things, and made sure that the understood definitions of both were broad enough to incorporate formal and informal experiences, and even back up the notion that one can engage in both an education and in learning something at the same time?

As we race to the start of another school year, I’m ripping apart what I’ve done in the past, coming up with new projects and a two new curricula for the two courses that I’ll be teaching this year, and I know that many other teachers are doing the same. I’ve got my ideas about making it possible for my students to ask and answer “What do I want to learn today?” every day, and I’m using that question to guide some regular writing this year. What are you doing to make the same possible? What does it look like when your students can ask the same?