“The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road. Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts.”
― Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Last year I had 2 pivotal experiences: the first related to my own learning and the second to the learning of students I was working with.
In January 2013 I began, with 1000’s of other learners from around the world, #etmooc. I won’t call it a course because it wasn’t. It was a strange and fabulous journey. For a start, there were no specific goals to the event. Other people also thought it unusual as evidenced by this Tweet:
Received feedback that #etmooc learning objectives aren’t clear. I should have done better to clarify that learners are to make their own.
— Alec Couros (@courosa) February 20, 2013
We were invited to create and declare publicly our own. Unusual (for me) but OK. I would give it a try and trust this seemingly ambiguous learning process. At the start, the wide open empty black space ahead gave me anxiety. Literally. I felt as a fish on the dock; floundering to survive in an unnatural environment. I floundered on and through.
There was no grand end or culminating moment of achievement. No certificate, no exam. In fact, it was…quiet.
Something happened, something shifted below and within. A massive boulder, that was lodged between me as a pseudo-learner (primed to follow instructions, take notes, please others, meet expectations) and the authentic learner from my childhood, moved. The trapped forgotten learner slowly but determinedly seeped out, as smoke might, through this narrow but open space. At first, she was faint, transparent and vacuous, not definable or consistent, a friendly ghost who haunted occasionally. Slowly, she grew bones, skin, a heart and became a fully embodied person…again. Re-connected to the flow of learning from long ago; joyful, no questions asked, intoxicatingly open…
The black faded to brilliant colours. The quiet tuned to a loud exuberant symphony. My fear devoured by a ferocious insatiable appetite.
Everything toppled upside down.
Simultaneously to this personal renaissance, I was working with a group of students in a non-traditional way. We meet when and how we could. It was sporadic. We spent a lot of time in conversation about learning. Again unusual, but…Ok. During times apart we Google doc-ed, texted and Facebook messaged in groups. And of course some students were more involved than others. But what emerged was a very peculiar thing; I saw students begin to take up topics and projects on their own and of their own choosing. I began to see them differentiate themselves for themselves. For example one group took it upon themselves to write a poem and turn it into a video…over the summer. Another took it upon herself to raise funds and sign up for a 2 week leadership camp. I saw students who wanted to continue to learn, continue to connect and continue to make meaning for themselves but together. Strange, strange, very strange. Over the summer students contacted me to ask if we could continue to work on our plans and projects yet “the course” had ended in June. This fall students asked if we could meet on Sundays to continue to co-construct our understanding around our work on digital leadership, citizenship and learning.
We rip learning, with its long rooted tendrils, still growing, tentative and twined, and clinically drop it on our stark metal scales to measure and quantify it without a glance upwards into the soul of who it belongs to. We then haphazardly slap a number on it, as a bar of soap gets stickered with a price tag at the dollar store. The heaving disembodied mound is returned to the owner: “Here, here, here is your learning, back.”
Do we really wonder why, then, the person who gave birth of themselves, of their humanness…do not want it back?
Do not rush to put this ripped, torn and damaged piece of them, back into to their own schema?
When we have the audacity (and I did) to tell students that this process will in fact help them in the future, but meanwhile, they see their souls leaking outwards, a visible puddle, on the floor. And they hear the crushing sound of their own curiosity being ground in gears of the system. Are we not telling them, don’t trust yourself, your inner voice, don’t listen to who you know you are and who you want to be. Instead rely on…us.
The boulder. Rolls into place. The passage closed and blocked. Slowly, we forget. Slowly the subterranean learner is asphyxiated and becomes comatose.
While it may be possible to quantify a course, a laundry list of items to “learn”, a finite set of skills, that end, are finite, are helpful externally to the person (like crutches may help you with a broken leg) to maneuver the system….
I wonder with increasing uncertainty and frequency: can quantify learning?
- Is created within space and the opportunity to choose.
- Is something vital, integrated and contextualized within being human.
- Is not just something reserved for “geeks” but as normal, essential and integral to life as breathing.
- Is not containable to books, institutions, courses or academics.
- Has a language that is owned and created by the learner.
- Is vastly complicated and marbled throughout our humanness, connected and influenced by our emotions, our experiences, our dreams, beyond and outside of anything that can be quantified.
“… the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.”