Thursday, December 7, 2017

Learning for uneducated people

The academic discipline of Education is caught in a weird place. On the one hand, the powers that be want it to be a handmaiden to the educational system, providing it with ever more refined and efficient tools. On the other hand, it is seen by other academics as a handmaiden to the educational system, and thus understood as a specialized local field of knowledge, akin to accounting; it is something that takes a certain degree of skill and knowledge to perform, but it does not translate into academic credibility.

This might seem a subtle difference, and in some ways it is. It mostly depends into who you're arguing with at a particular moment. Which, as you might imagine, changes everything.

When arguing with the powers that be, the issues that come up tend to focus on budgets, more specifically the cutting of them if particular results are not delivered on time. Be it in relation to the international measurements that are conducted regularly - such as PISA - or some political debate touching upon education that rages at the time, there are always demands to give backing in some form. Questions such as "how can we teach our kids better so we will win the next round of measuring?" or "what do you have that can support our current political position on educational policy that we made up yesterday?" are frequently thrown our way, and not responding appropriately is budgetary bad news bears.

When arguing other academics, two challenges emerge. One is to remind them that we exist, and  another is - as mentioned - to convince them we're not just mere technicians and managers of the bureaucratic beast that is the educational system. Most attempts at either is usually met with annoyance, indifference, or some interesting combination of both which defy classification.

This peculiar state of things means that it is particularly difficult to assert the academic autonomy of the discipline. Part of being autonomous means other recognize you as such. The powers that be have no interest in that, given that they only ever ask for input in relation to nudging the educational system (or the discourse about it) in this direction or that. Other academics have no propensity to acknowledge it either, seeing as they do not interest themselves in the educational system, and thus their interest is effectively shut down. It is, as the saying goes, a tough crowd.

Thing is. Education is not, in fact, about education. It is about learning.

This difference is anything but subtle. Lowercase e education as an activity is something that takes place in a defined span of time at a defined location. It's something that happens in school. It's a process you go through, and then you are done. Sometimes you know more afterwards, sometimes you do not. It depends.

Learning, though. Learning can happen anywhere at any time, and in fact does happen everywhere at all times. It is the main way human beings interact with the world: some sort of sensation happens at them, and is subsequently processed into memory. Next time this same sensation is encountered, the previous experience is used as a reference point for how to proceed. Learning occurs everywhere.

An example is someone starting a new job. On the surface level, one might assume that what they learn is how to perform that job - the logistics of getting it done and the terminology that goes along with it. But that is not all that is being learnt. The learning process also involves noting who the coworkers are, how they relate to each other and their work, which things are proper and which are not, which values are (implicitly and explicitly) endorsed, and so on in a long list of impressions and sensations. A new person in a workplace does not simply learn how to do the job, but also an entire way of being in the world.

Understanding how this learning process works allows you to better understand what happens when things go wrong. Or when things go right. If someone doesn't get with the program, then you can analyze the situation and pinpoint where in the process the mismatch happened. Conversely, if someone learns the ropes faster than expected, then you can identify the thing that went right and try to replicate it with future new employees.

The focus here is not on individual capacities. A "smart" person can fail to fit in, and a "dumb" person can learn the ropes at record speed, depending on the social circumstances of the workplace in question. Learning happens when sensations occur, and sometimes this sensation can consist of a social environment (such as a workplace) communicating that you belong here - or do not belong here. Getting the message is very much dependent on which message is being sent, and many people decide that a particular career is not for them after learning that they are not welcome within it.

These are the kinds of things we study in capital e Education. Yet this is hard to convey, since so many have gotten the message that Education is merely a handmaiden to the educational system. -

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