Friday, January 10, 2014

On the necessity of surface learning

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading What the Best College Students Do.  It has some useful ideas and might be a good entry point for someone who is new to thinking about student learning at the college level.  But I was fighting it much of the time.  One criticism, which I made in my post yesterday, is that for the bulk of the examples are cherry picked from among people who have had remarkably successful careers.  Underrepresented (really not represented at all) in this telling are students who were deep learners in college but who had mediocre success thereafter, or worse.  Near the end of the book there begin to appear admonitions that deep learning in college does not imply career success.  But these read kind of like the warnings of side effects in a TV commercials for a new drug on the market.  They are a necessary disclaimer, but those making the ad don't have their hearts in delivering that message.  This post will take on a different criticism of the book. 

The book begins with a dichotomy of learners.  Deep learners are the ideal.  They are creative in their efforts and creativity is what Ken Bain, the author, champions.  Deep learning is intrinsically motivating so it encourages both diligence, in seeing the path generated from an initial question to its logical conclusion, and persistence, when the path seems blocked because of emotional distress or other challenges that present themselves, to eventually right the ship and get back on course.  Only a small fraction of students are deep learners.  At the other extreme are surface learners.  They approach their studies via memorization.  They get very little value add that way and are largely unchanged by the courses they take.  After a while Bain introduces a third category - strategic learners.  These students are aware of the limitations with memorization.  But they are primarily motivated by a concern for grades rather than for the learning itself.  Ultimately, that is self-defeating.

I am no fan of memorization, have railed about it on occasion, and have written this very long post about a year ago on what an institutional attack on memorization might look like.  Thus one might think I'd be sympathetic to Bain's book.  But I find his schema too simple.  I'd like to explain why, give some examples, and then discuss what the added complexity means regarding what we should want our student learners to do.  Knowing that I can sometimes be heavy handed in making arguments like this, I will try to inject some humor where possible while making the case.

Other Dimensions Than Creativity

Some people are selfless and will devote their life in service to others.  For them, college is about developing (or beginning to develop) a competence that puts value to the service they will provide.  Whether teaching in the inner city, becoming a nurse, working in our National Parks, or providing other forms of service, what these people do is commendable.  Do we really want to refer to these folks as less than the best?  Why not reserve that moniker for the students who are hitting the bars most nights?  They've earned the distinction.

I don't know how much about leadership can actually be learned as an undergraduate, but I do know that Illinois has a Leadership Center and a Leadership Studies Minor.  Many of the students I taught last fall held or currently hold executive office either in a Fraternity or Sorority or in a Registered Student Organization.  In my Economics of Organization class, we discuss conflict and leadership.  In that context the focus is on the importance of listening, being open to alternative views, and taking an inquiry based approach when discord emerges.  On this we cover chapter 8 of Bolman and Deal.  Some of my students reported in their blog posts being challenged by members of their groups, who didn't see why their wants couldn't be accommodated by leadership.  The initial reaction of students when so challenged is likely to be defensive (not what B&D recommend).  As Bain points out, failure is part of the path to success.  So these students, while not yet being good listeners themselves, may have at least learned that they need to develop the capacity. 

Still a different dimension is developing social capital - people networks.  Expertise is distributed.  Nobody can be a complete do-it-yourself-er in this day and age.  You need to know enough to be able to identify the right person to ask and you need to be on good enough terms with that person that you'll get a timely response.  This, in turn, might come out of a sense of collegiality for people.  Alternatively, as this profile on Adam Grant suggests, the key perhaps is to be in the business of doing favors for others.  This must be done without expecting reciprocity, but in anticipation that a sense of goodwill will develop. And in the process maybe one learns enough about the person who is getting help to understand what sort of contributions he or she has to offer in the future.

We create in a limited number of domains.  We cope in many more.

Though I consider myself a learning technologist, there are technologies that frighten me.  One of those is our universal remote control for TV and assorted input devices.  My younger son, who is now a full fledged geek studying computer science, likes to turn on captions on the TV in the basement where we have our treadmill.  He has no problem doing so.  I find the captions a distraction.  Once upon a time I put in the effort and figured out how to turn them off.  Do I remember how now?  Of course not.  Do I feel confident that I could recreate how I did it if the need arose again?  Not really.  It is far easier to ask my son to disable captions when he is through using the TV.  Not that he remembers all that well on this sort of thing - it's not his own need to satisfy - but this certainly looks to be the easy way out.  So why not make it the first line of defense?

Similarly, I'm painfully ignorant of what happens under the hood in an automobile.  I know how to give a jump for a low battery, but that pretty much exhausts matters in the self-help department.  I am always uncomfortable when bringing the car in for service, fearing that they will find something that costs a pretty penny to fix.  As an economist, I believe much choice is in making tradeoffs and here I opt for ignorance and the occasional discomfort that comes with it.  The costs of enlightenment are just too great.

Now let's get more serious and put this issue of coping into a work context.  If you work in a large organization, you must come to trust what those with the right expertise recommend.  But sometimes you must push back at them, because there are competing requirements that they may very well ignore when making their recommendations.  You may be the only one who sees the big picture.  However, you can't push back out of ignorance.  That lacks credibility.  So you must educate yourself well enough that you can have an intelligent conversation with the experts and have them take your concerns seriously.  When I worked in the campus IT organization as the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies, I found myself on a regular basis learning more about IT issues than I otherwise cared about.  The bulk of this was related to implementing an enterprise learning management system.  I really just wanted it to work.  Initially, it didn't.  Getting that addressed challenged much of the organization.   And I learned much more about the IT side of things than I wanted to as a necessary part of the process.

Information Overload and Filtering

Survival skills nowadays require frequent blocking by a receiver of a potential message that a sender initiates.  Caller ID exists for a reason and ditto for preview panes for email.  Facebook may have some of its popularity because "friends" aren't trying to sell you something, at least most of the time.  The issue, then is whether we filter in a mindful way or not.  Most of us have learned not to respond or even read those messages promising winnings of $30,000,000, if only we make a prompt response.  What if students view emails from their instructors in the same manner?  I suspect that many do.

Putting this all together and wrapping up

My sense is that for most of us all these issues come into play.  We'd like to know where our personal boundaries lie and college might be a time to give us some inkling on that.  For example, I learned pretty early on that I'm much more comfortable in academia than I am out in the real world.  So I've contented myself on the service-to-others dimension to do that for students and colleagues, but not to work in a soup kitchen and feed the homeless.  Others would make the opposite choice, as that would be appropriate for them.  On the creativity dimension, I've found that in writing and in making online learning objects.  Others will have different passions.  It seems to me that each student must learn to match these needs to appropriate domains where the need can be satisfied reasonably effectively.

But we make tons of mistakes, some of which stems from a lack of self-knowledge, another part comes because our habits of mind are poor.  I would have liked Bain's book more had he put additional emphasis on reading outside of what courses require, in a way to make the student aware of many different issues and happenings.  I fear that many students do not do this, including the bulk of those he would consider surface learners.  This then becomes self-limiting.

There is also the matter that many students are shy, particularly in communicating with the instructor.  These students do a variety of things to self-protect.  Bain does talk about procrastination in doing assigned work, but he omits discussing office hours and that the traditional variety are poorly attended.  He also doesn't discuss the falling-off-the-horse-and-not-getting-right-back-on issue, particularly as it applies to the first semester of college.  Students have greater personal freedom at college but the academics may be much harder and less nurturing than what they had in high school.  They may get slammed by the first set of midterms they face, for both reasons.  That may trigger a loss of confidence and confusion about sense of purpose.  Surface learning may then emerge as a way to save face. 

A student who read this book conscientiously but who identified himself as a surface learner might get very depressed thereafter.  The mountain to climb is too high, the odds of never reaching the top too great.  I prefer the title of Atul Gawande's book, Better.  Best is too off putting.

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