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Changing the Way We Think About Education


Changing the Way We Think About Education

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By Heather Morton
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning

An expert with 30 years’ experience will soon retire from your organization. As a learning designer, how would you capture his knowledge?

The retiree had expected to deliver a set of lectures that would impart his wisdom. Instead, a learning team run by Nick Shackleton-Jones surveyed the people who had signed up for the expert’s course about three things: what challenges they faced, what they were most concerned about, and what questions they wanted to put to the expert. The learning team then taped the expert addressing these concerns in short videos that served as a resource for company employees. The information was geared toward what the learners wanted to know. It was accessible in bite-sized pieces rather than buried in the middle of a long lesson. And any employee with a specific question could easily retrieve the answer on the searchable platform.

Shackleton-Jones tells this story in his (relatively) new book, How People Learn: Designing education and training that works to improve performance (2019). The main argument of the book is that we need to shift from a standard top-down educational model to a bottom-up model. He urges learning designers to stop asking what other people think students or employees should know and instead ask the students or employees what they want to know—or, even better, what they want to be able to do. Then the designers should create resources or experiences that enable learners to achieve their goals. That, he says, is real learning.

Simply summarizing the argument, however, feels like an injustice. It’s not fair to the experience of reading a 235-page book whose vision of a learner-centered world deals a major blow to our old ways of thinking about education. Shackleton-Jones’s ultimate vision is a world in which people, from childhood through old age, are always on multiple learning-earning continuums. First, someone spends the majority of their time learning how to complete increasingly complex real-world tasks in one area. Then, when they have achieved a level of mastery, they move on to earning money. As they gain more experience, they earn more money because they are able to do increasingly valuable work. An individual might be anywhere on the continuum of learning and earning in multiple areas, learning a new skill while earning money through a well-established one.

The value of the book, though, doesn’t depend on this vision coming true. There are, he writes, plenty of ways for learning designers to improve their products within the current system. Shackleton-Jones wants us to start by unlearning our traditional model of education. Here is Shackleton-Jones on “education”:

What if I told you that everything you thought you knew about memory and about learning is wrong? Not just slightly wrong but completely and fundamentally wrong—wrong all the way back to Plato and the ancient Greeks?

Our basic understanding of learning goes something like this: learning is the process by which we store information in our heads. We take knowledge from one source (such as a book or a teacher) and we memorize it, so that we can recall it later. (22)

Shackleton-Jones argues that we never remember information; instead, we reconstruct experiences from how we remember feeling in emotionally rich moments. To prove his point, he asks readers to pull up memories from our time in elementary school and then asks whether any of those memories are about actual educational content. Most likely, the memories are moments of embarrassing or, more rarely, joyful, interactions with peers. The real learning that occurs in elementary school, the learning that matters and that we remember, is about making and keeping friends—and also about how to avoid social humiliation. For adults, the real learning is about doing what we need to do to look good at work. Corporate training should enable that, rather than teach policies and procedures that the corporate leaders decide employees should know.

Because this version of education is really hard to grasp and because it’s hard to unlearn our old notion of education, the author repeats his points in exaggerated and sometimes humorous terms. Here, for example, is an aside in the middle of a paragraph on culture: “[we think] about learning as if it were ‘education’–but in truth education is merely an accident of history, an aberrant cultural practice like alchemy or Morris dancing” (184). It can be annoying to have his cynical attitude towards traditional education repeated constantly throughout the book, as though we didn’t get it the first five times. Another example: “the smart [university] students won’t go to the lectures but either make use of the textbooks or just borrow the notes of a student who is so terribly anxious about their future job prospects and afraid of their parents that they actually go to lectures” (99). Shackleton-Jones’s point is that students won’t remember the information after the test they crammed for, so why bother going to the lectures? But the haranguing is effective. By dint of sheer repetition, the reader comes away with a solid understanding of what Shackleton-Jones thinks isn’t educational: memorizing facts, policies, or procedures that will inevitably be forgotten.

It’s worth pointing out that, because of techniques like the one above, the book itself offers a rich learning experience—if you actually read it, which is something that Shackleton-Jones, given his theories, surely doubts. But the book violates many of its own principles. First, it is full of what Shackleton-Jones wants us to learn, not what readers asked him to explain to them. Second, this radical rethinking of how people learn is contained in a conventionally formatted book, complete with a list of “key principles” at the end of each chapter. These “key principles” are nuggets of pure information unrelated to any affective context, and therefore, according to the book, soon-to-be-forgotten. The author included the key principles probably because he assumes readers will want credit for knowing the book’s content without reading the chapters, but then (by his own, very persuasive argument) it’s doubtful these readers would remember any of the “key principles.” By contrast, one can hardly avoid remembering being harangued throughout the book with metaphors such as “education-as-Morris-dancing.” In this way, the book effectively undermines, even as it highlights, the power of traditional top-down, “content dumping” educational practices.

People really do forget most of the information they’re taught, because the information is unconnected to what they care about. As much as possible, teaching should be about meeting people where they are, with resources and information that they want. But if you just keep at it, using effective techniques such as sheer repetition and humor, you can effectively communicate ideas learners didn’t want to know.

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