Re-thinking Learning Part 5: Flaws in the Learning Model

Every one of us who teaches tends to pattern ourselves after teachers or professors we had in our own life, drawing on (hopefully) their best attributes and techniques.

This is natural to us, and we are all experts about learning and teaching.  We all have had 12, 16, 20 or more years of FIRST-HAND experience with this. Our own education is something that runs deep in us.

While it is natural to draw upon our own our own personal educational experiences, it would be nice to know if that foundation upon which we draw is sound.   I think there is evidence this is open to question.

Many of you are aware of the studies that compare American students against those from other nations in math and science reported in the Trends in International Math and Science Study.   The data seem consistent.   At the 4th grade, American students rank in the top 3 or 4 globally.  By 8th grade we are about in the middle of the pack, and by 12th grade, we rank 3rd from the bottom!  Yikes.   How can it be that the longer we stay in our educational system, the less proficient we become?

Reason 1:  Curriculum too Broad, and Shallow

So what’s behind the decline?  Two key factors (I think).  One is that in the US, our curriculum has 30-40% more learning objectives in it than do some of our overseas competitors.  We also teach more content in fewer days than is common overseas (the Korean school year for example is 220 days long).  As a consequence, our curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep.  It is superficial.

The other issue, I think, is in the teaching process we use (see the graphic above).  You are all familiar with this.  We assign Pre-work (like reading a chapter in a textbook), then we are exposed to some Teaching (generally a lecture in class), then there is a Practice element – generally in-class work assignments or possibly homework, followed by an Assessment (quiz, paper or exam).  While this seems logical on the surface, let’s consider this more deeply.

Reason 2: Practice is Too Abstract for Most People

The problem is in the Practice element.   When the practice experience is sufficiently abstract that we can’t associate them with something tangible in our world, we tend to abandon the learning.   Here is an example.  I learned differential calculus in school – well enough to pass the exams and get a good grade.   Since then I can’t remember a time when I actually applied that math on the job, and today if you asked me to solve some differential equations, I’d be lost.  If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Here’s another example.  I took and passed courses in physics, fluid dynamics, and fluid mechanics in college.  My first job out of school had me working in peanut butter manufacturing for P&G.   My job was to redesign the pumping systems used to deliver hot peanut butter slurry into fast-moving jars to improve line reliability. As I walked around the finishing department, I could read temperature in one place, pump motor RPM, and motor current.  Unfortunately, these were not variables that fit any of the equations I had learned.  I was clueless.  Once I concluded I was unable to successfully apply my prior learning, I had to come up with a new strategy.

Here again, I abandoned the learning, and developed instead a problem solving approach that involved empirical data collection, some trial and error, and consulting with suppliers of valves and pumps to help me devise a solution.

Isn’t the problem the same in Adult Professional Education and Development?  Superficial learning is not what we should be aiming at.  If you look at the learning model above (see the graphic) from what I observe, too often we do not have pre-work at all, and post program assessments focus more on did you enjoy the workshop than whether you acquired the intended learning points.

When we restrict our teaching to the classroom, we are limited to the kinds of practice we can devise.  We can do a case, a role play, or even a simulation.  I am not saying there is no learning benefit to such things, but the classroom has its limitations.

So why not choose a real world problem to solve, and then design training and coaching around that?

Wouldn’t that be more impactful?

Reason 3:  Focus on Learning Behaviors not Outcomes

A common concept in the field of education is called learning outcomes.  When we design a class or a lecture we start with a list of what we want you to “KNOW” as a consequence of the class.   Then we build backwards from there.  We ask how we would assess your knowledge (i.e. with a quiz) and then how we would teach to deliver the intended content.

I think it is not sufficient to think about learning outcomes alone.   In the world of professional learning and development, what should matter more is not what you know, but what you do as a consequence.  So instead of learning outcomes, we should focus on behavior outcomes, and then design learning to reach them.

If you prefer a more authoritative source

If you feel the need to read about this from the vantage point of some academic experts, you might check out this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education –  Harvard Conference Seeks To Jolt University TeachingI think these researchers are trying to grapple with the same questions I have been discussing.


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