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What Is Learning? The Debate That Should Not Continue

     It seems that our nation, and possibly the world, are in the throws of a debate of what education should look like and ultimately what learning really is. Granted, change is always difficult. And although it seems education or learning should always be about change, growth and adaptation, we can also safely say that it’s also about tradition, compliance, control and power.

     In addition to the standard debates about educational reforms, there are two other forces contributing to the newer level of debate. First, technology has become so dominant and influential in all aspects of the world economically, socially and politically, that education can no longer ignore technology or attempt to work outside of it. Two, the impact of the changing global economy are finally becoming a reality. The nature of jobs and employment is dramatically being altered so fast that all educational entities are being forced to reckon with what it all means.

     In an attempt to boil it down, this is a summary of the major divide in education: Does one learn better through a highly structured, top down approach (teacher delivering content or info, students taking notes and ultimately regurgitating the information back on tests, etc.) or by doing real world work (project-based, bottom up, student-directed, etc.)?

     To me, it seems almost tragic that we’re still really struggling with this or having a debate at all. How complicated can it be? Haven’t we always known that learning by doing is far superior? Education researchers have documented over and over that lecture and teacher directed instruction (listening, notes, etc.) is by far the lowest form of learning. And simultaneously, that learning by doing/student-directed learning (project-based featuring choices, ownerships, etc.) is ultimately closest to the highest form of learning?
     So, why do we still debate? Why is our system so slow to change? First, as a student yourself, how did your learn best? What learning experiences were the most memorable, meaningful and applicable? My estimation is that most individuals would reflect on their own learning and identify the highest or most valuable forms as ones related to ultimately doing something vs. passively taking something.

     Does the problem come from academia? Learning at one time was directed and operated by the great thinkers who bestowed their wisdom and knowledge on the masses right? Indeed, much of our university traditions still come from this where we put hundreds of people in a lecture hall to be enlightened.
     What if we ask all of us to reflect on our educations? For those of us that went to college, what was the real learning that took place? Wasn’t it when we entered our major and began doing things directly related to our careers? Wasn’t it about of us doing rather than just listening?

     Why are electives always so popular and successful? Choice and more learning by doing are typically the answers or rationale. Science teachers always got it right. They had labs and hands-on activities. We’ve had field trips in schools forever because we realized that learning came to life when it was real, hands-on and participatory.
     Most of are familiar with the term On-The-Job Training or OTJ. And if you ask most professionals about how they learned to perform their jobs or careers, despite their educational level or experience, they will tell you that it was on-the-job. And most professions have experiences such as internships or externships as well because they know that the real or higher level of learning will take place by doing it in the real world.
     Promoting anything but project-based education or learning by doing just doesn’t make sense. Both experts and lay people, if being truly honest, know the difference and the truth here. And if it’s so obvious, how could still be debating or resisting universal change? I hesitate to say, but fear that it’s about tradition, cost, control, ownership and maybe even laziness. Probably all of these are inexcusable. Sadly, we have taught one another some bad examples of learning and education and they remain part of our national and personal psyches for some time. I do see universal change coming and it’s about time. Real learning is in front of us everyday.


  1. Very cool Mike! I will be sharing with my staff at our next PLC!



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