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Beyond Pedagogy: How Our Rigid Belief in Learner Passivity is Stunting Innovation

The EvoLLLution | Beyond Pedagogy: How Our Rigid Belief in Learner Passivity is Stunting Innovation
The rigidity in our thinking about how to effectively educate—rooted in a societal belief that education is a passive exercise—has stunted the development of innovative education models and could lead to major problems for Western Governors University and other innovative, competency-based institutions.

As most of us know, “pedagogy” has its roots in the Greek word for child, as in “pediatrics” and, unfortunately, “pedophile.” While pedagogy has come to be a synonym for teaching, its origins in the notion of instruction for young people still linger in higher education. Regardless of the age of the students, we continue to treat them as (pick your metaphor) blank slates or empty vessels: Knowledge is what the professor imparts; the student is essentially passive, at best receptive.

This specter of passivity persists in many of the words we use to describe education, even newfangled terms like “delivery” and “providers.” Our language betrays the underlying assumption that students have little to bring to the party. Professors are the ones who “give” the grades. We engage in “diagnostic” testing (i.e., the student is ill and our task is to identify the specific disease). The student is a bundle of deficiencies, not relevant knowledge and experience. Yes, prior-learning assessment exists, but PLA is ultimately about assigning credits. Why not presume that all students have “prior learning” that bears on their current learning?

Stripping agency from students is questionable enough for 18- to 22-year-olds, but it is inexcusable when applied to adult learners. We treat too many grownups like kids, without respect for their experience, their imagination, their intelligence—and the complexity of their lives. While online education has the promise to change this and enable 24/7 access to education, for the most part, it has not yet fulfilled this promise. It uses technology to digitize an analog experience, not to extend and create new modes of learning. It often carries over the very elements of our educational system that are least effective and most actively encourage passivity, e.g., the use of lectures, multiple choice exams, cookie-cutter assignments and mandatory discussion boards that are more often make-work than meaningful discussions.

It’s not completely our fault. The requirement that all distance education programs offer “regular and substantive interaction” between students and faculty, especially as defined by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), takes the narrowest possible view of what constitutes education, i.e., an instructor instructing. Some of my best friends are faculty members; I myself was one. I no longer believe, however, that teaching is the only or even the best way to learn. Learning and engagement are intertwined; passivity is the death knell of engagement.

Of course, this insight is not a secret: CBE and other reform circles have been working mightily to shift the conceptualization of faculty from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” But according to the OIG, it’s all about the input, not the outcome. Education is what the teacher provides, not what the student learns. Without an instructor instructing, the student might as well be alone and bereft, waiting by the mailbox like Charlie Brown.

The attitude that “the presence of a faculty member” equals “education” has serious consequences, even beyond the more than $700 million that the OIG has determined that Western Governors University should pay back to the government because it is offering “correspondence,” not “distance” education. It is easy to reject the hyper-rigidity of the OIG perspective—and I expect and hope the Department of Education will do so. But they’re not the only perpetrators. The attitude is pervasive, and especially distressing when it comes to adult learners, who are so often treated like second-class citizens.

The good news is that taking the education of adult students seriously gives us the impetus to rethink the professor-centric worldview for all students. Malcolm Knowles, the father of adult education theory, pointed out that “because of rapid changes in our understanding it is no longer realistic to define the purpose of education as transmitting what is known. The main purpose of education must now to be to develop the skills of inquiry.” His comments are even more relevant now than when he published Self-Directed Learning in 1975.

What if we approached higher education for all students by adapting Knowles’ principles?

  • Students need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction;
  • Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities;
  • Students are most interested in learning about subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life;
  • Learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

In fact, one of the best models for rethinking higher education in the United States comes from K-12 education in Finland (you know, one of the countries that regularly trounces the U.S. in international tests of reading and math): Phenomenon-Based Learning (PBL). The term is admittedly a little clunky (it may roll off the tongue more smoothly in Finnish) but the concept is transformative. PBL breaks down the artificial silos between academic subjects because it is learning anchored in real-world phenomena: “Information and skills to be learned can be directly applied across borders between subjects and outside the classroom in situations where the information and skills are used (natural transfer).”

At a time when the world of work increasingly requires people who can solve actual problems, why not begin by rooting higher education in addressing real problems? Now that’s good pedagogy. And not just for kids.

This article is part of a monthly series by Kazin exploring different facets of the evolving postsecondary landscape.

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