On Learning and Common Sense

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As I continue my trek through some of the “classics” regarding learning and schools, I’m finding it interesting the belief systems that many authors take pains to articulate when it comes to answering my current favorite question “What do you mean by learning?” And while there are some similar overtones, to be sure, each comes at it a bit differently.

Carl Rogers, best known as a psychotherapist who championed “client-centered therapy,” was also a vocal advocate for one of today’s most prevalent edu phrases, “student-centered learning.” And this was 50+ years ago.

Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become is Rogers’ most focused work on education. It highlights the stories of three different teachers at the outset and their work to create conditions in their classrooms where students had a great deal of agency over the what and how of the learning they were doing. The stories are not unlike those you read from a number of schools who are currently reimagining what their practice in classrooms looks like. Later, Rogers goes into the practical aspects of facilitating classes like these, and dives into the types of relationships that teachers and students must have in order to develop kids as learners.

To that end, Rogers’ principles for learning interest me and resonate to a great degree:

  1. Human beings have a natural potentiality for learning. They are curious about their world, until and unless this curiosity is blunted by their experience in our educational system.
  2. Significant learning takes place when the subject matter is perceived by the student as having relevance for his own purposes.
  3. Learning which involves a change in self organization—in the perception of oneself—is threatening and tends to be resisted.
  4. Those learnings which are threatening to the self are more easily perceived and assimilated when external threats are at a minimum.
  5. When threat to the self is low, experience can be perceived in differentiated fashion and learning can proceed.
  6. Much significant learning is acquired through doing. Placing the student in direct experiential confrontation with practical problems, social problems, ethical and philosophical problems, personal issues, and research problems, is one of the most effective modes of promoting learning
  7. Learning is facilitated when the student participates responsibly in the learning process. When he chooses his own directions, helps to discover his own learning resources, formulates his own problems, decides his own course of action, lives with the consequences of these choices, then significant learning is maximized
  8. Self-initiated learning which involves the whole person of the learner—feelings as wells as intellect—is the most lasting and pervasive.
  9. Independence, creativity, and self-reliance are all facilitated when self-criticism and self-evaluation are basic and evaluation by others is of secondary importance. If a child is to grow up to be independent and self reliant he must be given opportunities at an early age not only to make his own judgments and his own mistakes but to evaluate the consequences of these judgments and choices
  10. The most socially useful learning in the modern world is the learning of the process of learning, a continuing openness to experience and incorporation into oneself of the process of change. If our present culture survives it will be because we have been able to develop individuals for whom change is the central fact of life and who have been able to live comfortably with this central fact

Much to unpack in that, but as I said earlier, almost all of it resonates with my own thinking and that of others I’ve read. A couple of specific comments.

First, in my work with leadership, I see the resistance alluded to in #3 all the time. Robert Evans calls it the difference between “first-order changes” which deal try to improve the “efficiency or effectiveness of what we are already doing,” and “second-order changes,” which are “systemic in nature and aim to modify the very way an organization is put together, altering its assumptions, goals, structures, roles, and norms.” Substitute “individual” for “organization” in that last sentence as well. Very few leaders in my experience are willing to level up to take on with seriousness those second-order changes.

The whole “external threat” aspect of learning Rogers talks about in #4 and #5 is a huge barrier to learning, and change. Federal and state governments have placed explicit threats on schools and teachers, which in turn tempers their ability to learn. (And yes, we need schools that learn.)  It also speaks to the way we currently assess our kids and the consequences of “failure” that we place on them. Deep learning can be uncomfortable, and absent a supportive, nurturing environment, it does not flourish.

In #7, I love how Rogers uses the word “responsibly” and the stark distinction between his use of the word and the way it’s most often applied in schools. There, being “responsible” means acceding to the demands and norms of the system, as in do your homework, be on time, don’t cause a ruckus, etc. To Rogers, however, it means using freedom and agency to pursue personal learning in depth. Shifting the way we think about the word in schools would be a “second-order change,” no?

Finally, the one that resonates the most is undoubtedly the last. But it’s not just the goal of we the adults developing “individuals for whom change is the central fact of life.” It’s that we adults, especially in education, have to become those individuals ourselves. As much as schools have changed over the past 100 years, and they have changed a lot, present day school cultures are still resistant to change. It only happens when it has to, as a reaction to external edicts or pressures. I see little evidence of school cultures that embrace change, and act proactively to learn through it.

As with most of these lists of principles or beliefs, there’s little here that belies common sense.

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