Essays

Personal Learning

Personal Learning is like the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it.  Since I can clearly hear the screams of indignation from the hordes of enlightened faculty and entrepreneurs who claim to be working diligently to define this field, let me clarify my position.

Robert B. Barr and John Tagg began an article, From Teaching to Learning-A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education, in the November/December 1995 edition of Change magazine with these words. “A paradigm shift is taking hold in American higher education. In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything.”  Two other telling things they said in the article are: 1) the call for such reform was two decades old when the article was written, and 2) “we’ve witnessed reformers advocate many of the new paradigm’s elements over the years, only to see few of them widely adopted. The reason is that they have been applied piecemeal within the structures of a dominant paradigm that rejects or distorts them.”  

I submit we are still firmly entrenched in the Instructional Paradigm grinding the gears of progress.  Like fish in water, we have been swimming in this dominant paradigm for so long that we have trouble recognizing how it constrains our thoughts, actions and beliefs.  For example, in a recent book, Experiences in Self-Determined Learning, educator Stewart Hase said: “People are naturally self-determined learners pretty well from birth. What self-determined principles advocate is creating an optimum experience for people to be self-determined learners.”  Although the words self-determined learning are used, the unspoken assumption behind the statement is that the educator is responsible for creating the experience that produces the learning.

I believe personal learning means I am responsible for my own learning.  I think that starts with recognizing that much of what I learn is done informally, i.e., it happens in the course of my daily activities, and that I need to capture and assess through reflection that informal learning to be in a position to create a more formal learning plan for going forward.  And if that formal learning depends on some optimal experience, it is my responsibility to seek out or create that experience.

I also think I have fallen into the trap of interpreting Barr and Tagg’s position as a dichotomy: there are two paradigms, teaching and learning.  The first is what we do and since it creates some obvious problems, it is bad.  We need to switch to the second which is good.  While I argued that Hase even while opting for a learner centered approach still reflects the instructional paradigm, I don’t think he can do otherwise.  In fact, I love what he is doing.  What that says to me is that both paradigms have their benefits, and our challenge is to apply the best of each depending on the circumstances.  I applaud what Hase and heutagogy (yeah, that word is maybe a topic for another post?) are attempting to do.  And I think the lesson of falling for a false dichotomy has broader applicability than just to learning paradigms.

Now I need to go do something about the weather…

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