Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun, 20 Jan 2002 09:09:25 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: On Learning

I just told a virtual colleague that if she wanted to change students, she has to change her attitude toward students. She understood that I meant you can't really do something to them; you can only act as a catalyst to help them do something to themselves. I should have added, however, that she needs to look also at her attitudes towards learning, motivation, and teaching. I am.

Her message came at a curious time. Sometimes I don't ask. I've been going deep on these three critical areas of our profession more than usual in the last week or so. Last week I returned from giving a series of beginning-of-the-semester presentations to the faculties of four West Texas community colleges. I was supposed to be motivating and inspiring. Turns out that my interaction with some neat and highly dedicated teachers during give-and-take sessions proved to be unexpectedly motivating and inspiring and transforming to me. As soon as I got on the plane home, I started asking myself some questions about what is it I am doing, what it is I should be doing, how should I do what I should be doing, and I am driving me nuts. Let me share some unorganized thoughts. Some of you can surely help me. First, about learning.

"What is 'learning,' real learning, deep learning?" I asked myself. I honestly didn't have a precise answer. I'm no psychologist although, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, I've read a lot of what a lot of people have written and argued a lot about learning. It is, to say the least, an important subject. It is the crux of education. So, what is this thing called learning. I, for one, am not sure what it is. It is one of those mysterious, non-descript, "oh, you know what I mean" words. What I do know is that it is easy to answer that question and say "learning is...." It is not easy to answer the follow-up question: "what do you mean?" Anyhow, with a heavy gulp, I think I'll take a stab at it.

I'm told that our entire educational system is dedicated to the nurturing of the human beings' natural potential for learning. That is, it is supposed to promote our inbred curiosity, support our innate desire for discovery, endorse our inborn tendency to enlarge experience and knowledge, encourage us to become members of the crew of the starship, Enterprise, and search out new worlds and go where no man has gone before. Do we?

I know how easy it is to give this word, learning, a much too shallow meaning. Learning goes deeper than merely gathering information. At least, I think so. Stay with me as these ideas hit. I'm sort of brain-storming. I think learning is an involvement of the whole person, not just restricted to the "neck up" intellect. It involves the "neck down" emotion, spirit, soul as well. It involves the exercise of a freedom that is, as Victor Fraenkl might say, an inner attitude to decide who you are and to choose your own way. It involves moving in a direction directed by a sense of meaning and commitment to a purpose. Real learning infuences behavior. Real learning, I think, is not merely being informed; it is far more experiencing a transformation. Real learning is not static knowledge; it is far more a process of continual change. Real learning is not merely a degree with which you go out into the world to earn a living; it is far more a way of living in the world. The character of real learning is the development of character; the value of real learning is the appearance of a value base. The goal of learning is not just the fully informed person; it is far more the fully functioning person. The goal of learning is not just utilization of your intellect; it is far more a full utilization of all of you in relationship with yourself and others. Real learning is never-ending; it is difficult; it is serendipitous; it is unbalancing; it is challenging; it is uncomfortable; it can be painful. Real learning is forever taking you out of the proverbial box.

The paradox is that too many of us academics in the name of learning create a situation that is just the opposite of deep learning. We submit to and promote the shallow and myopic idea that if a student signs up for a course, does as he or she is told, reads a book, writes a paper, listens to those mini-conference papers we call lectures, takes notes, maybe participates in a discussion, passes a test, gets a good grade, he or she has now learned that subject and has attained what so many of us professors pronounce as "subject mastery." Too many of us academics see ourselves too often as the active fillers of the pail, molders of the clay, forgers of the steel, etc. We give; they receive; we do to; they are done to. We actively profess; they quietly listen; we teach; they passively learn. We know; what do they know. It is a sterile programming of lifeless transcribing, lifeless inscribing, lifeless cramming, lifeless memorizing, lifeless assessing, and lively forgetting. It seduces students to reduce "important" to "being on the test." It restricts learning to getting a grade, GPA, degree.

At the same time, the kind of information learning we so often promote in our educational systems is almost a study in obsolesence. Think about it. What happens to the information by the time a student completes his or her collegiate career and gets around to using the information? The science taught today will be outdated in a few years; the mode of sociology and psychology taught today will be most likely outmoded tomorrow. Management style taught today will be restyled if not go out of style. Finance and accounting techniques taught today soon will not count. Tomorrow will witness a loss of appetite for today's artistic taste. The fashions learned will become unfashionable. And the pace of technological change? I won't go there. Even in my own field of history, the "facts of history" will be out of date because those facts are really interpretations or opinions that are heavily influenced by the ever-changing temper and mood of the society. The one thing I am certain: statements placed on the firm ground today will find themselves on shifting sand; steadfast positions today will become unsteady; and, what is learned today will have to be unlearned during the tomorrows to come.

Look around and ask yourself, then, if our educational system does more than prepare students to pass a test, get a grade, receive a diploma, get a job. Ask yourself how many of our courses are really on course, if our educational system of reward and punishment encourages students to submissively ask "what do you want;" if it breeds followers instead of leaders; if it produces honor seekers, test-takers and grade-getters instead of learners; if it schools and trains instead of educates; if it creates copiers instead of creators; if it lifts students' vision to see importance beyond what will be on the test; if it prepares flexible and adaptable people who feel comfortable in a world of unimaginable change and diversity; if it prepares them to listen to, understand, respect, and embrace others of different cultures, different religions, different skin colors; if it promotes a freedom to live his or her potential; if it acts as a catalyst for developing independent and roaring choice seekers, risk-takers, decision makers; if it produces visionaries, explorers, questioners, dreamers, adventurers, star-gazers.

What we will too often see is that we have a reward and punishing system designed more to train seals than allow free-thinking individuals to develop. It mutes roars into bleets. It herds, defaces, corrals, denames, depersonalizes, dehumanizes. It takes the essential joy and fun--and meaning--out of learning. It is too often boredom and torture personified. It is not a valuing process. I have seen time and time and time again that the overwhelming majority of students, who have been trained like those seals to look over their shoulder with a fearful "what do you want" hesitation, tend to yield, agree, copy, conform, submit. They feel like they are possessions, that they are in the unbreakable grip of someone else. They feel like Psalm 8:5-6 is violated. They stand around and wait to be told what to do and what is expected of them. They're afraid of wobbling, of hitting blind alleys, of running into dead ends, of making mistakes. They fear unpredictability. They feel they have no choice. They become "first let's see what happens" people. They are hesitant about being "oops-ers." They want guarantees, tested and proven models, before they act. They don't bring energy and passion and a positive attitude with them. They exude isolation, lonilness, abandonment, and weariness. They aren't really happy or having fun or enjoying. They rarely are original or initiators. They rarely dare. They wilt. They certainly have little, if any, faith, belief and hope for themselves. I have found that they are shy. They are easily stressed. They tend to feel unappreciated, unworthy, devalued; they tend to believe they don't belong and unwanted. They don't think anyone cares about them. They grasp tightly their "don't" and "can'ts" and "won'ts." They're boxed tightly into their box. They try to please. They tend to be inflexible. They find it difficult to adapt. They put the lid tightly on themselves. They tend to feel inadeqate and inferior. They are so rarely spontaneous. They don't feel free. They don't really bloom.

When it comes to learning, static information should not run our show. Why? Because nothing is static; everything is in the process of change. It's that old chinese saying, "and this, too, shall pass." The ability to face and deal with inevitable change requires the ability and willingness and daring and confidence to risk, choose, decide, and act. Learning, deep learning, meaninful learning, is about creating the future. It is means constant re-creation, that we re-create outselves as we create things around us. It means becoming someone who you weren't before, being able to do something you never were able to do, perceiving the world as you never saw it, AND weaving your relationship to the world and others as you never knitted before. Through true learning we become part of a productive process So, when I talk about learning, I am talking about a "restlessness" and a "freedomness" and a "changingness," about the ability to be flexible and adaptable. Call it growth, change, development. Call it anything but static. Maybe I am talking about being free. I am talking about the capacity to be continually curious, to always imagine, to constantly create, to incessantly ask, "why?"

Our aim should be to offer the most challenging curriculum students can face: freedom to become themselves, freedom to bloom, freedom to search, freedom to explore, freedom to tap their unique potential, and freedom to arrive at their unique selves. Our mission must be to help people be free to help themselves, to commit themselves, to become the people whoever they are capable of becoming. Our purpose must be help them help themselves release themselves, trust themselves, respect themselves, be fluid, flow freely, dance lively between the known now and the unknown later, believe in themselve, have donfidence in themselves, have faith in themselves, have hope for themselves. Our mission is to help people help themsevles to become people who aren't boxed in a box, who ask what I call "beautiful questions," who have a good understanding of themselves, who have a sense of freedom within themselves, who are open to experiences, who are a triumph of enthusiasm, who wiggle and ponder and wonder, who thirst for those magnificantly magical days of discovery, who catch the energy and release the potential and create memorable moments, who are a never-ending story in progress, who are social and embraces others who are different, who are not likely to be controlled by his or her surroundings or by others, who are choice selectors, risk-takers, decision makers, who are orginators and initiators, who relish what I call a "glorious messiness," and who are what I call the free, courageous, delicious, "darers," "misbehaviorers" and "disruptors."


         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier