In travels around the country, I’ve been seeing signs of a trend in higher education that could have profound implications: a growing interest in learning about learning. At colleges and universities that are solidly grounded in a commitment to teaching, groups of creative faculty are mobilizing around learning as a collective, and intriguing, intellectual inquiry.
This trend embraces the advances being made in the cognitive sciences and the study of consciousness. It resides in the fast-moving world of changing information technology and social media. It recognizes and builds upon new pedagogies and evolving theories of multiple ways of knowing and learning. It encompasses but transcends the evolution of new and better measures of student learning outcomes.
As more and more institutions sign on to administer the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Collegiate Learning Assessment, some see the resulting data as sufficient to close the books on the question of student learning, while others see them as no more than a rudimentary beginning. The advent of new instruments reflects in part the desire to unseat the commercial rating systems that wield enormous influence despite their well-known shortcomings and distortions. The new measurement regimes are responding, as well, to demands from accrediting and regulatory agencies for convincing data on "value-added educational outcomes." But educators know that assessing what students have learned is far less valuable than finding out how they learn.
Uri Treisman’s landmark study at Berkeley a quarter century ago validated this proposition. He compared how students of African and Chinese descent learned calculus, used the findings to export successful strategies from one group to the other, and evaluated the results. Richard Light’s studies at Harvard carry on the Treisman tradition.
Efforts to identify fruitful points of intervention in the classroom and in co-curricular offerings are picking up steam, importing into the councils of higher education -- and strengthening -- a line of educational research that had been largely overlooked by faculty and administrators whose disciplinary allegiances were with the liberal arts and sciences, not the study of pedagogical practice. A number of foundations, notably Teagle, Spencer, and Mellon, are funding empirical studies that are uniting these worlds. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has been a leading voice in this conversation for many years as, more recently, has the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Faculty at Indiana University have since 1998 been fostering interdisciplinary communities for innovative course-focused research to improve undergraduate learning, and exporting the work through conferences of a growing International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Georgetown’s Center for New Design in Learning and Scholarship is hosting cutting-edge events to feed faculty interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning. John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox, has been exploring the edges of this new field, drawing, for example, on Polanyi’s distinction between "learning about" and "learning to be," activities that take place in iterative cycles ("I get stuck; I need to know more"). "Learning about" involves explicit knowledge, "learning to be" is more tacit: sensing an interesting question, feeling the rightness of an elegant solution. Now we can enable with ease the "socially-constructed understanding" that fuels the cycles of being stuck and learning more through "interactions with others and the world" in this new digital age, he observes.
"Something is in the air," adds Michael Wesch in a YouTube video that has been watched by over three million viewers. He’s standing in an old-fashioned auditorium at Kansas State University and the "something" that all teachers have no choice now but to reckon with is all of human knowledge instantly available to all students through their wi-fi connections. The pioneers on this new frontier are pursuing novel learning technologies that can be harnessed in the service of greater intellectual connection between students and faculty, enhanced student learning, less drudgery, more creativity, more freedom and more joy for students and faculty alike. Clay Christensen warns that if we fail at this task, "disruptive technologies" will do it for us, and eat our lunch.
Where might this lead? If groups of faculty were to think deeply and systematically over a number of years about student learning and student success, they could create for their own institutions and the wider field a more robust evidence-based culture of learning, a “science of improvement,” as groups of medical leaders are advancing for their profession.
An effort like this at one institution would require the gradual creation of highly-intentional learning (not teaching) cultures with explicit cycles of improvement in place throughout the college or university, starting with academic departments and working up from there. The results would be widely discussed by everyone: faculty, students, staff, trustees. Over time, and without much fanfare, they would influence hiring decisions and criteria for promotion and other rewards. Resources would be re-allocated to activities that were demonstrably advancing student learning in the context (not in lieu) of serious disciplinary scholarship.
This work would necessarily be multidisciplinary, iterative, and methodologically inventive and yet tight. It would come over time to define an inquisitive and ambitious learning community. The findings would not be available for use as a punitive club to force accountability to the state or federal government or to other external groups. Pressure for accountability must not be allowed to confound and corrupt the assessment and continuous improvement of learning outcomes.
I know that this essay is loaded with fighting words. But I believe we need, and are now beginning to see, ways to reframe the problem of learning outcomes, ways that might galvanize positive energy and support within a faculty. Imagine “the administration” saying to faculty, in effect: We want you to be learning all you can about who your students are now, how they learn and what they need to know in order to be successful in a world that is changing faster than we can imagine much less anticipate. And we want you to have the resources and collegial connections you will need to make the pursuit of that question an exciting and fruitful complement to your scholarship. From learning science there are stunning advances that need translation before they can be brought successfully into classrooms, findings and possibilities that at least some faculty might find inherently fascinating if they were approached right, offered a supportive culture with meaningful incentives and rewards and scholarly payoffs.
More than a decade ago, at Wellesley, I watched a group of faculty from several liberal arts colleges, with Trinity in the lead, take up the issue of how to close the academic achievement gap, an issue brought to attention by Bill Bowen and Derek Bok in The Shape of the River and one about which faculty cared deeply, an institutional failure they felt keenly as their responsibility. They found allies in their own and other institutions and created an organization (Consortium on High Achievement and Success), a collaborative learning group that invented an emergent process, adjusting as they went. They assembled data; consulted experts they could respect; found local champions in their own institutions and raised up their work; sought out promising strategies in other institutions; listened to their students’ accounts of challenges they were facing and developed student partnerships to address those issues. They pooled knowledge, shared data, assembled resources, designed honest conversations and entered them with inquiring minds. The element that was missing then was systematic research: testing pilot initiatives and developing intervention studies. Without solid research it’s impossible to know what really works. The learning initiative I have in mind would need to build this in from the start. But, first and foremost, it would have to be rooted, as was CHAS, in the belief among a group of faculty that their students could be better served.
I’m convinced that some faculty could become absorbed in a sophisticated intellectual collaboration to learn about learning. Throughout higher education, we fret about unsound expenditures we know are driven by crude rating systems and the fierce competitive dynamic they fuel. We are not going to eliminate competition between institutions of higher learning, even if we wanted to, which we probably don’t. But could we conceivably change the terms of the competition, put learning rather than amenities at the center of the arms race, spend less on making students more and more comfortable at college and more on making them more and more curious?
Now there’s a question worth asking.
Diana Chapman Walsh served as president of Wellesley College from 1993 to 2007.