Learning and Meta-Learning

Over at Tomorrow’s Professor, an excerpt from a book on ePortfolios (for the unnaturally curious, the book is Documenting Learning with ePortfolios: A Guide for College Instructors):

ePortfolios…allow learners to make connections among varied learning experiences and transfer knowledge and skills to new contexts and situations. This approach, particularly when it capitalizes on the features of ePortfolios together with a culture of folio thinking, can promote deep and integrative learning. For students, however, the value of ePortfolios and folio thinking may be unclear. Students may initially assume that the use of ePortfolios in a course or program is simply a new and faddish approach to teaching and learning. Indeed, without effectively communicating the purpose of ePortfolios and the benefits that ePortfolios are intended to produce for them, students may resist the approach, thereby making it challenging for them to really capitalize on those benefits.

This is a challenging issue. In my experience of the university setting, students often come to learning experiences with preconceptions both about what they are supposed to be learning, and about how they should best be taught those things. The solution presented here is to show your cards: make pedagogical methods explicit.

The difficulty of framing is that an entire level of learning gets lost. It may be true that students who are told how something will add to their knowledge-base or skill-set will overcome their “resistance” and allow them to “capitalize” on a learning technique. Yet being so explicit allows them to be smug in their presumption that they know how learning works, and how teachers should teach, informed, more often than not, by what Paul Freire called the banking model of education.”

Freire’s point, in his critique of this model, was partially that one should not view the teacher and the student as polar opposites, with the student as an empty vessel and the teacher as a the holder of knowledge with gets ‘desposited’ in the learners. On a substantive level, his argument implied that both teacher and students are learners, that both have knowledge to share, that education should aim to combine that knowledge in a mutual learning process. Fine: but if I want to learn Portoguese, then its likely that I am going to find a teacher who has more relevant knowledge than I do.

His criticism also has an implication about the process of learning. Education is not a mechanical process; I cannot, in fact, put my knowledge directly into your brain, techno-utopian fantasy notwithstanding. Rather, learning is necessarily active. I can tell you something – say, the definition of GDP – but your ability to remember it will depend on what you do when I tell you; on whether you are writing it down when I am talking; on what you are using to write it down; on how soon you return to it after first hearing it. My sense is that the best way to really learn the definition of GDP is to be forced to use it in practice, or to reflect on its meaning: why is it defined this way? Why does the result of this calculation matter? What would be wrong with other calculations? How else might we have tried to capture this information? How do we measure this aggregate in practice? I would argue, even further, that the definition of GDP only becomes useful once a person can provide answers to these questions. Memorizing the definition might get you marks on a test; only your ability to think about it in context will make you a better economist.

Telling someone how a process or technique is supposed to aid their learning treats becoming a better learner (“meta-learning”) as a passive, rather than an active process. Learning itself is a skill, and like all skills, it is only sharpened and refined through practice. Telling students what contribution ePortfolios might make to learning therefore ignores both elements of Freire’s insight: first, it assumes that the teacher knows exactly what contribution the process might make to the student’s competence as a learner and that this knowledge is simply transferred to the student; second, it does not require students to use this knowledge, and is almost sure to be ineffective at making them better learners. In other words, it may convince students to use ePortfolios, but it will not make them better learners.

The reality is, the best way to increase student learning competence is for them to be reflectively engaged in the learning process; to constantly push them to think about how they learn best, to consider what they might learn from a given experience, to adopt practices which maximize their own learning, to experiment with alternatives, to ask better questions. In other words, it requires departing from a simple image of education as a service that universities provide to students, and recognize that education is work which requires creativity, thought, engagement and participation by students.

1 comment to Learning and Meta-Learning

  • If we are to believe what Jacques Rancière writes in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, the best Portugese instructor could very well be someone who’s never spoken the language, but is willing to thumb through a Portugese phone book with his students to figure out what it all means by trial and error. “Is this a listing for a laundromat or a bakery? … Let’s call and find out!”

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