Learning and Meta-Learning

Over at Tomorrow’s Professor, an excerpt fromĀ 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.

I suppose that’s a profession I would like to be a part of…

Even if it is not immediately recognized as such, Law, as it is idealized by the new law student, is the philosophy of state power. Not in the explanatory sense of political science, but quite literally the philosophy which the state itself cleaves to in the exercise of that power. The idealistic among these students will join the ranks of the profession in the hopes that they might take part in contributing to this philosophy their own prejudices, fantasies and ires. But no matter how beneficial the edifice of the law or how lofty one’s principles, a tenuous bargain is involved in entering the walls of law’s empire, and it is one which should not be accepted lightly.
One is of course aware of the role of the professor to, as it were, continually attempt to expose the tears in the wall between the philosophy of the state and philosophy proper, that is, the human philosophy of everyday life. But so too is it the job of the law student. And, if one is fearless in their thinking; if one can escape from the work-a-day practices of the profession which result, if without conspiracy, at distracting from this question; if one is willing to risk, which is not to say sacrifice, the comfort and security of professional certainty and relative class privilege, then so too can this be the role of the working lawyer. The job of the law professor, then, is not just to expose the breach. It is to put the pick in the hands of the profession itself.