Imagine This: Doing-By-Learning

Thanks to Mark Brannan on Flickr for making this image available.

Traditionally, higher education has been in place to prepare us to do. And it still seems to be in place for that purpose. First you learn; then you can do. First this; then that. And if you do that first, you will either regret not doing this first and come back to it, or you will continue to do that, but not be happy or find meaning in your life.

Higher ed seems to operate from this idea; its entire structure is focused on it:

  • Learn first; then do. This here piece of paper that says you learned makes you qualified to do, so go forth and do! (Oh – and you can stop learning now. That part is over, unless you want to keep learning, in which case you can go to grad school.)

Thankfully, engaging adult learners in higher education seems to have helped us think a little bit differently:

  • Ah – you went and did first. That’s cool! You’ve done all this stuff; now reflect on it and learn what it means (and by the way you can get credit for that through Prior Learning Assessment while you’re at it), and then learn some more. You think differently about it – about you – now? Great! Icing on the diploma cake! But now that you’ve done all that, and learned more, and now that you have our paper in hand that certifies your learning, you can go do, again. Because our piece of paper here says that you’re qualified to do more, or do different, in a better job for higher pay and a better life. (Oh – and if you want to keep learning, go to grad school. Doing is not for learning.)

I want to turn this upside down, make it do cartwheels, get all dizzy and mixed up. I have no doubt about the power of learning-to-do, or in learning-by-doing. But I have a hunch that there could be more power — more energy, more possibility, more long-term outcomes — in doing-by-learning.

Doing-by-learning is a phrase that I apparently blurted out in a recent meeting, according to a colleague, and I asked her, “Did I say that?” and she said I did, and then I thought, “Of course I did. That’s what I believe.” And since she pointed out to me that I said that, I’ve been thinking about what I meant.

Here’s what I think I meant:

  • Doing-by-learning means that deep, meaningful, significant learning is our partner — it’s not an outcome, but it is; it’s not a prerequisite, but it is. In doing-by-learning, learning doesn’t come after we do, and isn’t in place in order to do. We do/learn, learn/do: together, hand-in-hand.
  • Doing-by-learning means we engage in reflective practice all. the. time.
  • Doing-by-learning means we get to approach our work, our lives, with inquiry and curiosity and freedom to f*8k up. It means we can experiment, try, fail, try again differently.

WAIT! FAIL? (Gulp!) (You mean failure might be learning too? No way!)

  • Doing-by-learning means we can innovate! It means we can change our lives, our circumstances, our ideas.
  • It means we can change our minds.

WAIT! Change our minds? Doesn’t that make us a “flip-flopper?” Huh? You mean it makes us learners? How ’bout that?

  • It means that when we have a problem to solve, we can frame questions through which we can approach that problem. How should we work together in this situation? What do we need to know to move forward through the problem? What are the options? How will we know it worked? What if it doesn’t work? What will we try next? What new problems might we create in solving this one? Wait – are these even problems???
  • Doing-by-learning means there isn’t likely one correct answer to find, one set of “best practices,” or one right process.

Yah yah yah – maybe this idea isn’t new or original (it isn’t). But imagine this: What might higher education look like if we claimed it as an institution that facilitated doing-by-learning instead of learning to do, or doing and then learning, or even (in the case of internships and other experiential programs) learning-by-doing? That’s what I am going to imagine. I’ll keep you posted with what I come up with.


Paying It Off

Thanks to iDanSimpson on Flickr for making this image available.

Yes indeed, your college education is an investment, and a really good one. But when you rack up student loans and other forms of debt, you need to get to work implementing strategies for paying them off.  (An aside: I do not believe that going to graduate school so you can defer your payments is a great strategy; there ought to be many other reasons to go to graduate school before that one!)

Many thanks to my friend Harriet over at The Encouragement Lounge for posting this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education that contains great strategies for dealing with student loan (and other) debt:

In Debt to Your Degree

The most important strategy, in my opinion? The first:  Take Responsibility.

To Know Your Path, Or To Find Your Path?

Recently, the New York Times’ blog Room for Debate published opinions on this question: “What is a Master’s Degree Worth?” Four experts weighed in on this topic, each with his or her own spin on the return on investment of a graduate degree. A few days later, the editors posted a summary of even more opinions on this question written by readers who shared their stories and ideas in the comments of the original post.

(Ah Glorious Technology!)

In this economy, it makes a lot of sense to ask this question; to seek a sense of the costs and the benefits; to consider job markets, labor trends, and projected industry needs; to consider what you, with a degree, as a commodity, will be worth to a current or potential employer; and to weigh the benefits and challenges of furthering your education. It probably makes sense to do so in any economy.  I vociferously preach this kind of analysis to students who take my Preparing for Graduate School course. I believe in the exercise.

Feel Smarter?

Yet the thought of doing this analysis also makes my stomach knot up and what is left of my non-gray hair turn gray. I’ve been giving a lot of thought about why my skin crawls every time I suggest doing this analysis to a student, and here’s my hesitation with it, based solely on my own experience:

Had I tried to do this calculation when I finished my Bachelor’s degree, I surely would not have ended up doing what I do now, which I really love.  LOVE! L.O.V.E.!!!

For me, it was only by doing my Master’s (and associated activities that came along with it, such as being a graduate teaching and research assistant, working with neat people who became mentors, and discovering what mattered to me) that I came to have clarification of what I wanted to do with my Master’s. At no time did I question earning potential or job market needs; I simply wanted to continue my learning, and from that passion came clarification, and from that clarification came employment possibilities.

For me, it was that simple. And, alas, it was that complex.

What will it be for you?


Sometimes I Am Coyote


Stephen Brookfield is one of my academic heroes. I’ve read most of his books in my own study of adult learning and teaching, and his insights about learning, thinking, teaching –well,  about being — never fail to impress me.

One of Brookfield’s publications* is, I suspect, not widely know about.  It’s a study of 311 adult educators’ experiences of critical reflection collected over an 11 year period. For the purposes of his study, Brookfield identified critical reflection as three interrelated processes: 1) questioning and then reframing an assumption, 2) taking a perspective on an issue that is different than the perspective or position taken by a majority, and 3) examining how ideas and what they represent are accepted as “self-evident.”

In other words: thinking critically. (Yet so much more.)

Brookfield used a research method called phenomenography in order to identify 5 themes that emerged from these educators’ experiences . (I mention phenomenography here because most people confuse it with phenomenology, and because it’s the method I used for my dissertation research.) Here are the themes:

1) Impostorship – participants sensed that they possessed “neither the talent nor the right” (p. 205) to become critically reflective. They felt like impostors in a new community.

2) Cultural suicide – the “threat critical learners perceive that if they take a critical questioning of conventional assumptions, justifications, structures, and actions too far they will risk being excluded from the cultures that have defined and sustained them up to that point in their lives” (p. 208).

3) Lost innocence – meaning “a belief in the promise that if they study hard and look long enough they will stumble on universal certainty as the reward for all their efforts” (p. 209).

4) Roadrunning – “…understood as two steps forward, one step back, followed by four steps forward, one step back … and so on in a series of fluctuations marked by overall movement forward” (p. 211). Think of the roadrunner cartoon with Coyote realizing that he’s suspended in mid-air after hurling himself off the cliff in pursuit of the roadrunner. It’s a “state of limbo” (p. 212) in which the educators leave the security of their old assumptions and ideas behind but have not yet found solid ground for their new ideas and perspectives.

5) Community – The most hopeful theme and experience of these participants, it is marked by “the importance of their belonging to an emotionally sustaining peer learning community” (p. 212).

Though Brookfield’s study was focused on adult educators’ experiences becoming critically reflective, I have a sneaking suspicion that the themes of his findings could likely apply to most folks who are learning something new or, perchance, returning to college to complete a degree. In other words, though I cannot and will not generalize, I sincerely doubt that these kinds of experiences are unique to adult educators learning about critical reflection, and for this reason, I assign this article in my Preparing for Graduate School course. In fact, I suspect that for some people, these feelings may even be experienced somewhat sequentially. First we might feel like an impostor; then we concern ourselves with how who we are becoming and what we are learning may separate us from our home communities; in order to feel better about this, we might seek universal certainty; then we might move forward, but then back, but then forward again; and finally we might realize a sense of belonging. Just a hunch.

The experience that resonates most with me is roadrunning. Though I can recall times in which I struggled with great feelings of impostership (and still do!), Coyote’s experiences going off that cliff have a very familiar ring.  Here’s what Brookfield says about this phenomenon:

At this moment there is a feeling of being in limbo, of being suspended above the canyon floor with the solid ground of familiar assumptions left behind and nothing new congealed in their place. This is the time when educators crash to the floor of their emotional canyons, when they face the crises of confidence … However, as happens with the coyote, whatever prompted their quest … invariably comes back into play. Sooner or later, the journey for critical clarity begins again, but this time there is a greater preparedness for the moment of suspension, and an ability to stay dangling above the canyon floor for a few seconds longer than was formerly the case. (p. 212)

coyote2In addition to how Coyote experiences learning new things and thinking critically about them, I think he also can offer us learners a few lessons:

  • When driven and passionate about learning, we have a certain kind of energy that propels us forward, and this energy may even be somewhat instinctual. (Our last dog was a retired racing greyhound, and he was passionate about chasing plastic bags around the backyard at 60-mph and when he got that way, there was nothing that could stop him.) We might do well to tap into these passions and let them energize us.
  • Like Coyote, we can also be clever (meaning resourceful) in the ways in which we pursue our goals. Coyote’s cleverness was somewhat destructive and violent; I suspect (I hope!) that our cleverness is more generative and supportive.
  • In the cartoon, Coyote usually falls but is rarely seriously harmed, and when we next see him on the canyon floor he is in one piece and once again in pursuit of that roadrunner.  He keeps going; he makes lemonade out of lemons; he doesn’t give up. Speed bumps may slow him down, but they are never stop signs.

So yes, I like Coyote and sometimes I am Coyote, suspended in mid-air, seeking the new while trying so very hard not to let go of the old and familiar and comfortable, but knowing that I probably should.

Are you sometimes Coyote, too?

*Brookfield, S. D. (1994). Tales from the dark side: A phenomenography of adult critical reflection. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 13(3), 203-216.


On Grad School – Show Me The Money

I teach a course called Preparing for Graduate School, but I only teach it twice a year, and it might be helpful for some of you to have the latest resources I find on this topic, even if you aren’t in my class. To this end, I will continue to post resources here, on this blog, under the category of “Preparing for Grad School.” Please check back or subscribe to this blog using RSS (see more about this below) for more info for undergraduate adult learners who are thinking about grad school as a next step.

Here’s a new one that just came my way, a podcast that addresses this topic: “Whether you’re thinking about graduate school–or are already on your way–this podcast helps answer many questions about the financial aid process.” It’s geared to the professional adult student (yeah – you!), so it might be worth a listen.

Graduate School Financial Aid for Professionals

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