We Tell Ourselves Stories

Earlier this week, an essay written by Adam Kotsko was published in InsideHigherEd called “Making the Best of Assessment.” Two key sections of his piece stood out to me:

Would I really object if someone suggested that my institution might want to clarify its goals, gather information about how it’s doing in meeting those goals, and change its practices if they are not working? I doubt that I would: in a certain sense it’s what every institution should be doing. Doing so systematically does bear significant costs in terms of time and energy — but then so does plugging away at something that’s not working. Paying a reasonable number of hours up front in the form of data collection seems like a reasonable hedge against wasting time on efforts or approaches that don’t contribute to our mission. By the same token, getting into the habit of explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing can help us to avoid making decisions based on institutional inertia.

And a bit later on in the piece, referring to his own institution, department, and colleagues:
Despite that overall optimism, however, I’m also sure that there are some things that we’re doing that aren’t working as well as they could, but we have no way of really knowing that currently. We all have limited energy and time, and so anything that can help us make sure we’re devoting our energy to things that are actually beneficial seems all to the good.

Recently, I experienced an assessment phenomenon that I’ve started to affectionately call “when data challenges our belief system.” (My colleague has also written about this here; when I was telling another colleague about this, she referred to it as “when reality interferes with our denial.”) I’ve been helping my colleagues work with assessment methods and their findings for many years now, but it only became apparent to me recently that sometimes we don’t want to believe what we see in our assessment findings or in other sources of data. Sometimes we’d prefer to just erase the evidence or the findings of a inquiry project rather than face the reality that we might be able to do something better, something different.

Thanks to F. Jourde on Flickr for making this image available for use through a Creative Commons license.

Thanks to F. Jourde on Flickr for making this image available for use through a Creative Commons license.

Joan Didion wrote a book with the title We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

In trying to build an evidence-informed culture for improvement in higher education, I have come to believe that our willingness to interrogate the stories we tell ourselves might be one of the biggest challenges we face. Resources? Yep: we certainly need those! Buy-in that the process is worthwhile? Totally important! Support and learning to enact effective assessment practices? Absolutely necessary. But …

We tell ourselves stories.

And guess what! I am totally guilty of this! Here’s a recent example: Using findings from a database-informed report I received almost 7 years ago, I believed that 95% of students who took an introductory course offered in my department went on to take many more courses at the university. This became my department’s story (because it was true — in 2006). It was a great story, until it wasn’t. When I requested and received an updated report, this is what we found out, and what we did:

Of 388 students from Summer 2009 – Fall 2013, 90 took only this course.  Thus, 23% of students who took the course didn’t take anything else. And although this means 77% of students did take other courses (we can celebrate that – it could have been worse, after all), we needed to think about whether or not our original story (remember it? 95%?) still held water. My departmental colleagues and I discussed this report, and once we came to grips with the new story the data was telling us, we realized that we wanted to make some advising process improvements with the goal of increasing the number of students who go on to take more courses at the university.

What’s challenging from an assessment perspective is that this practice of storytelling can totally limit our ability to use information to make improvements; more significantly, it can limit our learning.  Of course we should be analytical about our findings; we should understand their limitations, reliability and validity, the circumstances, the context. But if we believe everything to be perfectly fine — or even quite good — reliable findings that tell a different story can be hard to stomach. Sometimes what happens is folks blame the data; worse is that they blame the messenger; far, far worse is that they blame students.

We tell ourselves stories.

One of the greatest powers of assessment and of an evidence-informed, improvement-oriented culture is that it can foster critical reflection on practice, but only if we can be — if we’re willing to be — critically reflective. I also think assessment can foster really important conversations about students’ experiences and learning among colleagues (such as the great conversation we had in our department when the new data no longer supported our outdated story).  In other words: assessment itself can foster our learning.  But when we get stuck with our stories and we can’t see that there might be a different reality that’s out there, we shut learning out, and we shut out the opportunities that can result from learning.

No doubt that stories are important — to culture, to humanity, to life. As Brene Brown said in this TED talk, “stories are data with soul.”  I do think our stories can inform us and teach us (hey – I was an English major; of course I think this!) But I also think that if we’re not open to alternative views, to other voices (namely those of students), and to new information, then we’re being irresponsible educators because we’re not walking our talk. And so I’ve come to realize that a big part of my work is to support people in being willing to engage in critical reflection on practice, and to consider changing their stories if needed using the information they learn from assessment (it may come as no surprise to some of you that my work with Prior Learning Assessment and interest in heutagogy greatly inform my perspective and my approach). After all, education is supposed to be about learning; let’s use information we have to learn, and to get better.
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So Many Posts; So Little … Posting

I have about 50 posts started, but none finished — or at least none worthy to post. As usual, I’ve been prattling (though only in my head, so far) about change in higher education; about the importance of leaders-as-learners and teachers; about technology, learning, assessment, teaching; about heutagogy; about access; etc. etc. etc.

So many posts; so little posting.

While not posting, I have been contemplating the lessons in two poems by Marge Piercy: The Seven of Pentacles and To Be of Use.

And I did take this picture of a lovely spring flower while out on a bike ride with my kid:

Meditation on a spring flower in the forest.

Meditation on a spring flower in the forest.

So there’s that.

Instead of posting my own ramblings right now, I’ll share a few links to others’ pieces that have really inspired my nog as of late.  I’ll also share a few quotes from each that I mentally highlighted – may they inspire you to inquire and reflect, too.

How Disruptive Is Information Technology Really? by Judith Ramaley – EDUCAUSE Review

The act of teaching is becoming more about designing the educational context and engaging students as they learn to approach material in more insightful and demanding ways. We are not transmitters of knowledge very often today, although an occasional superb lecture by a remarkably perceptive and even prescient speaker or a carefully crafted blog contribution can open up new ways of thinking about things.

We all know these simple things about how the educational experience is changing, but how recently have we paused to think about how truly wonderful it is to be able to use our smartphones to answer a question right immediately? My real concern is that not all questions have a quick, well-researched, and easy-to-find answer. Many, perhaps most, questions in today’s world are hard to formulate, are seen in very different ways by different people, or simply do not have good answers at all. That is why we still need real people who interact with each other in real time in order to frame questions that matter, to explore the ideas that come from those questions, and to work together to find solutions. No longer, however, are those people confined to the knowledge and experience that they carry in their own minds or that they can bring along with them on paper. They can tap into a true universe of material whenever they wish.

Good Teachers Become Less Important by Bernard Bull – Etale – Life in the Digital World.

When I think about the role of what we traditionally think of as teacher, one of the most important roles of teachers is to work hard at making themselves as unimportant as possible, not unimportant in the sense of lacking value, but unimportant in the sense that they are eventually no longer needed.  In other words, the goal of the teacher is to aid the learners in becoming self-directed learners.

Notes on social learning in business by Harold Jarche

Training and instruction are all about control, with curricula, sanctioned learning objectives, and performance criteria. This works when the field of study is knowable. But fewer fields remain completely knowable, if they ever were. Many institutions and professions have been built on the premise that knowledge can be transferred in some kind of controlled process. If you question that premise, you threaten people’s jobs, status, and sense of worth. This is why you see some violent reactions to the notion of informal and social learning having validity within organizations.

A major difference between communities of practice and work teams is that the former are voluntary. People want to join communities of practice. People feel affinity for their communities of practice. You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice.

And finally, a post from the Heutagogy Community of Practice: The PAH Continuum: Pedagogy, Andragogy, & Heutagogy, by Fred Garnett

When we collaboratively developed the ideas of the open context model of learning, Wilma Clark had pointed out that in Russia the word ‘obuchenie’ means both teaching and learning, and the PAH Continuum might be seen as a way of scaffolding ‘obuchenie’ as a move from teacher’s control to learner’s control. I would see it as axiomatic, as I did when I was ‘brokering’ learning, that teachers, whilst delivering their subject expertise, should be enabling learners to better understand the process of learning for themselves.

So many posts; so much learning. With great appreciation for all my teachers out there. As Bernard Bull wrote:

In one sense, a teacher is anyone or anything that contributes to our learning.

Bookmark: Living In A World Of Motion

There were three notable chapters in my book this week, and I placed a bookmark on the page with the paragraph that wove them all together in a lovely way.

Chapter One: Last night I returned from an accreditation team training, and the theme of most of our discussion in the meeting (as well as the discussion on the airport shuttle bus) was “change in higher education.”  We watched this video to provoke our thinking:

Chapter Two: I have been collaborating with a new wonderful set of colleagues — Lisa Blaschke, Stewart Hase, and Chris Kenyon — to design and launch an international Community of Practice focusing on advancing the theory and practice of heutagogy. And if there’s one thing heutagogy is about, it’s about learning and change. (An aside: we’ve not launched yet, but when we do, here’s our Twitter handle: @HeutagogyCoP)

Chapter Three: I am teaching our PLA Seminar: From Experience to Learning this term. I’ve connected with wonderful, amazingly smart and caring adult learners, many of whom are starting to write about their own learning experiences and challenges with change in their PLA essays. (Have I mentioned that I really love teaching this course? I wish I could do so more often!)

book3dBookmark: I just finished devouring Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

These three chapters of my week converged when I read this paragraph from the book’s chapter titled, “Embracing Change:”

Change motivates and challenges. It makes clear when things are obsolete or have outlined their usefulness. Bot most of all, change forces us to learn differently. If the twentieth century was about creating a sense of stability to buttress again change and then trying to adapt to it, then the twenty-first century is about embracing change, not fighting it. Embracing change means looking forward to what will come next. It means viewing the future as a new set of possibilities, rather than something that forces us to adjust. It means making the most of living in a world of motion.

The book reflects a lot about learning in online community-based gaming – which I know next-to-nothing about. But now I think I’d better learn. (GULP! I never thought I’d say that!)

(Unless, of course, Pinterest provides the same experience, by any chance? Because I’m getting really good at learning with Pinterest!)

Rearranging Our Sense of What’s Possible

In his recent post titled Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, Clay Shirky writes a few very important things about the future of higher education that I believe we need to pay attention to. This paragraph sums up why:

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

MOOCs, I believe, are currently a place-holder for Big Changes A’ Comin’. I actually don’t think MOOCs as we know them now (in all of their various forms) will BE the change; I think they are instead indicators that change is happening now. And Shirky says why:

The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system …

I, for one, do want change to come to higher education — I deeply want improved access to meaningful and significant learning experiences. But I don’t think of students as an “audience for education.” This implies a somewhat passive, receiving role for learners. (And thus the MOOCs that are recordings of superstar professors giving their lectures aren’t that exciting for me.)

Change – Thank you zacklur on Flickr for allowing this image to be used.

The change I want to see is focused not on how content is delivered because content delivery is not learning (though this will surely be part of it), but in how we engage learners in processing that content, integrating it with their own learning and experience and other ideas from other sources, and making some sense of it all. I want to see changes in how we help our learners and ourselves develop our capabilities to be able to work and communicate effectively with others, to be creative in solving our world’s significant social and environmental challenges, to deeply value diversity and experience and wisdom, and to excel at critical self-reflection and ongoing learning. As I’ve written before, enough with the ivory tower that privileges obtaining certain kinds of knowledge and privileges who gets to obtain it. More and more, our non-ivory towers are doing this same thing, and not even realizing it.

My biggest fear right now is actually not that higher education is changing;  I fear that if we’re not careful with how it’s changing — not careful and super-intentional as we lead these changes — that more people, not fewer, will be shut out of significant, meaningful, transformative learning experiences.  MOOCs might solve part of the access problem for delivering content and perhaps even being able to work through that content with others; MOOCs aren’t going to solve the access problem to significant, meaningful, transformative learning experiences. For one thing, MOOCs do not at all address the digital divide, which I believe is still an issue in our world.

Furthermore, problematically, we still are attached this construct called a degree that is supposed to represent learning and ability. This is evidenced in Shirky’s post:

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as songs came unbundled from CDs.

I think it’s ok if learning becomes unbundled from the pursuit of a degree if by offering degrees we are really only aiming for students just getting degrees. Unless we can focus on ensuring meaningful, engaging processes and experiences of learning, then why bother? I am as compelled by the piece of paper as I am by the archaic representations of learning such as seat time. I am thus also compelled to lead change in particular ways — with learning and access to it at the center of decision-making and innovation and resourcing — because I  actually believe in the value of rearranging our sense of what’s possible. When we rearrange our sense of what’s possible, we can ensure that our students can, too.

And THAT changes everything.

No Ivory Tower There

UC Berkeley campanile – aka, the Ivory Tower. Thanks lobotomy42 on Flickr for making this image available.

Lately I have been engaging in a thought experiment (sadly, mostly by myself), imagining what an institution of higher education focused on heutagogy might look like. Heutatogy is a learning theory, originally developed by Stewart Chase and Chris Kenyon, that places emphasis on learning-to-learn, on developing the capacities of mind for self-determined learning. A heutagogical approach focuses on developing not only competencies, but more significantly, on developing capabilities to learn deeply in an ongoing way. As Blaschke (2012, p. 59) summarizes, capable learners demonstrate:

• self-efficacy, in knowing how to learn and continuously reflect on the learning process;
• communication and teamwork skills, working well with others and being openly communicative;
• creativity, particularly in applying competencies to new and unfamiliar situations and by being adaptable and flexible in approach;
• positive values (Hase & Kenyon, 2000; Kenyon & Hase, 2010; Gardner et al., 2007).

This deep learning process involves a double loop, accordingly:

Image borrowed from Reply – Online Magazine for Organizational Change Practitioners

I look at double-loop learning as a a meta-assessment cycle that results in transformative learning; critical self-reflection and awareness are key features that allow the process to work (for individuals, and also for organizations).

I wonder, if an institution of higher education were focused on a heutagogical approach,

  • Would there be majors or programs of study that are content and discipline oriented? Or would it be truly interdisciplinary?
  • Would we focus on pre-determined learning outcomes, or would they be emergent?
  • Would knowledge be provided to or constructed by participants?
  • Would we measure learning by tests, or add up learning by seat time and credits? (ACK – please say no!)
  • Would there be courses? Or would learners and instructors get together differently? Or would they get together at all?
  • Would we even have professors or instructors? How might their roles and responsibilities be different than now?
  • Heck — would we have “students” as we know them?

I’d like to think that such a “place” (which might likely be less of a place and more of an experience) would be very different from higher education now, because its values, principles, and practices would be totally different.  I like to think that such a place/experience might:

  • Be grounded in experiential learning in nature and in focus so that the double loop can really have meaning;
  • Strive to provide an integrated experience for its participants — where work, life, and education are not kept separate, but inform and shape each other;
  • Nurture the development of personal and communal learning networks and processes (as Blashke points out, Web 2.0 technologies can support these practices nicely);
  • Develop in participants an ongoing practice of critical self-reflection and, ultimately, the capabilities that Blashke describes;
  • Support exploration and adventure as a way of learning;
  • Be open — to new ideas and to new ways of doing learning work, so that it’s always evolving; and to all people, at low or no cost, so that everyone can participate, somehow.

This is the kind of place or experience I’d like to create; this is the kind of place I’d like to be, and experience I’d like to participate in! For one thing, there’s no ivory tower there.

MORE ABOUT HEUTAGOGY

Blaschke, L.M. (2012). Heutagogy and lifelong learning: A review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1), 56-71. Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1076/2113

Bhoyrub, J., Hurley, J., Neilson, G.R., Ramsay, M., & Smith, M. (2010). Heutagogy: An alternative practice based learning approachNurse Education in Practice19(6), 322-326.

Canning, N. &  Callan, S. (2010). Heutagogy: Spirals of reflection to empower learners in higher education. Reflective Practice, 11(1), pp. 71–82.

Canning, N. (2010). Playing with heutagogy: Exploring strategies to empower mature learners in higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 34(1), pp. 59–71.

Chapnick, S. & Meloy, J. (2005).  Renaissance eLearning: creating dramatic and unconventional learning experiences. Essential resources for training and HR professionals. Pfeiffer: San Francisco, CA. (See “From Andragogy to Heutagogy,” pp. 36–39.)

Hase, S, and Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogy. Ultibase, RMIThttp://ultibase.rmit.edu.au/Articles/dec00/hase2.htm

Hase, S, & Kenyon, C. (2007). Heutagogy: a child of complexity theory. Complicity: an International Journal of Complexity and Education, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 111-118. “Heutagogy: A Child of Complexity Theory”

Hase, S, & Kenyon, C. (2001). Moving from Andragogy to Heutagogy in Vocational Education. Retrieved from: http://www.avetra.org.au/abstracts_and_papers_2001/Hase-Kenyon_full.pdf

Convergence Zone: Heutagogy

I was a pop-in-and-out participant in last week’s MOOC MOOC, during which time I wrote this reflection about MOOCs, Prior Learning Assessment, and College-Level Learning. I read several tweets and posts from folks participating along the way that shaped and changed my thinking, and I gleaned a few interesting ideas and a whole lot of thoughtful questions about MOOCs, and even more thoughtful questions about teaching, learning, assessment, higher education, prior learning and assessment, pedagogy, technology, accreditation, adult learning, and the intersections of all of these topics.

Thanks to fabonthemoon on Flickr for making this image available for use!

This busy intersection is where I spend a lot of my time professionally and theoretically – smack dab in the middle of several noisy streets, trying to determine what way I might want to travel next before I get hit by oncoming traffic. It’s really not as terrifying as it might sound; in fact, the metaphor, for me, represents the complexity of higher education in a good way: its systems, its people, its opportunities and challenges. Traffic is moving here, and quickly, but then again, slowly. (It is higher education, after all.) 

One post that caught my attention was written by Dave Cormier titled Rhizomatic Learning and MOOCs – Assessment. Here’s a key point he made that’s been rattling in my nog since I read it:

IF

What we are learning is contextualized by each individual differently, according to their experiences, their understanding and purposes,

AND

The things that are learned are not definite, but flexible and complex

THEN

Assessing what someone ‘knows’ is an act of enforcement of a given point of view, not a(n apolotical) [sic] helpful guideline to learning

I want assessment to be a helpful guideline to learning (as reflected, for example, in my concerns with learning analytics). Period. With or without MOOCs, my personal vision of assessment’s main value is as a key part of an individual’s and group’s learning processes and cycles (assessment as an act of learning — for and as learning — versus of someone’s learning by someone else). I also think there is great value in assessment as and for learning for organizations. Otherwise, how would we know how we’re doing and how to improve?

Yet here’s where it gets messy:

When someone (presumably a person we call a “student”) wants to have their learning “certified” in some way and wants the currency of higher education — credits and degrees and whatnot — attached to that learning to “verify” that they have it, then these ideals of learning/assessment get messy and murky. (The same might be said of organizations: verification for higher educational organizations is just called “accountability” and is often conflated with “assessment” and “accreditation.”) For a student, passing a course somehow represents that he or she has learned something from it; adding up these courses to a degree presumes that he or she is qualified in particular ways. Somehow we have to “validate” all of this, for all sorts of reasons.

Prior Learning Assessment has been a way for students — typically adults with several years of life and professional experience under their belts — to have their learning “validated,” to earn credit for their prior college-level learning that they have obtained through non-college learning opportunities. By critically reflecting on their learning experiences, making meaning from these experiences, and connecting and integrating their own knowledge with that of the “academic experts,” students can demonstrate that they’ve met course learning outcomes through different sources other than the course. (GASP!) But perhaps the most meaningful aspect of PLA, in addition to acknowledging that people can learn all sorts of things in all sorts of ways from all sorts of sources, is that the process helps develop reflective thinking, awareness, problem-solving, and mindfulness about learning. In other words:

PLA helps learners be better learners!

So if PLA were to become a way to assess MOOC-based learning (which it could be) — if it were to be “re-branded,” as one person in my PLA LinkedIn group discussion forum suggested, to focus less on assessing prior, experiential learning for adults and to focus more on assessing college-level learning for all, then by all means, it could legitimately serve an assessment-of-MOOC-learning function (and frankly, it likely will).

But I keep coming back to what might be lost by using PLA in this way, for this purpose, and it comes down to my fear of losing the other 2 aspects of PLA: assessment for and as learning. Furthermore, I fear that there would be additional aspects to PLA that might be sacrificed or forgotten about. Here’s my quick and dirty laundry list:

  • The focus on the adult-as-learner specifically
  • Development of the critically reflective process required for turning experience into learning
  • The transformative (life-changing) outcomes of PLA as a learning process
  • The kind of thinking and problem-solving skills that folks develop when engage in PLA
  • The great sense of accomplishment that students feel and confidence that students gain when their learning is awarded college credit.

(See this PLA Bibliography for literature that reflects all of the above theoretically and in practice.)

I really don’t know much about MOOCs, or about rhizomatic learning, but I do know a few things about learning to learn, and I know a lot about PLA. I really would want to retain the kind of PLA that supports this metacognitive development in addition to validating someone’s experiential learning.

Now, this busy intersection is beginning to reveal a convergence zone for me: a focus on learning to learn, on developing capability as a learner — regardless of the topic or content area, the role or methods of assessment, who is teaching, or how or where one gains learning. This zone is called heutagogy, and I am working on creating a curation of resources and a community of practitioners to think together about its usefulness in this 21st century learning and higher educational landscape. I openly invite participation and perspectives: stayed tuned for more about Heutagogy In Action.

MORE ABOUT HEUTAGOGY

Blaschke, L.M. (2012). Heutagogy and lifelong learning: A review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1), 56-71. Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1076/2113

Bhoyrub, J., Hurley, J., Neilson, G.R., Ramsay, M., & Smith, M. (2010). Heutagogy: An alternative practice based learning approachNurse Education in Practice19(6), 322-326.

Canning, N. &  Callan, S. (2010). Heutagogy: Spirals of reflection to empower learners in higher education. Reflective Practice, 11(1), pp. 71–82.

Canning, N. (2010). Playing with heutagogy: Exploring strategies to empower mature learners in higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 34(1), pp. 59–71.

Chapnick, S. & Meloy, J. (2005).  Renaissance eLearning: creating dramatic and unconventional learning experiences. Essential resources for training and HR professionals. Pfeiffer: San Francisco, CA. (See “From Andragogy to Heutagogy,” pp. 36–39.)

Hase, S, and Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogy. Ultibase, RMIThttp://ultibase.rmit.edu.au/Articles/dec00/hase2.htm

Hase, S, & Kenyon, C. (2007). Heutagogy: a child of complexity theory. Complicity: an International Journal of Complexity and Education, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 111-118. “Heutagogy: A Child of Complexity Theory”

Hase, S, & Kenyon, C. (2001). Moving from Andragogy to Heutagogy in Vocational Education. Retrieved from: http://www.avetra.org.au/abstracts_and_papers_2001/Hase-Kenyon_full.pdf