“Action expresses priorities” (Mahatma Ghandi)

My son in Year 12 was revising his biology concepts for the  external exam (that’s a discussion for another day). He was demonstrating very good knowledge and understanding of cells. I asked him the ‘so what’ question. That is, what difference does this make, how might this apply. He said “We don’t need to do that for the exam”. We then discussed how it might be different if the question was something like, “How might you apply your understanding of cells to treat disease?”. This might immediately make the learning more relevant, more interesting and activate higher order thinking skills. It is a harder question to answer with multiple potentially good responses. Wouldn’t working with uncertainty and creating new options based on present understanding be more relevant skills for the future?

People have told me that I think too much. Is the opposite not thinking enough? What I think they mean is that I question, I wonder, I try to make sense of things. The best way I can describe this is alignment. Are the things we do genuinely doing what we claim? When a school for example states they are preparing students for the future, how are they really doing that? How are we intentionally planning for, teaching and assessing graduate attributes at universities? Will we not pass someone in a leadership course who can’t get on with others?  Do awareness raising programs reduce violence against women?

I worry about education marketing claims. How are you designing for your outcomes? How do you know you are succeeding? Where is the evidence? Student engagement surveys are quite limited and are not focussed on measuring genuine change in behaviour. Standardised testing has also proved problematic.

In working over the years across schools, vocational education and university settings, I have found that alignment is a fundamental issue. All of our programs should begin with identifying what we want the learner to do. What does it look like? And to what end? Vocational education and training is the closest to their need for demonstrable skills. However, as we get to more complex environments and more intangible human skills, we are often defaulting to ‘learning about” rather than “learning to”, across all education sectors.

“Learning to” doesn’t need to be that hard, but it does require more than rehashing content.

There is common argument that human skills are difficult to assess and measure. It makes us uncomfortable where interpersonal and intrapersonal skills intersect with personality and attributes, trampling on notions of personal identity. However effective person-hood I believe involves accountability about how our behaviour impacts on others and striving to do better. This includes accepting unfavourable feedback. While I have found people can describe very well what these human skills look like, we are less willing to accept that we can teach and assess them.

If we are investing more in creative ways to sell our programs to markets than in intentional design and evaluation, then we are accepting that spin is more important than substance. While revenue and profit may rely on convincing people on your product, if you are not delivering on your promise, long-term, you create disengagement and cynicism in the market. I suspect this is starting to impact education, with increasing scepticism of claims that education programs are making us safer, job-ready, richer, happier or more productive.

The pursuit of pure knowledge may be worthwhile, however, it is only through doing something different that we are actively contributing to a better outcome, whether at work or in our personal lives. Avoiding the complexity of program design and evaluation of genuine behavioural change and more complex human skills because it is difficult, is intellectually lazy. Just because we don’t exactly know what it looks like, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to do better.

Ailsa Leacy

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