I was attending a conference on teaching and learning in higher education earlier in the month. I was only half listening because I was on my way out of the academy – one week away from my final day after my position was made redundant.
I am a dinosaur, an academic who clings to the idea that universities are places of learning. I don’t just mean the formal curriculum, but universities, no matter whether you’re a student or a researcher or an administrator or a teacher or a learning designer, are places that, to me, in my old-fashioned way of thinking, are places for exploring ideas … and to me, exploring ideas is learning.
Ideas can be extended upon, challenged, engaged with, debated, thought about, written about, performed, reflected on, explained, discussed, acted upon, reinforced, extended, justified. They can be tested – literally/actually/physically as well as intellectually. Ideas aren’t, in my old-fashioned way of thinking, things that are only ‘academic’ or ‘theoretical’ or ‘cerebral’ or ‘abstract’ – words often used perjoratively. They can be made concrete and real and are always worth our time and attention.
Exploring ideas can be tough – intellectually and emotionally.
It can be tough intellectually as it requires knowledge and thought and the capacity to see from a multitude of perspectives. It requires us to seek out more information, to analyse and synthesise, to create new ideas from existing ones. It requires the development of our capacity to explain the idea, to communicate it in ways that have meaning for others (verbally, spatially, graphically, amongst others).
It requires us to sit in ambiguity, to not know.
And the not knowing and the ambiguity can lead us to feelings of vulnerability, and that’s tough emotionally.
It’s tough emotionally, particularly when you’re in an environment in which your knowledge and your ideas are being tested or assessed. In which you feel that *you’re* being tested or assessed. Judged. Do you know enough? Do you know the right things? Can you communicate what you know in a way that aligns with the rubric? Can you justify your ideas and the outcomes/consequences/recommendations that result from those ideas?
I learnt in the higher ed conference I attended earlier in the month that ‘justify’ is a “triggering word for students”. That “while it’s a word academics like to use, students don’t like it”.
The academic, a unit chair in an allied health course, said that she’s changed the triggering word to ‘explain’ or ‘describe’. “It’s a change that’s been well-accepted by students”.
Students no longer have to justify the recommendations they make in relation to a client’s treatment, they just have to explain and describe them.
What are we doing in higher ed? Are we so concerned with student satisfaction that we infantalise them to the degree that rather than supporting them through the challenging aspects of their course, we instead remove any challenge?
I watched my six-year old granddaughter trying to do a headstand recently. She placed her hands carefully, ensured her head created the third point of the triangle, switched on her core, and pushed her feet off the floor. Something in her technique was wrong, and she did not manage to do a headstand. She tried again. And again. And again.
She cried in frustration because she could not do a headstand ‘properly’. Despite her tears, she kept practicing. I didn’t watch the whole session as I was on FaceTime but her mother told me later that she tried for three hours and cried each time she couldn’t do it. Finally, she was successful.
Learning is hard. I was once told I wasn’t allowed to say that to students as it’s a negative message. To me, it’s also a truth. Coming out of our comfort zone to sit in a space of not knowing, of being unsure, of reaching for understanding and not quite getting there (yet) is challenging.
It puts us in a place of vulnerability and that’s uncomfortable. But if we don’t move from our place of comfort, then we don’t grow or develop. We don’t learn.
Learning is hard. The teachers’ role is not to make it less hard, but to support students through the challenges.
We infantalise students when we remove the challenge rather than helping them overcome it.