Performing in the world as learners

For over a thousand years a formal curriculum has been conceived of as an organized and logically-sequenced march from the basics to advanced knowledge. … [T]his works fine if the present is just like the past; if ideas turn into competent action automatically; and if theory, not effects, matters most. … So, suppose knowledge is not the goal of education. Rather, suppose today’s content knowledge is an offshoot of successful ongoing learning in a changing world – in which ‘learning’ means ‘learning to perform in the world.’ … In other words, though we often lose sight of this basic fact, the point of learning is not just to know things but to be a different person – more mature, more wise, more self-disciplined, more effective, and more productive in the broadest sense. Knowledge is an indicator of educational success, not the aim. – Grant Wiggens

Grant Wiggens expounds on this idea in much more detail in his set of posts on curriculum. He points out that, as Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education, learners must first interact with new things, ideas, concepts, etc., in a trial and error way. They try to do something, make something, work with something on their own terms and then pay attention to what works and what doesn’t and how they connect.  The goal then of “instruction” is to give learners “something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results” (Dewey).

Busker in Ignoreland

Photo Credit: tochis via Compfight cc

Laying out a body of knowledge in pre-scripted chunks to be walked through in pace in an effort to save time and energy doesn’t give learners the opportunity to work with the concepts and tools in authentic ways. However, working hands-on with content doesn’t automatically equal authenticity. Are learners being asked to address real problems, issues, and challenges or artificially simplified ones that take naturally ill-structured problems and clean them up for easy grading?  Are they being asked to show a real-world performance?

And where does all that content that you need to “cover” fit in?  Anticipating common misconceptions and missteps offer opportunities to to provide scaffolding to support learners as they note connections and encourage them to further investigate the connections and the contradictions that arise. Those carefully chunked lessons can make more sense and be more meaningful to the learner *after* they experience a need for the information.  For example, all those web pages you bookmark to “read later” are like lessons provided before you have an experienced need for them.  I think that someday I’ll really want to learn about font kerning but if I read about it now I’ll have only a marginal chance of remembering it when a time comes that I need to know about it. (If that time ever comes!) The challenge is in introducing problems and opportunities that require learners to know about font kerning or the Krebs cycle or internal combustion engines that learners care about.  In the case of adult learners that usually involves problems or opportunities that they find authentic; that are readily applicable to their life outside of the formal educational setting; ones that give them the chance to learn not only content, but also how to be more productive and more effective performing in the real world.

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