Linking 2 questions: “Who tells you what to teach?” and “What does it have to do with what learners need to learn?”

I would imagine that any professional educator should at some point want to explore this pair of questions. I find it extraordinary that the defense attorneys of educational systems have succeeded in banishing this line of questioning from the courtroom of intellectual endeavor as “irrelevant”. The answers for them are givens: to the first question, it’s the curriculum. To the second: its…er…the curriculum. A curriculum isn’t even a human being, with whom you can debate. It’s a state of nature. It’s a (fictional) world of crystalline simplicity, where strategic thinking, even of the lowest order, is never required. It’s Oz.

In the training world it appears to be different and the answers are well known. To the first, “I do. I’m the expert”. To the second, “It’s the learners’ employer,  who understands that what I do is related to what they need to learn”. This may sound simple and efficient, but it’s complex and ambiguous and, in the end, no less arbitrary and poorly focused than in the world of education.

Let’s return to this world of education for a moment. The curriculum dictates everything to everyone. Teachers have to know it at one level (the overall logic and all the important details written into the curriculum) and learners are expected to acquire it, detail by detail, without necessarily attaining the same level as the teacher. There are of course rare cases where a brilliant student demonstrating insight that is not built into the curriculum can go beyond the level of pure understanding of his or her teachers. Happily for the teacher, this level of understanding is outside the curriculum, not really testable, and, what the hell, geniuses exist! Everything’s accounted for. Life can go on. So, once again, the system happily avoids the question of what learners really need to learn.

There are also cases of brilliant teachers whose level of understanding and insight is such that they see the curriculum for what it is, an arbitrary framework for presenting a sanitized account of an area of human enquiry they have identified with. But even those brilliant teachers, who might want to convey the secrets of their personal enthusiasm and deeper feelings about the subject to the students, are required to stick to the curriculum and judged on their capacity to do so. And here is the key to the whole quandary: if we admit that a subject matter is indeed “an area of human enquiry”, a curriculum, by definition, can only be a shabbily poor representation of it. Areas of human enquiry are just that, open spaces where surprises and discoveries are possible, where terms can and indeed often must be redefined, where motives for achieving understanding are complex and related to diverse cultural phenomena, where shifts in understanding regularly occur because people are passionately involved in digging deeper. Schools don’t like complexity because it isn’t testable. They don’t like to recognize cultural or intellectual diversity because it leads to untestable alternative interpretations and possibly even to discoveries that contradict the frozen premises built into the curriculum.

So let’s return to the world of training, where the trainer is free to decide what to teach, or indeed whether to teach or rather how to get the learners to learn. The constraints are indeed fewer, but there remains a significant one. It appears in the second question in my title: what do the learners need to learn? The real problem is that outside of purely technical subjects where knowledge can be efficiently catalogued, the question of what learners need to learn is rarely explored. The way it is handled in most cases is this: “what do employees need to show they know?” Showing what you know has very little to do with exercising the skills required in the job, unless your job is to teach others! But “showing what you know” is what schooling has always been about and because schooling is about learning, our HR luminaries are convinced that they are dealing with the real learning requirements.

And here we find the similarity between education and training. They share the same “knowledge is everything” culture of which the first axiom is, “only knowledge can be taught” and the second, “only knowledge can be tested”. The advent of e-learning should have led to greater learner autonomy, a more open space for learning and developing one’s skills. Paradoxically e-learning triggered the rise of the LMS, which has effectively turned professional training into a system modeled on that of education. In the pre-e-learning days of corporate training you attended a course and absorbed as much as possible. You were not tested. With e-learning and its enforcer, the SCORM compliant LMS, you are tracked, which in many ways sounds far more sinister than being graded. And in relation to what will you be tracked? To a curriculum, of course!

Many trainers think that they have gone well beyond this knowledge-based system of predefined curricula when they claim to teach “know-how”. But know-how, for all its implicit relationship with skill, is still dominated by the idea of knowledge, knowing how. Know-how typically breaks down into sets of memorized procedures: “do A, then check B and only then proceed to C”, or “use technique D with tool E to accomplish F”. But if understanding how is the real goal rather than just knowing how, what the learners need is to enter into an “area of human enquiry”, to identify with it and become creative contributors to it through their future actions. Along with know how, and perhaps even before it, they should be acquiring see how, sense how, feel how, be how (in the French training community we do talk about savoir être but those who do so usually bypass the perception side – seeing, feeling, hearing, sensing, physically reacting, being attuned to  —  which is the key to being*).

And this brings us back to a final point: a major debate in education, especially in the political arena where funding is the issue, now concerns whether schools and school curricula are doing enough to prepare students for the professional world. Many say the ultimate and possibly unique purpose of school should be vocational. What this frequently amounts to is a rejection of whatever vestige may remain of education’s historical “commitment” to advancing the notion of human enquiry. So the paradox comes full circle: the corporate world has increasingly aligned its human resource policies on the academic world’s notion of a knowledge-based curriculum to define training needs rather than focusing on effective ways of developing productive professional skills. And technology, which has the power to provide disruptive answers leading to creating truly effective models for skill development, has contributed to this perverse trend. At the same time education increasingly aligns with what it supposes to be corporate goals, forgetting its own historical vocation of broadening the perspectives of students and inviting them implicitly into the widest range of areas of human enquiry. Were Dwight Eisenhower still around we might be calling this the glide towards dominance of the educational-corporate complex. The only difference with the military-industrial complex is that in this case both sides are losing rather than gaining an advantage through their cumulative power: education has lost its way in the darkness by accepting to be guided by the notion of shareholder interest (the ultimate determinant of corporate purpose), and enterprises by neglecting and therefore impoverishing the human potential they need to develop their own economic advantage.

* The dominant French intellectual and philosophic tradition reduces being to the question of identity or the set of ideas one has about oneself. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is a good example. It reflects France’s characteristic individualism. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum set the tone for the entire culture. Being is thinking (about oneself).


About pisackson

The cosmos is non-linear. Sub-atomic physical reality is non-linear. Our lives are non-linear. We are persuaded by well-intentioned guides, politicians and teachers to believe otherwise, but my mission is to help people discover the joy of non-linear thinking and acting, otherwise known as...creativity.
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