Sunday, August 26, 2007

Learning Versus Certification

Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. ..Back where I come from we have universities, seats of great learning -- where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts -- and with no more brains than you have.... But! They have one thing you haven't got! A diploma! (The Wizard of Oz)

One of most important--and troubling--insights that has come to my years of working in schools is that many, if not most, "learning organizations," (be they colleges, universities, or private companies) are not in the business of promoting learning. They are in the business of providing certification, either in the form of diplomas, degrees, or certificates of professional accreditation.

I have witnessed--and participated--in countless lectures, workshops, and half/full day seminars whose stated intention was to "promote learning". This despite the fact that in my many years of formal education, I retained very little knowledge from lecture-based teaching events--especially those which did not provide opportunities to apply and practice the knowledge I was supposed to be acquiring.

In the early days of my teacher-training, I was fortunate to study with Dr. Jeff Golub, a pioneer in the Active Learning movement. Dr. Golub often railed against the inefficiency of lecture-based education. He compared the educational establishment's dependence on lectures to a man whipping a dead horse. The horse won't move, but the man won't dismount. He just whips the horse faster.

The comparison that comes to
my mind springs from the classic British sitcom "Fawlty Towers." In one episode, the inane hotel owner Basil Fawlty has to explain to his more sensible wife Sybil why the repairman he has hired hasn't competently fixed the leaky pipes in the hotel. Basil protests that any criticism of the repairman's efforts are unfair since the repairman "really isn't a plumber." Why then, his frustrated wife retorts, did you hire him?

The answer? "Because he's cheap."

That, in a nutshell, is why schools and "training" organizations rely so heavily on lectures. The expense of throwing one "expert" into a classroom armed only with chalk, a blackboard, and a working pair of lungs is far less costly than investing in quality instructional design which might lead to classroom environments that would foster effective, longterm learning.

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