Anything But Learning: An Imaginary Dialogue

Surely these guys know what they're doing, right?

Some months back, I wrote about our society's weird inability to look at and think about learning. We'll give students hardware, design games for them to play--anything but think seriously about learning, how it happens, what supports it, what blocks it.

As an instructional designer, I work with professors, and I often find that even those who care deeply about learning are looking for an easy fix: a computerized something-or-other which will help them skip over all the hard parts and get right to the learning.

Hence, I often find the same conversation happening again and again, with slight variations. Here is what that conversation would look like, if I could say what I really want.

Professor:   I've found the most wonderful new thing-a-ma-bob.

Instructional Designer: Truly?

Professor:   Yes. I'm having some thing-a-ma-bob engineers create a few for my students.

Instructional Designer: I see.

Professor:  It's a good idea, isn't it?

Instructional Designer:  Well, let me ask you this. You're an expert in the discipline of x-ology, right?

Professor:  And proudly so!

Instructional Designer: And when you have an x-ological problem, you know what to do.

Professor: I sure do!

Instructional Designer: And if you don't know how to solve it--

Professor: I consult with colleagues or read the literature of my field. 

Instructional Designer: Of course you do.

Professor:   I'd be a fool not to.

Instructional Designer: So what about learning?

Professor:  What about it.

Instructional Designer: You want your students to learn, yes?

Professor:  Of course!  

Instructional Designer: So why consult a thing-a-ma-bob engineer?

Professor:  Well, he's an expert in thing-a-ma-bob's, and nowadays people are using thing-a-ma-bob's to learn. You're pulling my leg, right? Surely you've heard of this.

Instructional Designer: Of course I have. But thing-a-ma-bob engineers know tons about thing-a-ma-bobs--

Professor:  And nothing about learning?

Instructional Designer: I was going to say: no more about learning than most people.

Professor: You're just being a professional now. You want everyone to consult an instructional designer or neuroscientist or educational psychologist every time she walks into a classroom.

Instructional Designer: Not every time. But now and again.

Professor: But I know what I want the students to learn! The thing-a-ma-bob engineer just has to build it.

Instructional Designer: Do you? Do you know?

Professor:  Yes! They're learning Arcane Topic Zed. 

Instructional Designer: But that's where an instructional designer can help. What about Arcane Topic Zed are they learning?

Professor:  Oh just the basics, you know. Nothing fancy.

Instructional Designer: But what must the learn to do? To recall, to distinguish, to apply, to synthesize?

Professor:  Well, the answer is very complicated. 

Instructional Designer: Which is why a thing-a-ma-bob engineer is not your ideal partner. You don't go to an engineer and ask "build me a house." The engineer would say "you need an architect to make a plan." And the architect would say "What kind of house? To do what? To house how many? In what seasons? With what hobbies?"

Professor:   And you're the architect.

Instructional Designer: Well, designers design. They help create a plan with specifications.

Professor:  Then can I get the thing-a-ma-bob engineer to build it?

Instructional Designer: To your heart's content.

Of course: in life, you don't get to have that conversation. The professor can do as she likes. And you really just want to partner with this person, so you don't get to lecture her on the value you provide.

Instead you must wait and look for the opportunity to provide that value--so you can demonstrate by actions and results what it is you do.

And meanwhile: blog about it.

--Edward R. O'Neill


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