Monday, July 21, 2014

Is It Possible That We Actually Loathe Learning?

Even those who profess to love it most?

I went to a conference recently. The topic was: learning. More specifically, “instructional design,” which is: how to plan a learning experience so that people actually learn, and maybe even enjoy it or find it meaningful. (Imagine.)

There were three presenters. They were smart, experienced and thoughtful. They’d all published books. I was positively impressed in every way.

In every way but one.

Every single presenter got up and told us the most wonderful methods for creating great, effective learning experiences. They talked about the brain and cognitive research and technology options and design methods. All three brought forth a wealth of ideas. And I’m grateful for what I learned.

But not a single speaker used the methods she described.

Not one.

Not for a moment.

One showed images to represent the ideas. One told anecdotes. Another used the Socratic Method and asked questions.

And none of these methods were the speaker’s topic.

I wish this were a kind of temporary aberration: something unusual about these three experts. But I’m afraid it’s not.

But in my experience, whenever experts in learning get together, you can count on one thing: they will never practice what they preach. I don’t think I’ve ever seen even a single presentation about learning, teaching or pedagogy which actually used the methods it described. Gave examples, sure. But not used, not thoroughly, not even for three minutes.

Is it possible that those who seem to care most about learning secretly loathe it? What is the explanation for talking about learning without taking care that we make it happen?

One element at work here is surely what I have called The Piehole Illlusion: the mistaken belief that if it comes out of my piehole, it will go straight into the listener’s brain. Mission accomplished. Case closed.

It’s easy to understand. The speaker thinks “I have all these ideas, so I’ll just tell them.

This is like thinking: “I have the most wonderful idea for a novel…I’ll just write it down.” Of course, we all know: that’s not ‘writing a novel.’ (Or, as Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s writing in On the Road: “That’s not writing––it’s typing!”

One of my mother’s favorite jokes sheds light on this topic.
An expert is asked by an organization to give a speech on a topic the expert knows well.
Organization: “We’d like a ten-minute speech.”
Expert: “I’ll need two months to prepare.”
Organization: “What about a 30-minute speech?”
Expert: “I can have that for you in a month.”
Organization: “What about a three-hour speech?”
Expert: “Oh, I could do that right now.”

This is a longer version of Montaigne’s famous comment at the end of a letter: “Sorry for writing such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.”

It’s a lovely witticism, because it’s counter-intuitive that the amount of time it takes to write something is not proportional to the ultimate length of the thing written. Good writing is, at a minimum, compressed: just as Montaigne squeezed a complex thought into two phrases.

This is rhetoric: thinking about your audience, about where they are and how to act upon them, thinking about what strategy you will use, how you will express what you have to say effectively and efficiently.

And that of course is the point of Montaigne’s bon mot and of the joke my mother likes so well. It’s the same absurdity involved in simply “telling” or “writing down” one’s thoughts. (It's also happening in Montaigne's bon mot.)

In all these cases, what comes to the surface is: writing is work, and work of course takes time. It’s hard work to help another understand an idea or acquire a new idea, skill, habit or disposition––just as it’s hard work to change oneself through learning.

So is that it? Do we avoid making learning happen when the very topic is learning because of some misunderstanding about communication being work? (I’m ruling out sheer laziness, since the people involved have no fear of hard work.)

What’s going on when those who in theory know the most about learning cannot use any of the methods that they know so very well? What is a reasonable explanation for the failure of the most learning-centric actually to be learning-centric?

Perhaps we don't hate learning so much as fear it.

Learning is change. In the most powerful learning, we become something different from what we were. Yes, we can just accrue factoids. Yes, we can just have our existing beliefs confirmed; we can become more aware of our own assumptions.

But when learning is really transformative, we ourselves are actually changed. This is the power of learning––and also what makes learning unfathomable and scary.

In a powerful change, you can’t foresee what you will become. And after the change, you can hardly grasp what you used to be.

I remember hearing an NPR story (probably on This American Life) about a hearing-impaired man who did not know sign language. After he learned, he could no longer remember what it was like not to know.
In a very different frame, it’s hard to remember what it was like when you did not know that Santa Claus was your parents.

Not all learning is this dramatic a change. But when your paradigm shifts, when you learn something that re-shapes and re-arranges what you knew and believed and did before, there is a point-of-no-return.

Learning in this sense is unstable, frightening, unknowable. To learn may mean to begin a journey which leads––we know not where, and we cannot know, because the person who begins the journey is not the same person who ends it. And that loss of self is something fearful.

The typical way cultures handle such transformations of identity is: through rituals. And I’ve written before about how learning demands and can be supported by and conceptualized as a sort of ritual facilitation. Learning itself isn’t magic: the underlying principles are scientific. But learning may require a bit of magic.

Some mental processes might be so deeply intertwined with personality structures that cultural rituals might actually be required so that the changes of self do not become overwhelming. Good teaching supports a change that goes to the very bottom of our personhood, and this might explain why great learning experiences get remembered with such intense feelings––even of reverence and awe.

A great teacher doesn’t mind being a sort of shaman-priest. That’s one reason there are so few of them. Magic is some tricky stuff, and who today wants to align herself with magic when science and technology are the Big Noise?

Experts on learning, on the other hand, perhaps fully aware of what they’re messing with, perhaps wisely shrink back from that risky semi-magical role.

So in a way: three cheers for both great teachers and wise experts on learning. Each ‘knows’ her topic in a different way. It’s like the difference between being a good chemist and being a good cook: the chemist knows why the cook’s recipes work; whereas the cook uses the chemistry to create a delightful experience. Each kind of knowledge has its own kind of value, and we stumble when we fail to cherish knowledge in all its diverse forms and habits––as is true for all forms of life.

But I will not cease to wish that the learning experts could practice just a bit of what they preach, in part because I take the word “preach” quite seriously.

And also because there is not enough magic in the world today, and we need every bit we can get.

––Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.


  1. Authentication process ate my comment, but the briefer form is this: I'm more worried about those who don't care than those who harbor antipathy, and my concern is that prominent instructional technology speakers don't actually care about the learning. They care about showing up, delivering a training, and moving on. In fact, they mostly just care about moving on, about discovering something new for themselves. Perfectly human, but caring for others (like magic) is hard work both in short and long duration. It's also difficult to demonstrate, quantify, and reproduce (quickly, at least).

    1. I like the comparison of magic and caring. No simple formula for either.

      I agree that people who focus on technology often forget the user. I fear it somewhat comes with the territory.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Exactly. The experts might be making the wiser (cop-out) choice, until our "ritual" behaviors at professional development conferences somehow (magically?) change. I gave a presentation on using ThingLink ( ) to set up resources that walk students through tasks, allowing them to access help when they needed it, rather than telling them a bunch of helpful information at the beginning of class and hoping that they would remember it correctly when it was necessary. Participants were given challenges that progressed them through the TL image creation process. To model the type of classroom activity that they could build, I gave very little instruction up front but gave them a TL image that would give them help with each task if they needed it. The overall result, according to the end-of-session survey, was in most cases positive about ThingLink as a tool, but negative about the session (although some liked it). They wanted me to stand in the front of the room and lecture them through the process, everyone at the same pace, doing the same steps, which is completely contrary to the point of the session. Trying to model the style of teaching/learning that was at the heart of this ed tech conference kind of bit me in the rear. I feel like I can't be disappointed in the audience for being unwilling to jump in and explore the challenge given to them, because that's not the conference "ritual" that they are use to. So instead I feel disappointed in myself for taking what I knew was a big instructional risk: challenging what the audience expected to do in my session. The answer is probably to land somewhere in the middle (as with most instructional false dichotomies), and to take the modeling back a few notches, but I can't help but feel a bit hypocritical/pandering in doing this.

    1. It sounds like your method was great, @esuid. They liked your content but not your method of presenting. And yet your method was exactly a mirror of the content!

      Perhaps when we go to conferences, we are in a somewhat lazy, tired frame. We want to be served knowledge, even though we have to line for our food. (Maybe if the food were served to us, we'd be more sanguine about lining up for knowledge?)

      Thanks for sharing this experience. It's so exactly on-point.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.