Learning is messy. It starts. It stops. It’s prismatic and elusive. Learners make progress, regress and then make giant leaps forward in understanding and ability. Some concepts and skills come quickly and easily, while others are hard-won. Learning, in other words — while fundamental to what it means to be human — remains somewhat of an enigma.
Since leaving the confines of formal education, I’ve found just how messy learning can be. I’ve found that for most people it’s an intensely personal journey, something that not only is important for employment and contribution to society, but for self-actualization and human flourishing. Sometimes, but not always, it’s emotional. Joy, frustration, anguish, surprise, confusion, and excitement are just some of the emotions I’ve witnessed while watching people learn.
There’s nothing wrong with training pathways. They’re perfect for compliance and for ensuring a minimum standing. However, we shouldn’t confuse training with learning.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines ‘learning’ as:
a process which leads to the modification of behaviour or the acquisition of new abilities or responses, and which is additional to natural development by growth or maturation.
Learning, then, is related to activity and experience. An individual is said to have ‘learned’ something when their experiences lead to the re-shaping of their future behaviour. For example, someone learning to swim may or may not have intended to kick their legs in a way that keeps them afloat. However, intentional or otherwise, we can say that they’ve learned if that experience leads to them doing it again.
This makes learning related, but distinct from ‘training’ — which the OED defines as:
sustained instruction and practice (given or received) in an art, profession, occupation, or procedure, with a view to proficiency in it.
Training attempts to provide a series of activities in which a particular type of learning takes place. This may be aimed at modifying actions, intentions or habits, but is often less about self-discovery and more about following a series of steps that lead to the individual being able to reproduce knowledge or action. Continuing with the swimming example, a coach might ask someone to perform a series of seemingly-unrelated activities involving their head, legs and arms. When combined, this might result in a recognizable stroke such as butterfly.
It follows that creating a training pathway is easier than creating a learning pathway, as the latter has to take a more holistic view of the learner. A training pathway is likely to require proof of a certain level of skill or knowledge before the individual can embark upon it. Formal education systems, at least as far as I have experienced them as a learner and a teacher, are training pathways in theory, but learning pathways in practice. What I mean by this is that the sequence of activities in curriculum-based schemes of work presupposes linear progression. This is a templated approach to the development of knowledge and skills.
In practice, however, this is often vastly different. Learners either consciously or unconsciously subvert linear pathways; and teachers take abstract, context-free, sanitized curricula and bring learning alive through tangents and captivating personalized ‘hooks.’ It is the skill of great teachers to take training pathways and make them into learning pathways. They recognize that personally-directed learning is powerful, but can lead to negative, as well as positive, consequences. Learning pathways are riskier, but more rewarding than training pathways.
In essence, teachers form a buffer between the naive view of learning as training (i.e. a linear sequence of discrete events), and learning as it really happens. The question remains, then, how can learning be scaffolded? How can we move people from where they are now to where they would like to be, while avoiding a one-size-fits all ‘training’ approach?
One way is to adopt a Project Based Learning (PBL) approach, also known as learning by doing or making. Using this methodology, theory and practice are not divorced from one another, but instead sit together and are activated by experience. One of the difficulties with PBL is that because each learning pathway is unique, the means by which that learning is assessed must also be unique. This becomes time-consuming and, therefore, tends to be avoided on a mass scale.
We have a chance to do something different when learning happens on, or through, the web. We have the opportunity to think differently about the relationship between learning and training, and the status of the “learner” and of the “teacher.” Instead of choosing one or the other, we can merge learning and training, and allow learners at some points to be teachers, reinforcing their learning and increasing the pool of mentors to new learners.
Pathways for Web Literacy and Contribution
Mozilla cares about web literacy for the reasons outlined in this white paper. We’re interested in increasing the number of people contributing their time to keep the web open and free; and we believe that developing their web literacy is the way to help them do this. We have a global Webmakerprogram, comprising the tools, resources and community for helping people teach the web. What we’re working on next is a series of contribution and web literacy pathways.
It’s early days, but we move quickly. Much of the work has been led by my colleague Chloe Varelidi who has been doing some Gates Foundation-funded work with a team of games designers. Their fresh perspective has led to pathways that look like this:
You can play with the prototype that Chloe and her team came up with in the first half of 2014 at discover.openbadges.org. What you’ll notice is that there is a playful element to the pathways, as well as cross-pathway badges recognising “soft” skills. One of my favourites is “ResiliANT.”
To get this badge you have to:
Endure difficult situations in your personal or professional life.
Demonstrate resilience by overcoming challenges in an effective manner.
It’s worth noting that this criteria-based approach means that there are many different ways in which an individual could obtain this badge. It does not presuppose a particular context.
This criteria-based approach is something we have used with Webmaker contribution badges and our new Web Literacy ‘maker’ badges. For example, the Webmaker Mentor badge has criteria across three areas we deem important: web literacy, teaching and learning, and community contribution. The applicant has to fulfill all of the criteria to be issued The Mentor badge. With the Web Literacy badges, because the focus is equally upon making, we’ve opted to allow the applicant to choose which of the criteria they want to meet.
The next steps for this work, as far as I see it, is to provide learners options based on their existing knowledge and skills. By meeting learners where they’re at, rather than prescribing a single, linear pathway, we are more likely to keep them wanting to know more, do more and do better.
Learning may be messy, but we shouldn’t try to sanitize it and resort to training people instead of helping them learn. By moving from a one-size-fits-all to a criteria-based learning through doing/making approach we allow for serendipity. And we allow for learners to surprise us with their creativity and humanity.