No. 6: Creating Significant Learning Experiences
The author begins this book in a truly maddening fashion. If I hadn’t needed to finish at least half of it for class I wouldn’t have bothered reading past page 5. The opening quote, which inspired the title (probably not the ideas though, as we’ll see later) actually turns “teachers” into a pejorative: “We won’t meet the needs for more and better higher education until professors become designers of learning experiences and not teachers.” What in the world is teaching, if not designing learning experiences? Any class you plan ahead of time (teaching out of the copy of Wired you read on the bus that morning does count) is a designed learning experience; it may not be a good one, but it fits the descriptor.
For the next few pages he goes on a remarkably cliche rant about traditional methods and citing graduates’ lack of knowledge as an indictment of those lazy professors who “repeat the same practices…for years.” He suggests that a college graduate’s inability to date the Civil War between 1850 and 1900 is the result of poor college instruction, but I’m pretty sure that should have been covered more than once by eighth grade. You can forgive a prof for not including it on the American History exam.
He also suggests that students who take an intro class freshman year (with no later courses in the discipline) should be able to remember the specifics of the material 5 or 10 years later. This is horrifically unrealistic, and makes for an unhelpful criticism.
Webs, Not Ladders
I was obviously having a difficult time reading this book until I came to the following passage explaining Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning. The taxonomy is made up of six focal points
- Foundational Knowledge: This is the basic content of a subject
- Application: focuses on how to use the information; engages “critical, creative, and practical thinking”
- Integration: connecting ideas from different realms of life, subjects, and within the subject at hand
- Human Dimension: Learning about themselves and others in relation to the material
- Caring: developing new feelings, interests and values (about the subject or object of study)
- Learning How to Learn: not in the sense of learning strategies, but in the sense of a) learning research practices, and b) recognizing their own learning abilities and how to maximize them.
His explanation of what could have been a truly mundane “new idea” has helped me put into words some nagging thoughts I’ve had about the cognitive and affective taxonomies and the separation of teaching goals.
“One important feature of this taxonomy is that it is not hierarchical but rather relational…achieving any one kind of learning simultaneously enhances the possibility of achieving the other kinds of learning as well. […]
“And this in turn means that teaching is no longer a zero-sum game. That is, teachers don’t automatically have to give up one kind of learning to achieve another. (32)”
I was sitting at Barnes & Noble when I read this. I sat back in my chair and said aloud, “Oh wow. Very nice.” Then I just stared at the page for a while, trying to adjust to the major reversal of my feelings toward this book. I had complained to my wife about the first section, so I sent her a text message: “This guy just crossed over from wank to freakin’ genius.”
In a class lecture on postmodernism last semester my prof remarked that postmodernity “is what it is.” This thread of his discussion basically stated that, while we can’t all agree on exactly what defines postmodernism, we all agree that there is a distinct period of time, The Modern Era, which is now ending. The period prior was premodernity, and now we are seeing the birth of postmodernity—simply understood as the time that follows Modernity.
The discussion was freeing because it allowed me to look beyond the specific philosophical and political conclusions the “postmoderns” (who we evangelicals are diametrically opposed to) are coming to, and acknowledge that as someone who has grown up in this time period I am postmodern, and there are foundational (or antifoundational) understandings that tie my philosophical generation together.
One of those is the understanding that systems are rarely linear or hierarchical, and can usually be better described as webs or matrices. I was having a difficult time reading Creating Significant Learning Experiences until I came to this passage explaining his Taxonomy of Significant Learning. But his explanation of what could have been a truly mundane “new idea” has helped me put into words some nagging thoughts I’ve had about the cognitive and affective taxonomies and the separation of teaching goals.
I think the remainder of this book, based on this non-hierarchical taxonomy, is very forward-thinking. This is the first education book I’ve read that is actually describing a new way to do things. They all say they are, but tend to be rehashings of debates and suggestions we’ve been engaged with for 80 years or more. But Fink has managed to tap into a true postmodern insight here. What’s more, it doesn’t seem like he even recognizes the influence.
I’m not a fan of Fink’s writing style, but these ideas could be the starting point of something that could change the way we plan and practice education. If anyone’s paying attention, that is.