You know what you need… you need a learning contract.

I’ve been away from my dearly beloved blog for the past few months working on twinning recruitment and transitions at my university… more on this another day. Suffice it to say that I opened my big mouth and someone said “oh yeah, that’s a good idea, why don’t you do that” and now i’m trying to do it.

In the midst of a discussion with a colleague here at the university about preparing first-year students for success the topic turned to teaching. She was describing her business class. She teaches a scenario based class where students are expected to learn from each other… both in the way they represent content but, more importantly, in the way that they react and interact. Her story epitomizes the challenges and opportunities of teaching openly – of embracing the uncertainty of learning.

The emptiness of content
– We talked about how it didn’t make sense to have a textbook for this course and how she couldn’t simply ‘tell them what to do’ because what she was teaching them was complex.

In an excellent conversation with Frances Bell a few weeks ago she reminded me that reifications are very useful. Our use of language is at least partially a process of taking things that are complex “a feeling of love for someone” and finding a single word that represents it ‘love’. What I might mean by that word in the context of a hammock that I want to nap in or related to my 5 year old daughter is entirely hidden in the context. This is true of most things. When we teach we are often tempted to reach a little further and ‘define’ those words as if they mean ‘one thing’. Think of the evil ‘blended learning’ as a useful example, and imagine how many separate and often contradictory definitions of it you’ve heard. Think of how we use the word ‘open’ or, worse, read my 3000 word blog post on the subject.

Sometimes it’s very, very useful to think of content in its reified sense. Imagine you are learning introductory anatomy… you simply need to know what some things are called in order to be able to participate in the broader discussion. The same is true for philosophy, if you can’t wrap your mind around ‘a posteriori’ or ‘epistemology’ you aren’t going to understand much of what’s going on. But that’s the tables and chairs of learning… the place settings. There’s no real food there. This is not, in any way i would support, knowing.

It’s a useful shorthand to get you started.

Cognitive dissonance
– We talked about how her course reflected her own experience as a professional

But this shorthand is often what faculty understand as learning. They want to introduce students to concepts from a given field and then have those students prove that they have acquired them. Knowing, then, is the ability to exhibit content the same way for each student.

And this approach is antithetical to what they have learned from their life experience. Any good manager knows that, outside of an assembly line, you want people working to their strengths. Coaches know this. Parents know this. Friends know this. If we’re going on a road trip together, I am not the person that you give the to do list to. No amount of teaching is going to make me the to do list guy.

We all come from different contexts, with different strengths and aspirations, and too often the sameness of the content we are expected to ‘exhibit’ in the classroom tries to turn learning into an assembly line. It’s possible that this was a necessary evil when we were tied to paper books, but that time (given digital access) has simply passed.

Myth of Assessment
– We talked about how assessment tends to control parts of the course, even where she tries to resist it.

A big chunk of the reason we are tied to this empty content is the need for formalized summative assessment. At its best, summative assessment represents desire to be fair to the students, to deal with them all equally, to make the system measurable. At its worst, it’s a cowardly system of control and coercion that stands instead of experience and a willingness to engage.

There are a ton of ways that assessment impedes an open approach to learning, but lets just consider it here in terms of content. In order to be able to fairly assess between two people, you would need to measure them on the same rubric. The more the content is similar, the more equitable the measurement, and the less representative of the learner.

And so we play. I’ll leave a little more room for judgement there and take on the extra 10 minutes a paper that it will cost me in the grading process. I’ll standardize that thing over there, or this will take too long… etc… etc…

By the time its all done, how much are we measuring the students willingness to comply with our demands and how much are we contributing to learning?

Need for a social contract
– We talked about how some hard working students were always confused by the lack of clear objectives… they felt the course was ‘disorganized’.

The most interesting part of open learning, for me, is the need for the establishment of a new social contract. In our traditional learning environment, students are in the business of divining the desires of the teacher. The teacher, in most traditions, is responsible for making those desires as explicit and as clear as possible. I teach. You learn. Learning is defined by what i wish to teach.

In many open learning environments, and certainly in what I like to call ‘rhizomatic learning’, that model goes out the window. We have a planned topic of conversation, and the goal is still learning, but learning is something that happens as an act of participation. I am, an your instructor, willing to take on the responsibility of judging whether you are ‘getting enough’ of something or not, but not necessarily what that something might be, nor by measuring it against a perfect something.

She wants her students to become professionals… but not necessarily the same kind of professional, and not necessarily like her. That requires a re-negotiation of the ground rules.

The Learning Contract
– So i said “what you need is a learning contract.”

The concept of a learning contract was presented to me by one of my students at the end of a course i was teaching. He said “you know, I really like the way you teach, but you need a learning contract to make this make sense. I had one in a class I took a few years ago… you should look into it”. And I did.

The upshot of it is… that you can create a ‘contract’ between you and each student that serves the place of a syllabus, a textbook, an assessment model and a social contract. This is the contract i taught from this year…

I’m fascinated by how so many folks seem to have the same response to it that I did the first time I started reading about it – “this is exactly what i need.” It’s a simple concept – come to an agreement with people about what they want to work on, how much they want to work, who’s responsible for what and what everyone expects from the time you’re going to spend together.

I’d love to see some more models from others… and hear how people arrived at them.

I think of them as a particularly human way of thinking about learning.

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