Learning’s first principle – the most important thing i learned this year

I have spent most of my year straddled between different ideas of what it means to learn. I’ve worked with k-12 educators, with the province here in PEI, with science educators and crazy postmodern theorists. I want to talk about a thread that I’m seeing through all of my work at the moment. I see it in the (M)OOC work I’ve done for years, I’ve seen it in the ‘transition to university’ stuff I’ve been doing since 2007, and I hear it from educators chatting in bars, over christmas cakes, and at conferences. I’ve come to think of it as the ‘first principle’.

First inkling of the first principle
Credit where it’s due. As with every idea I ever write about here (and i think we’re like 200 blog posts in) it started with a conversation with smart people. In this case it was Anne Bartlett, someone who’s depth of understanding of the student experience I have learned from many times over the years. We were looking over a model of student engagement, and just kind of looked at each other and said “well… none of this matters if they don’t give a shit”.

and that’s my first principle, that i keep seeing all the time… “do they care?”.

Boring… we all know that dave
Sure. We all know that student engagement is important. It’s the connection to the framework that made all the difference for me. When you ask the ‘care->don’t care’ question first all the time, it seems to have some interesting impacts on a discussion. I was talking to a passionate educator over cake last night and she asked me how i felt about students being automatically promoted regardless of their academic success (sometimes known as social promotion). Her concern was that the students were starting to realize that grades didn’t matter anymore… that they were going to pass regardless. She cares about student success, and was concerned that without grades that had meaning, it would be difficult to get students to do their work. Then she made the mistake of asking me my opinion :). I applied my new first principle for learning

Student separate into two categories… those that care and those that don’t care.

Our job, as educators, is to convince students who don’t care to start caring, and to encourage those who currently care, to continue caring.

All kinds of pedagogy happens after this… but it doesn’t happen until this happens.

So. In this case, we’re trying to make students move from the ‘not care’ category to the ‘care’ category by threatening to not allow them to stay with their friends. Grades serve a number of ‘not care to care’ purposes in our system. Your parents may get mad, so you should care. You’ll be embarrassed in front of your friends so you should care. In none of these cases are you caring about ‘learning’ but rather caring about things you, apparently, already care about. We take the ‘caring about learning’ part as a lost cause.

The problem with threatening people is that in order for it to continue to work, you have to continue to threaten them (well… there are other problems, but this is the relevant one for this discussion). And, as has happened, students no longer care about grades, or their parents believe their low grades are the fault of the teacher, then the whole system falls apart. You can only threaten people with things they care about.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t hold kids accountable, but if we’re trying to encourage people to care about their work, about their world, is it practical to have it only work when someone is threatening them? Even if you are the most cynical personal imaginable, wouldn’t you like people to be able to do things when you aren’t actually threatening them? Are we promoting a ‘creative/knowledge economy’ by doing this? Are we building democracy? Unless you are a fascist (and i really mean that, unless you want a world where a couple of people tell everyone exactly what to do) you can’t really want the world to be this way.

Why this matters to me
The first principle matters most to me because it speaks across different disciplines. I have yet to talk to anyone, instructivist or constructivist, parent, student or teacher who doesn’t prefer learners who care over those that don’t. It directly addresses the various threats, physical or otherwise, that we have built into the education system. It allows us a place to start to engage in a conversation about why we care about education. Why we educate. Once we jointly answer questions like “why would people care about this” and “how does this support people starting to care about this for the first time” and “will this stop people who care now from caring”, we have a place to work from.

I’m in this business because i think i might be able to help, here and there, with trying to build a culture of thinkers. If our education system is designed to have people take on ideas because they are forced to, this only further supports those people who want to force people to believe things that serve their own particular agenda. It builds a culture of power accepters. It supports passivity.

I don’t believe it’s possible to design an educational experience that works for both those that care and those that don’t. Do we want to cast aside those that refuse to care? Do we only work with those that want to learn? How do we encourage people to care? If our learning experiences aren’t about making people care… what is it about?

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

30 thoughts on “Learning’s first principle – the most important thing i learned this year”

  1. Great post Dave. It often feels like the dialogue around ‘engagement’, whatever engagement actually is, centres around the teacher. After the year that I have had I am moving towards a more open understanding of ‘engagement’ that incorporates the whole space. Starting with ‘do you care?’ is not only simply, but to the point. This offers a great entry point to start an ongoing discussion. I wonder though if those students who may have been metaphorically beaten to oblivion, who say ‘they care’ as that is the answer required, but deep down seem to have forgotten what it is to care, what can be done for them. The supposed ‘lost causes’. I guess the only threat that should be made in classes is that you must make a choice?

  2. I really enjoyed this Dave. I have nothing of value to add to the conversation, but I’ll enjoy chewing on this today.

  3. Dave, thanks for bringing this up. I used to obsess about this problem when I was a graduate student, and summed up my concern as follows:

    If a student does not want to learn, they will not –
    Even in spite of good teaching.
    If a student wants to learn, they will –
    Even in spite of poor teaching.

    I say I obsessed about it, and it really did consume a lot of my cycles. ‘Why bother learning how to use all these “effective instructional strategies” when people aren’t even going to engage with them?’ I worried. I used a final project assignment as an excuse to pull together my thinking on the problem, and developed a mini-curriculum for teachers and instructional designers that I called “Getting Students Interested.”


    (This thing is so old it’s using the Open Publication License! Possibly 98 but probably 99. Either way, it hasn’t seen the light of day in over 15 years.)

    I haven’t looked at it in a while, but if there’s something useful here in terms of nudging your thinking forward – even just by giving you something that you can strongly disagree with – then the share was worth it. If it turns out there actually is something interesting in here, let’s talk about it.

    1. Thanks Aaron, Misty and David.

      Aaron the idea of students lying about caring is always a possibility 🙂 Our job, i suppose is to see through that

      Thanks Misty… don’t think i’ve seen you comment here before cheers!

      Thanks David. I’ll read it. Open Publication License eh? Students wanting to learn is the key element in every project i’m involved in right now. I’m trying to develop effective language to engage with people around it. I’ve been saying things like “you can’t feed information to apathy”

  4. Great post. This is certainly the key to all learning (all living??!!). A great passionate teacher can ignite the spark of caring in her or his students. Often, it is intricately involved with the teacher caring about the student as a whole person, and the student recognizing this. We don’t teach stuff. We teach people.
    Thanks for fanning my own flame with the wonderful message of your post.

  5. How can they care when ‘education’ is all about regimes of surveillance and testing? If at first it’s something you’re sentenced to – and then it’s something someone else designs – but you have to pay for?
    I came to this post, Dave, via Maha’s blog – and this is what I wrote there – hope you don’t mind me re-posting it here to you:
    YEARS ago when I trained to be a teacher I found *my* theorist – Carl Rogers. He said it was all about *values* (over pedagogy, over curriculum even): unconditional positive regard (love), congruence (honesty) and empathy (‘getting’ the students’ contexts). That was it for me. Yes – I added Freire (who wouldn’t) – but then he had love too. So – we love our students – and try to show it – get them to feel it and believe it. We try to get them to know and love each other – to build communities of friendship – then the communities of practice and inquiry will naturally grow – they do emerge.
    Here’s what our friend Chris put together of our Week 12 event: http://learning.londonmet.ac.uk/epacks/posters-digital/
    That’s our first years – and a few peer mentors – and this was the week that we were told would not work – last week of term – students are off home or bored or tired – just run tutorials… Well – we didn’t. We asked them to produce a Poster Exhibition of their Digital Me Projects.
    We did not show them *how* to do the Digital Me – just showed them some great #edcmooc artefacts and one of Terry Elliot’s brilliant Zeegas – and this is what they did.
    And I think it works because they could harness their love – and tell each other who they were/are… and it could be personal or really digital or a combination of the two.
    And when i got home – I cried…

  6. Thanks for bringing up an important issue. I’m troubled, however, by dividing students into two categories: those who care and those who don’t. I’m confident that very few people truly don’t care in any general sense, and those who are so damaged as to not care have issues far beyond the scope of the classroom. Rather, most people do care. They are motivated to connect to the world of things and ideas outside themselves; however, they may not be motivated to connect to whatever I’m bringing to the classroom.

    The issue for me, then, is more the mismatch between my students’ desires to connect and what I, or the curriculum, wants them to connect to. Almost all my students want to connect to certain people, ideas, skills, and professions, but most of them do not want to connect to academic writing, the subject I happen to teach. Schools are not adept at, or even interested in, identifying students’ existing interests and playing to those interests. We should be. There is great capital in students’ interests and desires for connection, and we are squandering it.

    1. You’re right of course, Keith. Those kinds of broad categorizations cause all kinds of bad thinking later on.

      Does sound like a fit for community curriculum doesn’t it 🙂 #rhizo15

  7. One of the big benefits of community curriculum is precisely that it does play to people’s interests and desires to connect. Those desires—as varied as the people who have them—drive the emergence of the community. Rhizo14 is a fine case in point. It was the strong desires of the community that made it happen, and you arranged the course to allow those desires to come into play. The question now is if facilitators can go beyond creating an open, attractive space to play in and find ways to help people who might otherwise ignore the space connect to that space.

  8. Dave,
    Thanks for this post. I was for many years a middle school life science teacher. My students frequently reported that they really found themselves liking science for the first time, which was of course very gratifying to hear. I think, though, what was happening was that they found themselves caring about learning science for the first time.

  9. Easy to say, so hard to do.

    But yes, it is that simple – we are fire starters. The key is teaching others to also start their own fires, even more importantly, guard their own fires. It’s that simple – like those days of Australopithecus long ago.

    You alluded to something important – compulsion. It has to come from within. It’s not that you know how to start a fire – it’s that you are cold enough, hungry enough to start that fire. But making things compulsory, being there, having to do, is no way to help kids get fired up.

    My only wish is for teachers to be trained in special ed. All teachers. We got to start from the ground up ……


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