Posted by: Gillian | December 12, 2008

We learn because we want to

Something exciting is happening in countless households and organisations the world over:

  • Discovery
  • Integration
  • Application.

A recipe may have been adjusted, an advertising campaign given a new twist, a lightweight polymer developed for a racing car used to make a more comfortable leg brace: the possibilities are endless.

People are having fun: they are engaged with what they are doing.  In fact, they are having so much fun, they tell others about what they are doing and get them to have a go at doing either the same thing or something similar.  But hang on, some people call that ‘teaching’ and, while the eyes of teachers may light up and happy students agree, many others will be disappointed.  They were having fun until it got called something else, something serious.

Now what happens if those disappointed people are reminded that the elements of the fun – discovery, integration, application and teaching, according to Boyer, or those four plus engagement, according to Druck – are grouped together to be ‘scholarship’?  If teaching was scary, scholarship must be worse.  The label implies universities, tests, getting the ‘experts’ (the academics) to approve.

In his recent, excellent, paper Chris Druck asks, “Why did extramural fail to engage in the era of engagement?”  He concludes that ‘clarity of purpose’ within the university environment is part of the problem.  Extramural, in what has become the (UK) Universities Association for Lifelong Learning (UALL) remit, is the part of university life concerned with the part-time, possibly off-campus learner.  Chris makes his argument clearly and that is one side of the coin.  Probably the more important side, but still only one side.

The other side of the coin is the reaction of those who are targeted for ‘engagement’, those who were enjoying discovery, integration and application.  They were doing just fine without the universities and notions of scholarship so what is in it for them? One could argue that it is necessary to have proof of an educated workforce in order to compete in a global economy and, for that, individuals must have qualifications so the informal lifelong learner who engages with formal, assessed, university education is increasing their own marketability and displaying true citizenship by increasing national social capital.  Hmm: I can go and spend an hour having fun getting on with my project in the workshop or I can increase national social capital.  Not the easiest sell in the world.  Implicitly, the establishment is saying that what the individual values as interesting and worth perfecting is not actually good enough.

As all good teachers know, if you value what a student has done, show genuine interest in it, then let the student select and try a next step, the student will almost always apply themselves to the task and prepare for the stage beyond that.  Mentoring and facilitation replace didacticism.

Does this mean that I think adults should not engage with universities?  No, of course not: almost all my work involves universities and ‘making learning possible’ for employed adults who frequently already have some form of higher education qualification.  The difference, however, is that the learners are partners in the process from the very beginning, stating their needs and working to mutually acceptable solutions.  Often the learning required is not narrowly defined job skills but more  abstract, less easy to measure.  Many universities offer this type of programme very successfully but, somehow, that historical lexicon of extramural scholarship described by Duke has repeatedly failed to include flexible, tailored, top-up and needs-related exploratory learning that, if not designed by the learners, is at least requested by them.  Genuine partnerships between adult learners and higher education institutions already exist.  As learners and as providers, let’s forget the jargon and the school-like terminology and just encourage partnership.

Boyer, E. (1990), Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, Princeton NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
Duke, C. (2008), “Trapped in a Local History: why did extramural fail to engage in the era of engagement?” in Ad-Lib Issue 36, November 2008 Journal for Continuing Liberal Adult Education, University of Cambridge


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