Posted by: Gillian | March 30, 2010

Know how, know what, be able to – adult learning

Knowing how, knowing what and being able to – understanding the roles of each of these three is fundamental to course design or, if you are a student, to deciding how to tackle the various activities and assessments.  This holy trinity of learning is so often stated that it is good to look at it anew from the point of view of what it means for adult compilation of learning portfolios for academic purposes.  In other words, how obvious is it when, as an adult, you have amassed a lot of knowledge and want someone to give you a certificate or a degree for having done so?

Many of us remember school as a place where ‘knowing what’ was extremely important.  We learned national leaders, the Periodic Table, the names of the planets, our times tables.  We recited poems or speeches.  We played music ‘from memory’.  All this is sometimes called ‘declarative knowledge’ – we get asked it and we produce the right answers.  As we get older (wiser?), this declarative knowledge is hedged around with all sorts of ifs, buts and maybes so that we can enter philosophical discussions and refer to other experts to support one point of view or another.  If you looks at some academic papers, they are so full of references (Smith, 1956; Jones 1957; Bloggs 1990) that it becomes almost impossible to work out whether the writer has an opinion of their own.  Yet, teaching you to have and express a substantiated opinion of your own is what academic education is about.  So, it is reasonable to expect that if you want a degree, you are going to have to demonstrate this ‘knowing what’.  The question is: how?  Hold that thought for the moment.

As adults, we quickly gain ‘know how’.  This is what is also known as procedural knowledge.  Very early in our employment , somebody shows us what to do in the event of a fire in the building and we hope never to have to put this knowledge into practice.  We learn when meetings are normally held and how they are structured.  Someone may tell us that our jobs contribute to the organisational mission (heady stuff, that one).  It is all good  information fitted to a particular set of circumstances.  It does not, however, venture into the third part of the learning trinity.

Being able to do something is quite different from knowing how to do it.  No matter how many cookery programmes some people watch, they will forever turn out mushy vegetables, leaden cakes and tasteless casseroles. Knowing how a meeting ‘should’ be structured, is quite different from creating an Agenda when Ros can’t turn up until half way through and Joe won’t support an important point until he knows Ros has heard why. It is perfectly possible that someone can produce a really effective Agenda for this meeting without having any idea about the organisation’s preferred meeting structure – the ‘know how’ referred to above that gets passed from manager to junior or new colleague.

This ‘being able’ and ‘knowing how’ is also quite separate from the kind of learning that recites the names of rulers or writes sentences full of brackets and dates.  Bread recipes do not start with, “Leith (1969) suggests but Roux (2007) considers…”.  The ‘knowing what’ of academic essays is just not needed.  Yet, when it comes to portfolios of ‘evidence’ being given to universities or colleges in the hope that you can be given an academic award, somehow the working practice has to fit with ‘knowing what’.  It can feel like learning another language but without a teacher, so you practice various sounds and keep on trying new sounds and practising until you finally get a smile in return.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, the academic assessor is sitting there with a pile of ‘stuff’ that bears no resemblance to anything in the textbooks nor does it mention any recognised theories that can be applied in other situations – and someone wants a high grade for this???

Bridging this divide is the role of portfolio assessment: making sure candidates who can demonstrate ‘being able’ and even ‘knowing how’ are also able to demonstrate ‘knowing what’ so that ideas from one context can be used to solve problems in another.

The most widely used assessment framework is probably that referred to as ‘Bloom’ or ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’ which, in true academic tradition is not just the work of Bloom and comes in two major editions each with subsets.  This starts with knowledge, moves on to application and then puts ideas together or revises them.  It is not a simple ladder, you have to think of it as lots of little ladders joining up into a hierarchical organisation chart of learning.  To make the most of your portfolio, you need to be able to show you can put ideas together and revise them.  This is the essential  ‘know what – because…’ that takes learning beyond the reciting of procedural basics to something that demonstrates an ability to pick solutions – or create them – to suit specific circumstances.  School students recite procedures.  Adults and university students pick the right procedures for the right places and can say why they did what they did.

That analysis of why/what is the part where adults and universities often part company.  In academic terms, it is not enough to say, “I did A not B because procedure C said I should.”  It is also not enough to say, “I did B not A because A did not work last time.”  Fortunately, problems are rarely so odd that they are really unique.  This means other people have had similar problems and other people will have written about them.  In all likelihood, an awful lot of people will have had those problems and lots of people will have written about them.  Some of the writers will have thought about general models and come up with ideas that fits lots of situations.  If you know those, so goes the theory, when you face  a real-life problem you can take the general rules and quickly adapt them rather than having to think everything through from the beginning again.  Academic courses expect you to know those general rules and be able to apply them.  As a portfolio producer, you have to reverse the procedure and identify the theories that fit your practice.  If you can do that, the hope is that you should be able to adapt the theory the next time you meet a real-life problem and even be better at it than the person who only learned the theory from a text-book.

You do, of course, have to know what the theories are in the first place so that you can do the matching.  Some courses provide absolutely huge lists of ‘readings’ to help you with this and others provide very short prescriptive lists of models and theories that you must demonstrate.  Both have their disadvantages.  The first is obviously time: you cannot read a whole management library just to put together an undergrad portfolio.  The second is that life does not always fit a simple list of basic theories and you might genuinely need to use other theories or variants but you need to know where to look.  A set of ideas is being put together so if you have your favourites, please let me know!

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