Saturday, October 17, 2009

Learning and Education

There's an interesting, if superficial, difference between the program I am in and the comparable one at Harvard. What Stanford calls "Learning, Design, and Technology," Harvard calls "Technology, Innovation, and Education." I'm sure I'll be offering reflections on all three of the components of my program over the course of the year, but I want to start with "learning," because, on some level, it is the primary focus of the program. The LDT program takes place in the School of Education, after all.

Why do we chose "learning" over "education" in the title of the program? Is it just an aesthetic thing, or is there really a substantive, if philosophical difference between the two? On a visceral level, "education" strikes me as a more institutional term than "learning." Education is what happens in school, or during some king of training. We talk about "informal learning," but rarely do you hear "informal education." What's more, education seems to be an active process. For education to happen, you need an educator of some kind. Learning, while certainly facilitated by a teacher, emphasizes the recipient. You need only a learner for there to be learning.

What is learning, then, as opposed to education? Learning is what happens to an individual, while education is what someone - or something like a school or a computer program - tries to make happen to an individual. Learning and education can happen simultaneously, of course, but it seems it's entirely possible to have learning without education and education without learning. Indeed, we might say there's far too much education without learning in the world/

As tempting as it is to ascribe a morality to learning and education, it seems to me that learning is amoral, in its essence. We may learn not only about things that are cruel, unjust, frightening, and unfair, but we may also learn how to do those things. The old harping against violence on TV or in video games is based on this principle: we are always learning, and the things we are exposed to determine what we learn. I don't know that education is similarly amoral, but it certainly tends towards an agenda in a way that learning does not. Because education is the act of one person on another, it is purposeful, directed (even if the outcome is unexpected), and therefore related to some system of values. We may not agree with the moral structure of a given lesson (a Christian may not approve of a secular education, for example), but it is hard to deny that there is a value-judgment in education as to what is worth teaching.

According to Dewey, our experiences build on each other, and it is the job of the educator to make sure that the learning that is always happening - whether we like it or not - is directed in a way that is sensible, practical, fulfilling, and stimulating. This vision of education and learning is largely agreed upon because it is so intuitive: of course we cannot put things into people's heads, we can only provide them with a series of experiences that culminate in a certain kind of knowledge.

Questions like "What is knowledge?" or "What is experience?" rear their heads, at this point, but I'll resist their urges. Rather, I want to offer a working definition of this thing we call learning. Learning is consciousness over time. I'm reminded of the joke, "time exists so that everything doesn't happen all at once, and space exists so that everything doesn't happen to you." Because things happen in a sequence, we try to process those things and therefore strive to put our experiences together in a logical, meaningful way. We cannot, even if we try, avoid learning. We may not learn things that an educator might call valuable (or that we might call valuable), but we learn just the same.

Stanford's program strikes me as a bit more abstracted than Harvard's, for this reason, though in reality there is likely little difference between the fundamentals of the curricula. We'll be competing for the same jobs, reading the same research, and doing the same kinds of projects. Nevertheless, the spiritual difference is meaningful. Is it more important to understand the process of bestowing knowledge and experience, or the processes by which people acquire knowledge and experience? I'm not sure, and even though I'm sure Stanford and Harvard - and any other school with a similar program - will try to address both sides of that issue, I think understanding learning is probably more fundamental and certainly more philosophical than understanding education.

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