Friday, October 10, 2014

About Learning to Learn

How to design an institution where students learn how to learn?

One would hope there may an easy formula somewhere, but the 'institution' gets in the way: Within an institutional setting, learning is often about how to master the institutional system and not about opening up to other possibilities. Within an institution, the rhetorical often trumps the philosophical. 

Yet this dependence on rhetoric is perhaps a fatal flaw when social changes dislocate the institutional position. A rhetoric-bound institution, one that champions the skills of mastering its own system, can quickly become out of sync with everything else: No wonder employers today complain that the universities don't speak their language!

Learning to learn, in more ways than one, is a philosophical exercise. It is a dialogue with oneself, rather than pursuit of intellectual superiority, and often achieved through learning things one would later discard (like understanding Newtonian physics at the undergraduate class). It is enabled by a view of the world where uncertainty of results can coexist with commitment to methods, somewhat in contrast with the rhetorical learning where the results are rather predetermined. It is embedded in humility rather than flourish, and expressed as a value rather than an ability. 

And this is why it has proved so difficult to students learn to learn: Institutions themselves are often rhetorical entities, obsessed with their own systems games. Their world is one of outcomes, rather than of methods; of processes, rather than communities; of ends, rather than the means.

Indeed, everyone talks about learning to learn these days. There is no escape as social changes force uncertainties on us. But learning to learn, in the current use, is merely limited to a strict consumer ethic of striving forever, rather than the reflexive exercise with values and purpose to make oneself a better person. Indeed, there is no place or need for a better person anywhere in the context of the consumer ethic - because one must continuously be focused on what one does not have rather than one's gifts.

In fact, the current institutions, despite their professed purpose, have proved so ineffective to preparing students to deal with uncertainties of modern life that there is increasing talk of wanting new forms of institutions. In the context of commercial demand for 'skills', the conversation was also about discarding the current institutional structure altogether, including the academic classroom, and submerging it into the commercial world, with 'employers' defining and dictating the learning process. The hope is, by doing so, one would achieve a rhetorical high ground and the students will be more 'employable' by mastering the employment game.

However, if we accept 'learning to learn' as a critical necessity for the constantly shifting realities of work, we better pay heed to the emotional and value-orientated side of this expertise rather than just the unity of language. The reflexivity, the key ability, the value orientation, the key anchor, and humility, the key characteristic, that enable learning to learn may all develop within the professional realm rather than within a given practice: Indeed, such abilities may arise from interrogating the practice from outside as a starting point. 

To make students ready for workplace, many institutions would send them out to internships, so that they learn the language of work. This very practical scheme often fall short to produce desired results because even immersion in practice as it exists in many organisation is unquestioning acceptance of its practices and rituals, an initiation in groupthink rather than an invitation to imagination. While an intern may learn to play the system, they are often disappointed when the system is changed. 

An alternative could be the distillation of the practice within an institutional context through an appreciation of the 'conversations' of the workplace: I have found the novel 'E' a fascinating device to make students talk about the life and the challenges in the advertising agencies, for example (or Fashion Babylon, for the budding Fashion Designers). My usage was indeed with the students poised for internships, so these devices were not substitutes but complements to the practical engagement, but essential to tease them into some philosophical engagement. The point of learning to learn is perhaps to ensure unified experience rather than splintered ones, and within the space of multilateral intellectual engagement rather than mimicry of practice.

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