Sunday, March 01, 2015

Three Objections to Learning from Experience

It is fashionable now to talk about knowing-doing gap, but this emanates from the underlying assumption that knowing and doing are two different things, to be undertaken differently (See my earlier post, Knowing and Doing - Are They Different?). This dualism, which separates thought from action, ideas from deeds, and reflection from activities, is institutionalised in our universities, which is perhaps creating the knowing-doing gap by design. Notwithstanding the popularity of capstone projects, study tours and work placements, which, by design, remain off-curriculum and almost reluctantly indulged, the idea of the university promotes itself as a safe space to do the thinking outside the challenges of our daily lives, accentuating the dualism rather than seeking to reconcile it. 

It has become, more by default than design, my occupation to seek to bring learning and work closer together. This prompts me to think and to question, as I am attempting now, the model of the learning at the university, and particularly this deliberate disconnection from the messy world of everyday life. And, it is not just the knowing-doing gap that we get from this monastic ideal of education. The idealised paradigm of pure theory often dictate our social policies, professions and even ideas of life, and all too often, our failure to understand the world and respond to ground realities lead to bad policies, aloof professions and broken lives. 

However, my proposition that we must seek to bring knowing and doing closer together is usually met with three distinct objections. The first is that learning from experience is slow, and one may not, without the benefit of theory, understand the deeper causes and implications of success and failure. The second is that such learning from experience is risky, and to learn, one must have risk-free experience which is an oxymoron. And, the third is that learning from experience, while it may establish skills and abilities, may fall short of enabling values, which must be learnt at a higher level, because values must be consistent regardless of experience.

Indeed, such objections are based on a certain idea of experience itself that may need to be interrogated. First, the learning from experience alone can be slow if experiencing is an unthinking act free of preparation and reflection. This assumption, that experience and reflection and learning are separate acts and the latter is to be indulged in when one is learning and not otherwise, is essentially flawed. An experience is not just an activity, but the full spectrum of physical and mental engagements that precede, occur during and follow an event, either deliberate or accidental. And, because of such engagements, while an event may be limited in time, experience is a continuous thing encompassing all aspects of our being, because it never actually ends - just gets stimulated by external events from time to time. Being conscious of our engagement with events and ourselves is not a slow process of learning, it is the only viable way. Any other way, such as classroom learning, by definition, assign certain things as learning at the expense of everything else, and if accepted (though, I would argue, such a thing is not possible), would make us unable to learn from our lives - making learning impossible in effect.

Second, while experience can not be risk-free, neither is learning. Effective learning involves questioning assumptions about self and everything around us, and one could not get away from the risk it entails. That universities are safe spaces to think is an incomplete ideal. In fact, it is too patronising - and dismissive of the human capability of independent thought. Instead, we should aspire to have people who are free to think, no matter where they are. And, such an ideal can not be achieved without connecting into experience.

Finally, a Value is a way of living, not some received wisdom. Value education can not be about putting sacred books on Powerpoint. Value education is an iterative process, which shapes experience and indeed gets shaped by it. While values may be required to hold regardless of experience - that is why it would be called a Value - it is not to be disconnected from experience. Being ethical inside the Church but devious outside it would not be considered the best advertisement of Value Education. And, it may also be argued that the only value we may impart through Higher Education, without overestimating the role of the college in the life of the learner and without attempting to play God, is the spirit of conscious and sympathetic inquiry, which is closely connected to experience.

I shall return to the subject of learning from experience at a subsequent post, attempting to view it from the point of other constituents, particularly those who are involved in the Doing side of the equation. In fact, they also tend to accept that Knowing is a separate process, and they are equally wrong - but this is the subject of another discussion.


 

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