Ideas That Transfer Across Practice
We know that educational institutions and endeavors have varied greatly in scale, resources, philosophy, curriculum focus, and social context. These differences become important factors in developing educational practice and sometimes contend with research approaches where the emphasis has often been on generalizable models.
However, in the experiences at Alverno College and in the college's extensive collaboration with other institutions; we have found that a focus on learning and learning outcomes leads to particular kinds of ideas that transfer across practices while allowing campuses to respond to their unique missions, enrollment characteristics, and social contexts. Specifically, we have found questions that help connect educational research and evaluation with campus priorities in the development of educational practices.
What is learning?
What is being learned?
How and why does learning happen?
Who is learning?
In Learning That Lasts (2000, Jossey-Bass), we used these questions as a means to connect research that was needed in our own context with the multiple and emerging strands of research literature on learning. Below, we draw from that work to introduce these four questions and how they can transfer.
What is learning? Learning is both process and outcome, often interwoven. Many educators and researchers are engaged in the study of learning in order to define it in ways that make it more accessible to learners and their teachers. We join that work to ground learning that lasts, recognizing that any observations of what is being learned are often inseparable from how one understands knowledge, its epistemology, and their connection to meaning systems. Student meaning making is a central dimension of student learning. For us, enduring learning is an integrative process that involves the whole person.
In practice some of these definitions become contradictory and their implementation requires that educators grapple with meaning, sometimes accepting the seeming contradictions within larger frameworks of meaning. As ambiguous as these discussions can be, they help create the foundations on which to build programs of inquiry.
What is learned? Asking "what is learned" goes beyond the traditional content of the disciplines and includes learning processes and complex multidimensional abilities (cf., Boyatsis & Cowen, & Kolb, 1995; Spencer & Spencer, 1993) and how they become integrated in the development of the whole person. Many theorists working with the concept of learning processes interwoven with outcomes over time have influenced the Alverno faculty's work. For example, William Perry's (1970) work provided a basis for understanding what is learned in terms of a student's movement from a dualistic perspective on truth to a reasoned ability to see many perspectives while developing commitment to personal values and convictions. He and other researchers on human development reinforce the notion that some learning has transformative results. Learning outcomes so conceived include attributes of the person and cumulative learning effects, and result in college students' ultimately taking responsibility for their own learning.
How and why does learning happen? For the educators, how this kind of learning happens in the classroom and outside it and why it happens appear to be two distinct questions. However, joining them is a fundamental issue. As educators learn about deep and enduring learning, they aim to facilitate it in college and beyond. The challenge is to articulate to each other what they
know about lasting learning, and how and why students develop and do it, and what roles educators assume for themselves out of this understanding. How are such learning processes made explicit and developed as part of what ought to be learned in liberal learning, enabling graduates to develop learning that is lasting? And how does this affect their own constructions of educational practice? These and related points of view are also explored in the recent Knowing What Students Know (Pellegrino, Chudowsky, & Glaser, 2001).
Who is learning? Because the origins of learning are in the learner's experience, educators start with who the learner is and what responsibilities they will have for others after they graduate. What each learner understands depends on what each already knows, believes, and values. It is conditioned by the contexts in which each learner has experienced his or her own learning process and that of others. In this context, stereotypes can lead to unfounded expectations for students' learning and counterproductive approaches to practice.
Like many other institutions, Alverno has an increasingly diverse student population. A rich mix of students comes from a variety of economic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds and a wide range of age and experience. The faculty are also finding increasing diversity in the kind of academic preparation students bring to this college.
This kind of diversity can make for exciting and productive learning, but it also poses increasing challenges for faculty and staff. Faculty and staff are giving increased attention to matters like personal responsibility and appropriate study habits as part of their teaching.
Boyatzis, R. E., Cowen, S. S., Kolb, D. A., & Associates. (1995). Innovation in professional education: Steps on a journey from teaching to learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Pellegrino, J. W., Chudowsky, N., & Glaser, R. (Eds.). (2001). Knowing what students know: The science and design of educational assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Perry, W. G., Jr. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Spencer, L. M., Jr., & Spencer, S. M. (1993). Competence at work: Models for superior performance. New York: Wiley.