But what’s the answer?

I recently taught a module on my university’s internal teaching qualification, which was a great experience. One of our most interesting debates was about how to shift the mindset of students (and sometimes instructors) about what education actually is. All of us had taught students who simply wanted to know what “the answer” was to certain questions or problems and saw education as a process of accumulating these answers. The fact is that, while such an approach works for exams up to a point, in the real world it will not get you very far.

Our context is that we are “the University of the Professions”, and most of our students aspire to be professionals of some sort. This requires a particular relationship with knowledge. In order to be, say, a lawyer, you must have a body of knowledge, but this is the starting point not the end. The really successful, valuable lawyer is not someone who knows the detail of the law – that can be looked up, after all – but someone who can operate in situations of ambiguity, come up with novel solutions and is not thrown by situations they have not seen before. Too much of our education system does not encourage this sort of thinking.

One of our key study sources for this area was a video talk by Canadian academic Dave Cormier called “Embracing Uncertainty”, which I came across a couple of years ago and found inspirational. It is embedded below and I highly recommend a viewing:

The crux of Cormier’s argument is summarised on this slide (which he has adapted in turn from Dave Snowden), which talks about the different types of knowledge which are applicable in different situations:

Screenshot 2015-02-21 at 15.11.21

I will not repeat the whole argument here, but the key point is that good or best practice is of limited use when you are dealing with situations where cause and effect are unpredictable or unclear. Cormier illustrates this with examples from medicine but they could be drawn from any area of work. And it is increasingly clear that complex and chaotic situations are becoming much more common, and simple and complex ones less so. Any finance professional operating in a world after the financial crisis should understand that, and in any case, if something is rules-based there is a good chance that computers can do it better than people.

This has particular relevance for the discipline I specialise in, which is management. I (and many others) would argue that, beyond a certain very basic level, there is very little good or best practice in management. There are bodies of knowledge, theories and ideas which can be studied and may or may not be helpful to a manager, depending on their context and needs. This is, perhaps, why good managers are so rare – they need to not just have extensive knowledge but be skilled enough to judge how and when to apply it. They must also be able to evaluate what is or is not working, and adapt their practice accordingly. And they will not be able to achieve any of this without cultivating the practice of reflection, self-awareness and self-criticism.

As an aside, I think this is what infuriates me so much about most MOOCs. They started off as a way of exploring ideas, and Cormier himself was influential in their beginnings. However, they have developed into a pre-packaged, dumbed-down experience. I have just tried my third Coursera MOOC and given up because it consists of little more than a series of recordings of an instructor. If I want to know someone’s views I will read their writings or watch them on YouTube. If these are, as Coursera likes to claim, “the world’s best courses”, then heaven help us all.

This, then, was the key take-away from our discussion. As educators, we must constantly challenge our students to think beyond “the answer”, to accept nuance, unpredictability and uncertainty. This is a challenge to our own professional identity too – we like to be seen as the experts and giving answers bolsters that perception. We too need humility, reflective skills and an ability to recognise that what works in one context may not work in another. But this is how we can be most effective as educators and do our best for our students.

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1 Comment

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One response to “But what’s the answer?

  1. Pingback: A New Enlightenment for Education? | learningshrew

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