Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning
by Stewart Hase
A good proportion of education and training experiences, in any sector, is driven by assessment. Governments have eagerly embraced the notion that testing ability is somehow an indication of a healthy education system. There is a certain obvious logic to assessment driven education and training. And it seems a simple solution. Design a proscribed curriculum that leads to an assessment that, presumably, tests achievement of the course objectives. Pretty neat and tidy. A view that suits the conservative mind that has trouble embracing change.
There are around 20 known cognitive distortions that humans happily use to try and make sense of the world but which, in fact, only serve to create a false view of reality. Confirmation bias (seeking only information that confirms our current beliefs and ignoring facts to the contrary) is one example of which most people are aware. Others are the ostrich bias (think of climate change), anchoring bias (relying on the first piece of information we receive) is another, and the clustering illusion which is seeing patterns in random events.
There is an illusion or cognitive distortion operating in this issue of placing such importance on assessment. I haven’t yet quite placed the actual nature of the distortion on the current list, although the salience and conservative biases come close. The illusion is that there is a link between the assessment outcome and actual learning. I am, of course, making a huge leap of faith her that our education and training systems are indeed intended to create learning. The same can be said for the proscribed curriculum that results as a natural process when we are basing process on outcomes.
Well, nothing could be further from the truth. We can proscribe the curriculum as much as we like and we can design the most elaborate assessment and testing methods but this has nothing whatsoever to do with learning. It may, in some circumstances and if we are very lucky, lead to some acquisition of knowledge and skill development, for a short period unless these competencies are regularly used.
Learning is something else entirely and the result of human agency as described by heutagogy or self-determined learning. It goes beyond the acquisition of knowledge and skills (competencies), occurs when the learner is ready, when past experience has linked with old experience to create new neuronal pathways, when competency can be applied in novel circumstances, when analysis and synthesis occur as a matter of course and we go beyond application, when hypotheses are tested and, often, when emotion is involved. Learning is a deep experience resulting in substantial change in the brain. Learning is not the result of a neat and tidy linear curriculum. Learning is a non-linear experience.
The idea that we could simply assess someone’s competency was useful in the educational system that was designed to provide fodder for the factories and offices during the industrial revolution. The education system we currently have was functional for that age: a linear system with clear outcomes producing people who could do relatively static jobs in relatively slowly changing environments.
But we live in a new age now: a twenty-first century that is characterised by change so rapid that you can miss it if you blink, with technology outgrowing our ability to adapt to it, and a truly global world. It is a world in which competitive advantage or survival for individuals and organisations is based on being able to adapt rapidly to changes in the external environment. People who will survive and thrive in this word will be innovative, creative, able to research and sift information, willing to embrace change, flexible, skilled learners, reflective, confident, collaborative team players, and have high level relationship skills.
An assessment driven system is largely focused on content, knowledge and skills and rarely gets beyond application in its outcomes. It cannot measure or even create these skills that are needed to survive in the 21st century. Obtaining knowledge and skills is easy in today’s world and we do not need education and training systems to provide this. We do need to create people who know how to search and obtain competencies but that is different to having a ‘teacher’ deliver them.
Assessment needs to be emergent from the learning process. This is non-linear and is uncomfortably untidy.
The linear education and training systems that we now have are not geared to the needs of the 21st century. The world is no longer a neat and tidy place where linearity will work. It is untidy, messy and open to change at a moment’s notice.
It is time our policy makers and politicians understood this and stopped shaping education and training to suit a world that has passed us by: a conservative view that does not embrace change and one that completely misunderstands what learning is. They can do this by more collaboration with ‘teachers’ and the literature, like heutagogy, that is exploring alternative options.