September 22nd, 2009

Zemsky on Learning


I’d like to share a couple of the points made by Robert Zemsky in the second part of a two-part essay that appeared in Inside Higher Education. (There’s a link to this second part at the end of this post.) I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bob Zemsky’s work—he’s a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has been on the forefront of efforts to reform higher edcuation for decades, and he’s a superb writer. In this article he put three items on the higher education reform to-do list. The first one is learning—I love that it was listed first.

It’s at the top of the list because “it’s what we do,” and he contends, “there is a growing suspicion … that all is not well with the learning enterprise. Some worry that students today are not learning enough or not learning the right things or not proving capable of applying learning’s lessons to new problems and tasks.”

It’s what he says about content acquisition that I found most compelling: “Once the successful college student could be thought of in encyclopedic terms: all the facts, formulas, and theories neatly organized for quick and reliable retrieval. Today, though, a segment of the academy argues that the successful college student is much more a clever librarian—that is, someone who knows how to ask the right questions and to recognize good answers. This reformulation of knowledge, they say, is the pratical recognition that no one has sufficient time or gray matter to master a knowledge base that is growing exponentially every decade or so.”

Why is it so hard for faculty to get beyond seeing content as something to be covered to the place where they start thinking about it as something to be used? Content can be used to develop essential learning skills like critical thinking, problem solving, questioning, analysis—the skills that students need for successful careers and lives. Using content means that lots of it still gets covered, but the purpose for which content is taught changes.