November 5th, 2014

What Can We Learn from Accidental Learning?


“I just stumbled onto this. . .” I heard the phrase a couple of times in presentations during the recent Teaching Professor Technology Conference. Faculty presenters used it to describe their discovery of an aspect of instruction that worked well, such as an assignment detail or activity sequence. Since then I’ve been thinking about accidental learning and the role it plays or might play in the instructional growth of teachers.

The phrase carries a number of connotations. This isn’t intentional learning—it’s not planned. The teacher makes a decision, implements it, and it works. Often the outcome is an unexpected, but pleasant surprise. It feels like a gift. Accidental learning tends to be easy learning, which is nice. So much of what we need to master requires effort, in many cases lots of it.

However, I don’t like some of what the “stumbling onto” phrase implies about learning to teach. We shouldn’t be just wandering around, making decisions willy-nilly, trying out whatever comes to mind or crosses our paths. Instructional planning is more purposeful than that, and it is guided by decisions that greatly increase the chance that students will have significant learning experiences. We don’t have to meander around hoping to stumble onto something that works. We can take a more direct path to good teaching ideas.

Moreover, when accidental learning does happen, it can be something more than a lucky happenstance if the outcome is subjected to thoughtful analysis. Why did that particular decision or design feature work so well? What made it work? Will it work the same way if it’s tried again? We can also stumble onto insights when something we try doesn’t work. With the same kind of analysis, we can confront the failure, seek to understand its causes, maybe fix it, or decide that it’s beyond repair.

Too often teachers are not as systematic in their thinking about teaching and learning as they could or should be. I think it harkens back to the fact that most of us were never trained to teach. We’ve learned how by doing it and so our understanding of how it works is pretty much intuitive, more sensing and feeling than explicit understanding. That doesn’t make intuitive knowledge wrong or bad, but it does make success (and failure, for that matter) harder to explain and easier to just chalk up to chance or bad luck.

Yes, there are things that happen in courses that defy explanation. It’s magic—a one-time confluence of factors that combine to create a big dramatic learning event. However, most of the time there is a rational explanation for why something works or doesn’t work.

I also don’t like some of what the phrase implies about teachers. When you “stumble onto” something, there’s a sense that you aren’t looking where you’re going. What happened was so in your path that you almost tripped over it. It bespeaks a level of inattentiveness that doesn’t characterize effective instructors.

I worry about the conclusion drawn from an accidental learning event; feeling this is often lightweight learning. Say, for example, you put students in groups of four, gave each group a different problem, and had one randomly selected student put the solution on the board. It worked beautifully in that course, with those students, and for that kind of problem, but is it the definitive way to handle homework problems in class? I doubt it. Easy learning lands us on that first, often superficial, level of understanding. It marks a starting point, a first step, in this case, in the complicated process of getting students working collectively on problem solving.

“I just stumbled onto this …” is only a phrase, and it’s used generically to describe all kinds of different discoveries, not just aspects of successful teaching. However, the phrases we choose to describe occurrences are related to our thinking about them. I so want us thinking about teaching and learning in ways that befit their complexity and in ways that appropriately influence our instructional growth and development. Yes, we can stand in awe of those magical moments and enjoy the gift of accidental discoveries, but both can be studied and better understood. Along with serendipity, we need planned and purposeful inquiry into those ingredients of instruction that reliably promote student learning.

© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

  • Tom Carlson

    Let me begin by saying that I understand your reservations. Too many faculty have not had any, much less adequate, pedagogical/androgogical training, and what these teachers do that works once is often what they stick with for the rest of their careers with the conviction of a proselyte, leaving the event unanalyzed. This is indeed a serious concern.
    However, one could give the instructors the benefit of the doubt, to be fair. They "happened to try" something and reported on the instance as a chance outcome, not their own doing. One reading of this is polite self-deprecation in the context of a professional conference of peers. In other words, maybe it wasn't in fact so much the product of blind stumbling-around as they might choose to describe it.
    Let's assume that, before trying whatever it was the first time it worked, the instructor in question had a deep sense that something wasn't working, and a sense (perhaps unanalyzed) that a solution might lie in a particular direction. How else would we explain that initial choice to try something new? Their intuition in these cases seems to have served them well, or they wouldn't be choosing to report their success (earned or not) to the wider community of instructors. In other words, something went right, and it was based on intuition born of experience. What pedagogical theory is not based on intuition born of experience? Of course any hypothesis needs to be tested and any proven effects still need to be explained, and the teaching world is richer whenever such a chain of causation can be determined. However it smacks a bit of exaggeration, if not outright snobbery, to claim that today's pedagogical best practice is much more than a collection of just such practices born of intuitions born of experience. There is no grad unifying theory of teaching and learning yet available for any field, and we are all dependent for growth and change on people trying unusual things that happen to work as much as we depend on people making reasoned suggestions for instructional improvement based on theory. and "planned, purposeful inquiry." The "chance discovery" or an intuition is the starting point for hypothesizing and doing action research, or similar forms of purposeful inquiry. This has been noted numerous times when describing the slow, steady progress of the scientific world-view, and it will be, I predict, no different in this case.
    In short, there's room for both intuition and purposeful inquiry, I think – in fact I believe they often form a symbiosis. I absolutely agree that it would be better for everyone if we could as a group identify what actions are the result of intuition, and what actions are based on theoretical frameworks, but I would hesitate to criticize people for discovering things that "work" by intuition, because that intuition is probably only different in degree from the planned and purposeful standard we would like to see upheld as a guide.

  • anonymous

    I have several immediate thoughts in response to this comment.. Because there is little impetus to value improvement of teaching, in the professorate in general, there is no support for systematic improvement of teaching in many universities. Example: my son is completing a PhD at a prestigious university that I will not name. In applications most major universities to which he was applying required a statement about teaching. When he wrote a very strong statement about wanting to teach well and having a dedication to this, he was advised to weaken this statement. (NB: I am a faculty member at a small university that does value teaching and I have focused on finding ways to bring my teaching in line with thinking about 21st century learning, online education and so forth. I had provided some advise to him regarding his statement.)

    Systematic focus on teaching in the post-secondary environment has seldom been a part of doctorate programs. Faculty struggle with how to do it well. This is one of the reasons, I believe, that this very blog exists.

    Faculty often do simply stumble on something that they want to try out and if it works they keep it; if doesn't they drop it. There is a growing literature on teaching well at the post-secondary level that I "stumbled on" through an Amazon search a few years ago. I have since searched out such material, largely on my own.

  • Perry Shaw

    Thanks Maryellen. Your reflection certainly "stirs the pot". A couple of observations:
    There definitely needs to be more intentionality in developing the quality of teaching in higher education, but this will only take place at a meaningful level when institutional leaders affirm quality instruction through tenure and promotion policies. In far too many schools the overwhelming priority is on publication and the hidden curriculum is that teaching should be a low priority for faculty – and perhaps may even be a distraction from the really important work – research. In countries like UK and Australia changes are occurring: teaching faculty are expected to gain educational qualifications for employment and promotion. Hopefully these new developments represent a global trend.
    On the other hand, my own experience is that reflective "stumbling" can actually be an element of effective growth. Good instructors are always experimenting, and often are somewhat "parasitic" – "stumbling" upon ideas they hear from others. However, as you allude, unless these ideas are placed within a governing educational paradigm they may too easily be seen as a panacea rather than additional valuable tools in the teacher's toolbox of instructional techniques.

  • Joseph Merola

    Great article. I am fortunate to be in a University that values teaching and provides a lot of incentive and help for people who wish to improve their teaching. To the person above who says there is no grand unifying theory of teaching, I agree wholeheartedly and I would myself say there never will or should be such a thing. Each discipline has its own peculiarities and goals which in turn often necessitates different pedagogies. I daresay that each individual personality necessitates different pedagogies. The level of class, the size of the class and the learning outcomes desired for that class all determine something different. When I was in industry, I had the opportunity to take a number of "professional development courses" including "Leadership Effectiveness Training". This kind of course was all the rage. I found there was some food for thought in there but I also found that the suggestions for "active listening" and other practices were stilted and unnatural and just something that did not fit into my own style. The same thing happens in the classroom. I know people who can weave a story with no visual aids and hold the students spellbound. I know people who use the "latest pedagogy" and do not do a good job in the classroom because the "latest pedagogy" really means little unless the person using it fully knows HOW to use it. All the race cars in a particular race are outstanding marvels of engineering and the latest in technology – but the ultimate winner is determined by the driver.

  • Justin Smith

    This is a good article, as it provides a good discussion starter! While my sentiment closely resembles Tom Carlson's from the comments above, I think it is important to mention for those new and aspiring teachers that you do not have the ability to know everything about your material and your students – you are not omniscient! This is an important caveat, as so many of these things we stumble upon come because we have discovered something new about our subject material (maybe a relationship between concepts, a clarification of a term, or a development of a concept) or about our students (maybe a better way to relate content to student, a new awareness of students' prior knowledge that helps develop a concept, or just a better understanding of the way our particular students learn).
    You will not know everything possible when you enter the teaching profession, so there will be times of learning and discovery that often feel like you have stumbled onto something new; enjoy the discovery and follow up on it. The author's advice to follow up on these new finds is a great one; do not assume that it will work everytime because it worked once. On the other hand, test it your next go around; who knows, you may find a new teaching technique that changes your field!

  • Fran Bozarth

    Some of the best inventions were stumbled upon. I don't think this makes the discovery any less valid.

  • Gerald Adams

    I think that the concept of Accidental learning and the fact that “teaching and learning” can be described as something that “stumbling upon” are Oxymora (a contradiction of terms). The mere fact that you go into the classroom/ learning environment- is to teach. That is to lead someone from the known to the unknown. When that person has an “aha moment” means that they have simple connected the dots.
    It can’t be accidental when both parties have achieved what they came to do. Learning – which for me is a trans-formative process? Learning is change and change is learning (Hall & Hord 2010) – and the same principle can be said about teaching-which is changing mind sets?

    And, when this happens- you have achieved your objective- which is trying to teach or create change in the thinking /knowledge of the other. We all know that teaching can be a thankless job at times and so, when we have success- lets’ take credit for it? – We don’t want to demean our profession, by coming up philosophical- mumbo jumbo of “stumbling upon something”- it’s challenging enough.

    No doubt -we discover various methods and processes throughout our teaching careers- but what works on one/ group of student may not necessary work with another. In this day and age we use different theoretical tools out of our tool bags- no different to any other job!

  • Janice Hovis

    Serendipity – maybe you "stumbled upon" something, but you were receptive to it; you responded to it; you made it work. We don't always know what we're looking for, but sometimes we recognize it when we see it. Learning includes being open to new ideas.

  • Kathleen

    There is nothing accidental about learning. If you notice something you had never seen before, you and your brain decide whether or not to pursue it, to investigate it further on the outside chance it may, indeed, be something new or different from what you've known previously. You observe it, evaluate it, decide whether or not to apply it. That's no accident

  • Kathleen

    There is nothing accidental about learning. If you notice something you had never seen before, you and your brain decide whether or not to pursue it, to investigate it further on the outside chance it may, indeed, be something new or different from what you've known previously. You observe it, evaluate it, decide whether or not to apply it. That's no accident; it's critical thinking. When you "stumble upon" something, it infers that you were actively looking for something in the first place. Finding something new may not be "planned" but, the learning process is never unintentional.

  • Gerald Adams

    I agree- there is nothing accidental about teaching and learning – it is intentional – I think it is the core of our business. Maybe we get side tracked by what happens in our course of duty. One of our problems/challenges as educators is that there are no two people identical or no two situations similar and sometimes you work on the fly. Sometimes it works and other times it falls in a heap! I believe we all experience this at times. It's the passion to teach that drives us (some of us) and I beleive that these successes keep us doing what we love-I argue that it's :- NO ACCIDENT!
    I assert that ; if teaching and learning is at the core of our business and it has become a business these days. Then these two processes a simultaneously link somehow? Further-I think/beleive that we are in a life long learning profession and maybe it is intended to be that way and therefore – How can it be an accident – Accidents happen; un-intentionally!