March 26th, 2014

What’s Your Learning Philosophy?

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I love it when something in the blog leads us to new ideas and insights. Neil Haave, who teaches on the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta, submitted an article on learning philosophies. (You can find the article in the April issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter) His thinking about learning philosophies was stimulated by his experience evaluating e-portfolios, which were being piloted on his campus, and by a couple of posts on this blog (November 13, 2013 and January 22, 2014). He was struck by how few insights the seniors preparing these portfolios had about themselves as learners and came to the conclusion that they should start writing about how they learn long before the end of their academic careers.

Haave makes a distinction between learning styles and a learning philosophy. Although some experts are now questioning whether learning styles exist (in the manner we’ve come to know them), the preference for a particular approach to learning is thought to be innate. A learning philosophy is something that reflects what a learner has discovered and come to believe about learning. It answers, not the “how” questions (of style) or the “what” questions (of content), but the “why” questions. Why are you learning? What role does learning play in your professional and personal life?

There are questions to ask before a learning experience, such as: How do you decide what you need to learn? And question to ask after: Was it worth learning? How do you know? If you were to learn it again, would you approach learning it in a different way? Why? In the process of learning this, did you discover anything about yourself as a learner? I agree with Haave. These are not questions most students have ever considered.

But Haave made another point that has been chasing me around for the last several weeks. He notes that we are all familiar with teaching philosophies. In fact, most of us have prepared them. But how many of us have crafted a learning philosophy?

I dug out my teaching philosophy statement and was stunned by its almost exclusive focus on teaching. There are some passing references made to learning, but no critical analysis of my beliefs about it. So I’ve started trying to write my learning philosophy, and it seems to be coalescing around three areas; beliefs about learning in general, beliefs about the relationship between teaching and learning, and beliefs about myself as a learner. In the first category, I’ve been thinking about the role of learning in a democratic society and what happens when people do and don’t value learning.

The second section is the longest: Do I believe all college students can learn the content I teach? Do I believe students who don’t learn something the first time ought to get a second chance? Do I think the students who have to work harder have less intellectual ability or are they just less able learners? Do I believe you can teach students to love learning? When teaching doesn’t produce learning across multiple students after repeated efforts, is that type of teaching ethical?

I’m embarrassed by how little I’ve considered what I know and believe about myself as a learner. When am I at my learning best and worst, and what do I take from those experiences? How do I handle learning that is hard? How do I deal with failure? Do I spend too much time learning what I love and avoid everything else? Do the ways I approach learning inspire those I teach?

Is there merit in crafting a learning philosophy? I think there is. My colleague and friend Larry observed that the more we know and understand about learning, the more we have a coherent theory of learning, and the easier it is to make good decisions about how to teach. Then we can select techniques because we understand how and why they promote learning, and not simply because they look and sound good.

Have you written a learning philosophy? If so, what questions did you answer? Be welcome to cut and paste pieces below and share what you learned by preparing one. I wonder how our academic administrators would respond to learning philosophies, instead of teaching philosophies or teaching philosophies, bolstered with critical analysis of bedrock beliefs about learning.