Learning by Doing

Well my break from blogging was not accompanied by a break from thinking about the subject of learning, especially that mix of real world and virtual learning experiences that might ultimately lead to a genuine rewriting of the rules of education.

The first experience which triggered this line of thought came from a visit to my sons’ Boy Scout camp where they and hundreds of other boys worked diligently (at least in the mornings) on merit badges covering subjects as diverse as wilderness survival, lifesaving, welding and fingerprinting.

I suspect that when the last ten years of learning innovation is fully documented, the role of the advancement program within Scouting will emerge as an important influence in how ideas behind new online learning methodology developed.

The most obvious place one can look to see this influence is the learning badge phenomenon that became a media darling before MOOCs sucked up all the Oxygen in stories related to the “Assault on the Ivory Tower.”

As I discussed previously, learning badges provide an intriguing means to create links between online teaching tools and direct action taken in the physical world. And the notion of awarding individual competencies with virtual badges provides an interesting reward system related to competency-based learning.

The Scouting equivalent of this reward methodology is their merit badge program where badges are awarded for completing a set of tasks related to a particular skill. But unlike the unregulated (and un-calibrated) world of online learning badges, Scout merit badges require “students” to complete a set of challenging tasks, all under the supervision of a human merit badge councilor who can declare whether or not they have mastered a suite of skills required to earn an award.

Merit badges are also built on the concept of “learning by doing” which means you have to get into the water and save a mock drowner to earn Lifesaving or spend an evening in the woods without shelter to grab the Wilderness Survival badge. Even seemingly “academic” badges have a hands-on component. For instance, a Chess merit badge (offered at camp, and thus played under the stars) requires you to teach someone who has never played the game the rules of chess.

In theory, learning by doing is more suitable to a program such as Scouting where the majority of skills to be mastered involve both hands and brains. But I was disabused of that notion during my drive home from camp when two worlds collided as I listened to one of my Harvard MOOC professors (Michael Sandel, the man behind the edX ethical philosophy course Justice) appear as a guest on my favorite philosophy podcast The Partially Examined Life.

A few months ago, I talked about why Partially Examined Life (or PEL) jumped an artificial barrier I had earlier erected between podcast and course. But this discussion/cross-examination between a Harvard Professor who gets to do philosophy full time and four guys who “once wanted to do philosophy for a living but then thought better of it” provided another example of the power of “learning by doing.”

For even though the PEL team is not made up of tenured professors with lots of philosophical publications to their names, this group has spent the last five years grappling with nearly a hundred philosophical texts (they just reached their hundredth episode this summer), in order to support a two-hour conversation (longer if you take into account editing) on a different subject every three weeks.

In other words, the PEL team has been busily doing philosophy, and doing it on a much broader basis than most professionals who spend their time either teaching or researching their specific field of expertise. In fact, one of the things I liked best about the program is that they routinely select texts that only 1-2 of the regulars know well, which means the entire team needs to do some reading and intellectual heavy-lifting in order to contribute to the recorded conversation.

So by the time Professor Sandel appeared on the PEL podcast, the hosts had already grappled with some of his earlier work on ethics and political philosophy and were ready to engage one of the most well-known people in that field as a peer.

Now part of this dynamic could be explained by a general egalitarian ethos of philosophy which can be traced back to Socrates, a tradition in which anyone willing to do the intellectual work and engage in discussion with an open mind gets a seat at the table. But I would assert that five years spent doing (rather than just talking about) philosophy is an example of the same “learning by doing” educational mechanism that works so well with Scouts.

Looking back over the dozens of courses I took for my One Year BA, it occurs to me that the ones I got the most out of were the classes that gave me the most opportunities to put my learning to work, either through challenging assessments and problem sets (usually related to science courses) or through peer-graded essay assignments which while flawed – at least with regard to grading mechanisms – at least gave students the chance to synthesize their thoughts about a subject studied over several weeks or months.

As we make our way up the Slope of Enlightenment to see where MOOCs might fit into a broad and changing educational landscape, giving students the opportunity to use (not just absorb) information they are being taught should be embraced as the next frontier. And while the steps needed to create meaningful assignments that truly challenge students are not obvious, I suspect they will end up no more (and no less) difficult than the steps already taken to bring high-quality online learning to millions.

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