Tag Archives: Alfie Kohn

The Learning Picture and The LOA Way

12 Jul

We held the second successful incarnation of the Learning Organization Academy this week.  A second wave of feedback from our participants and speakers is coming in. More than ever I’m reconfirmed in my sense that LOA (as we call it) is a wonderful, necessary, unusual professional development program. What exactly do we do there? Here’s what I think: we try to paint a picture of what a learning culture looks like, and we try to empower people to seek that culture, using our “way.”

The Learning Picture

What does a learning culture look or feel like?  It’s seeing people not as individual units but as a complex adaptive system, a kind of hyper-complexity of interconnectedness interwoven with a sense–an ethical call–that the parts and the connections between the parts and the overall system can and should continuously improve, develop, evolve, adapt, become more capable, understand more, see more, be more, do better, do more good.

It’s a feeling you’re with people who perceive you deeply and care about your development. It’s chatter, it’s movement, it’s connectedness. It’s a fascination with information or idea flow and with sharing and with perspectives. It’s information residing in between and among people. It’s a suspension of the individual and the group. It’s a hyper-individualism suspended in a bionic group. It’s icky and wonderful and true and healing and difficult to hear and necessary and life-changing like support groups and Alcoholics Anonymous. But it’s also intellectually challenging, mind-blowing, inspiring, visionary, like great keynotes or Ted Talks or moments of wonderful brainstorms or getting, say, Spinoza for the first time. It’s a kind of platonic intimacy. It’s also mindful, calm, reflective, consolidating, simplifying, like the presence of a great meditation teacher.

It’s not superficially happy, as in the avoidance of bad feelings from fear of them; because it involves a desire to improve, it requires a constant grappling with discomfort. Because it’s learning, it involves real, meaningful, true feedback. You’re supported in the grappling, though. It asks you to re-evaluate or put in context a bunch of existing structures you’ve absorbed and perhaps not really considered, that we use to make sense of the work world (and life), like production, power, authority, efficiency, limits, boundaries, success, rules, norms, the bottom line.

It’s a delight in the awareness of yourself improving, as you had when you were a kid, and a happiness in being able to help people improve, as you have when you are a parent or a teacher or a coach. Mixed with the joy of doing what you love or the simple wonder of perceiving the natural world. All this with the kind of sense of collective achievement you would have from, say, working on the crew of a winning America’s Cup yacht.  It’s Maslow’s idea of a society of self-actualized people, plus the feel of the classroom in Alfie Kohn, plus the lab-like discovery in Eleanor Duckworth’s The Having of Wonderful Ideas, plus the fascination and love and being-with-people that the humanistic psychologist Carl Rodgers models, plus the mindfulness of the Buddha, plus the curiosity and intellectual stimulation of, say, Richard Feynman. Plus the fun of learning to whistle. Plus the crinkly-eyed humor of a whimsical anecdote. It’s learning and being with people the way you wish you could.

The LOA Way

So that’s the picture. So how do we help people get there? What’s our “way?” Well, we do share some tips, tricks, techniques, approaches, projects, perspectives. But I think the main part of what we do is not so much to give technological or instrumental advice or answers but to model or encourage a way of being or a disposition or an attitude.

This didn’t quite come to me until I reviewed the website of another professional development program shortly after LOA had ended. This program struck me as embodying a kind of industrial-masculine-skills-fixed-knowledge-surgical-breathless-mechanical approach. It was about learning discrete things and applying them. Cause and effect. Focused-intellectual-logical-IQ stuff. Intensely individual. Maybe I picked up a sense of underlying anger or conviction or intensity. It was a closing trap. Fixing, fixing, fixing. Driving. Mechanical.

The LOA way is the opposite. It’s perhaps more feminine, organic, slow.  It’s about perception, appreciation, spaciousness, and joy.  It’s about the context, replacing the parts in the whole, resolving dualities, healing divisions, not rushing to solutions, yet embracing spontaneity, thinking, being mindful, sensing, sensing, doing less, questioning certitude, imaging other possibilities, sloughing off a veneer of sophistication or adulthood or responsibility for a cultivated youthfulness or naiveté. It’s perhaps primarily about seeing and understanding the richness and beauty of things as they are as much as it is about gentling nudging them along.

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About Grades

3 Jan

Someone asked me recently why I tend to frown when grades are mentioned. My attempt to answer.

I don’t think a simple, one-dimensional linear scale (grades) is the best possible way to represent (or honor) the rich cognitive development that occurs in complex patterns across a variety of domains in the growth of an individual.

For instance, grades provide no information on the learning context—no considerations of the course design; social group dynamics; style of teaching; particular assigned, tacit or implied, learning outcomes; opportunities for formative assessment; what was on the syllabus; humidity in the classroom; and so on. And yet the environment is so crucial to understanding how people develop, ignoring it would seem to make your data almost meaningless. If Vygotsky is right, and the most important thing in the study of our development is understanding the potential growth of the individual-in-society, grades aren’t helpful.

For another instance, grades don’t show you what sorts of cognitive development are happening.  Or even what skills are being used. Of the various Howard Gardner intelligences, say, which did the student effectively draw on to get that B in Russian History? That might be interesting to know. A grade won’t help you know that.

You might say that we could supplement the grades with a variety of other things, like the syllabus; an essay on the course by the teacher or a trained observer; a discursive evaluation of the student; a narrative self-evaluation by the student; some pre-and-post testing to learning outcomes; a collected portfolio of produced work with reflective analysis by the student; etc. Yes. Basically, I think that’s what we should organize ourselves to do. Ken Bain describes a kind of “synthetic” (in the sense of creating a synthesis of diverse kinds of data) course evaluation that he thinks would be more helpful than the traditional student survey. I’d like to see along with that a synthetic development report replace the letter grade.

So grades don’t show you everything they possibly could.  What’s worse is I suspect grades might even undermine learning. When people focus on grades rather than learning, which it’s hard not to do, what should be a positive and productive relationship between the learner and the learning environment, leading toward a virtuous circle of robust growth, tends instead to become a cynical negotiation, sadly tending toward a vicious circle of minimal growth. For more on this, see Alfie Kohn on the negative effects of extrinsic motivation, rewards, and punishments.

The usual relationship that arises between learner and school–a sort of reluctant, dogged cooperation; a work-to-rule; and a general defensiveness or mutual suspicion–might be the best way to prepare us for the same kind of negative relationship we’re likely to have with our work environments.  But it is a far cry from what you need (in my opinion) to learn, and what you would get in the sorts of safe spaces you see in, say, a Reggio Emilia or Atelier model, where can be developed the kind of wonderful, risky, vulnerable, collaborative learning Lee Shulman calls a “marriage of insufficiencies.”

Fortunately, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we develop more sophisticated ways to represent the breadth of student and group learning in context, or (what is perhaps also as important) before we learn to show the potential for growth that is present in a culture or an environment. And I think it’s also only a matter of time before we grow school and work environments that are humane.

As a parable, I offer a recent parent-teacher conference experience, with the identities of participants obscured.  In this conference, the parent found his child’s first grade teachers to be amazingly gifted interpersonal perceptors (if you will)–wonderfully attuned to his child’s social development, personality, learning styles, perspective, strengths, loves, fears, challenges, successes.  The teacher’s evocation of the child-as-person-in-context was the bulk of the conversation, and the parent reported that it felt wonderful and appropriate and life-affirming.  Then there was a change. The teacher almost reluctantly drew out from a folder a sheet upon which she’d been forced to register linguistic and math “grades” (only in those two domains, I note!), and the atmosphere of the conference changed immediately from one that was generative, productive, alive, adaptive, full of hope–in short, everything good about education–to the opposite: one that hinted at a lifetime of compliance, fear, bureaucracy, guilt, and worry.

If we could have deleted the grades from that conference, it would have been thoroughly great. And that’s what I’m after. Thoroughly great stuff.