Professional learning by doing

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Learning can be defined as a permanent change in thinking and behavior. With this rigid definition, all types of learning involve that we think and behave more or less differently than before. This is also a practical view of learning. It is not sufficient to just think differently. That is seen as mere “cognitive gymnastics”. We have to act or behave differently as well.

At the very least, there must be a potential for acting in new ways. To illustrate this, let us say you just learned to provide basic first aid. This knowledge remains as sheer cognitive information until the day comes when you apply it in a real situation. That day may never come. That is why it is necessary to refresh the theory of first aid, and maybe even practice in a simulated situation. If we have few opportunities to put theory into practice, we tend to forget the theory quickly. Yet, too much focus on practice, that is to say, only changing your outer behavior, may not result in learning.

Practical people like to get things done, but can be somewhat impatient. They may have a disdain for theory and analysis, and often prefer to skip the “why” and “how” and go directly to “what”, “who” and “when”. This approach can be characterized as “activism”. Thoughtless action implemented too quickly on a weak foundation, often limited to personal experience. Chances are that what is being implemented will not be sustained over time. Superficial change in behavior without a corresponding change in the thinking pattern, do not tend to stick. But it is quite possible to overthink as well.

Theoretical people often enjoy sustained periods with deep thinking, reflection and analysis. They thrive when confronting complex problems from different angles, often based on research findings, and do not appreciate simplistic solutions. The phrase “paralysis by analysis” describe one downside with this approach. When thinking becomes too detached from doing, collective capacity to solve problems of practice decline. People sit in meetings and reflect, and sometimes even reflect upon their reflection. Risk aversion, in terms of making mistakes, intensifies this paralysis as well.

Not surprisingly, we find that a sustainable balance between the theoretical and practical approaches is key, especially when trying to solve complex problems that have not been successfully solved with quick fixes and simple solutions in the past.

What then is the value of acquiring new information, ways of thinking, knowledge and theory if it does not change our behavior? On a personal level it can be the joy of learning something new, depending on interests, regardless of how immediately applicable this information seems today. And who knows what information that will be useful in the future? Nevertheless, when it comes to our professional learning as educators, we should strive for the kind of learning that results in a permanent change in both thinking and behavior. Students benefit ultimately from educators’ actions. It is great if a language teacher on her way to work one morning learns that most dinosaurs was wiped out around 66 million years ago. This form of curiosity-driven, personal learning can be enjoyable, demonstrate that we as teachers are passionate about learning, and perhaps also spice up some of our pedagogic examples in a lesson. Yet, this personal learning is something else than professional learning that challenge our pedagogic thinking and change our practice permanently.