Professional Development Opinion

We Are Not Newtonian Billiard Balls! The Need for a New Approach to Adult Learning

By John Watkins — June 29, 2018 11 min read
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This post is by John Watkins, Co-Director of The Deeper Learning Dozen, and Principal at Inquiry & Learning for Change. John is a coach, consultant, researcher, and evaluator with several decades’ experience in systemic reform in educational organizations.

Most teachers have had this experience: they come into a PD session after a long day of teaching, say hello to their beleaguered colleagues, sit themselves down, and the principal introduces the person who has come to teach them about some instructional improvement strategy or some new district imperative. The PowerPoint slide says, “Welcome!” The presenter clicks to the next slide, and begins, “We all know how important interaction is to adult learning... so I’m just going to say a few words before we dive into learning together...” and then drones on and on for 30, 40 minutes, reading the text on the slides. Eventually there might be a short “pair share.” Look around: Eyeballs are rolling back in heads. Several colleagues take out folders of papers to grade. That assertively disengaged staff member in the back of the room opens his computer and dives into the video game he’s been waiting to play. Others click through their interminable backlog of emails or look at ads for shoes online. Another wasted 90 minutes. Later, few can even remember the topic.

Recently, in this blog, Jal Mehta discussed the idea of teacher learning as needing to be “the whole game in microcosm.” He said, “The problem is that powerful [student] learning, and by implication powerful teaching, is not composed of discrete elements but rather is the product of carefully crafted wholes.” Hence, "[r]ather than working on strands that cut across, teachers can work on smaller pieces of practice, but work on all of the different parts of those smaller pieces simultaneously.” I agree with Jal that this is desirable. But, in practice, it seems hard to accomplish. Why?

I think the problem is grounded in old habits of mind about learning and unexamined false assumptions deeply embedded in the ways we have organized our professional lives together. At root, the problem is epistemological: claims for how we create knowledge, either tacit or explicit, affect how we build our organizations, and how we build our organizations both implies ways of knowing and limits how we can go about our knowing. We have built our professional organizations, our school districts, around Newtonian mechanistic, deterministic, linear notions of command and control. And we have embedded the ways we go about professional learning within those organizations. A better alternative, grounded in cognitive and social-constructivist visions of learning theory and complexity theory, would instead focus on developing communities that iterate rather than bureaucracies that implement, accept that meaningful learning is necessarily messy and unpredictable, and thus create an ecosystem that hosts exploration of the wholes as well as the parts.

First let me be clear about what these old habits and false assumptions are. This is how learning ostensibly happens: The PD presenter does the one-time training, talking at length about the new strategy, pouring knowledge into the heads of teachers. Teachers then take that knowledge and act differently in their classrooms as a result. This is how we organize that learning: The district leadership has set a learning goal for all teachers. Maybe they have used data to determine that if teachers use this new strategy, students will learn more. They use the PD provider-expert to deliver the strategy; they control the participation of the teachers; they control the outcome by holding principals and teachers accountable for performance and results. We are firmly embedded in a Newtonian, mechanistic view of the universe: measure, predict, control. The billiard ball is hit; it hits us; we move. It is deterministic and instrumental, and it is a single, linear causal process.

The trouble is, it just does not work. This is not how learning really happens; this is not how we should organize learning.

How does learning actually work? There are two important concepts from the cognitive constructivist views of Jean Piaget, further developed and investigated by developmental psychologists such as Kurt Fischer and Andreas Demetriou, that I want us to keep in mind as we explore these questions. The first is that we construct our knowledge of the world by acting on it to transform it. The second is that these actions are iterative; that is, we repeat actions in increasingly coordinated ways, resulting in an understanding of something emerging. So we don’t learn passively, from the world acting on us instrumentally, and we don’t learn in a linear and additive fashion, with one instance of something happening to us resulting in knowledge, other later instances adding more knowledge.

That raises the question of what it means to learn through iterative actions that result in emergent understanding. This is, after all, what practice means (as Britzman said, “Practice makes practice”), and practice, both as what a teacher does in the classroom, and as what a teacher does to improve, is what teacher knowing focuses on. But just how does this kind of emergence work? Tom Stoppard, in his play, Arcadia, describes it this way: “If you knew the algorithm and fed it back say ten thousand times, each time there’d be a dot somewhere on the screen. You’d never know where to expect the next dot. But gradually you’d start to see this shape, because every dot will be a mathematical object. But yes. The unpredictable and the predictable unfold together to make everything the way it is. It’s how nature creates itself, on every scale, the snowflake and the snowstorm.”

There is an intriguing implication that results from juxtaposing Piaget and Stoppard. Pattern emergence and pattern replication are important concepts from complexity theory that help us understand how natural systems emerge and become stabilized over time (e.g., the cell wall, in biology). And it is not surprising that these theories apply to human learning and human systems as well, as human society is itself a subset of natural systems. The main difference is that we have self-awareness; we are not just mechanistically reactive billiard balls; we value certain things, make meaning together based on those values; and we create human organizations to accomplish things collectively that are aligned with those values.

Social learning theory, and social constructivism, also have a well-developed literature on learning (Vygotsky) and on such organizational processes as how communities of practice (CoPs) and networks connecting them form and operate. So we also could say that in human social systems patterns emerge from seemingly chaotic interactions that can be noticed, named, guided, and nurtured iteratively over time as collective understanding and agreement about something develop. As Stoppard notes, pattern emergence and pattern replication require large numbers of quick iterations, each of which individually cannot be used to predict the whole that will emerge (they are not ever deterministically instrumental). In these iterations, listening, noticing, guiding, naming, nurturing, and connecting of emergent ideas turn out to be functions of facilitators, or facilitative leaders, who see their role as furthering a set of learning goals or social practices toward particular purposes or values. This notion of emergence in social learning settings might be an indicator of a way of organizing our professional lives that is an alternative to the Newtonian bureaucracy.

The process of large numbers of rapid iterations of emergent patterns occurs around what in complexity theory are referred to as “strange attractors": "...an attractor is a set of... values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system. ... Describing the attractors of chaotic dynamical systems has been one of the achievements of chaos theory.” In human systems, some of the strange attractors around which patterns of social learning or organization might emerge and evolve could include values, community, and accomplishments. In communities of practice, people come together around a shared sense of purpose or a passion, they coalesce activity around creating a community that shares that purpose, and they focus their collective learning on developing shared practices and knowledge that help them achieve the things they want to accomplish related to their purpose or passion. A concern for deeper student learning might be a shared value, a purpose that is a “strange attractor"; equity might be another “strange attractor.”

This is a very different way of thinking about the importance of shared purpose. In mechanistic organizations we would say that vision or values should act like something deterministic. There are many change strategies that purport to operate in this kind of a deterministic fashion, backward mapping strategically from vision and values to mission to strategy to actions. In fact, what really happens is that collective engagement about such things as purpose, community, and accomplishments provides a “gravitational pull” for conversation, conflict, decision, and action. This is a very “wobbly” and messy process, because it is a social learning and organizing process, decidedly not deterministic: “It’s in the dynamic, emergent, recursive, unpredictable, wobbly nature of the interaction of those ‘strange attractors’ of values, community, and accomplishment, in an ongoing reflective conversation among organization members and their communities, that identity is formed and recognized, information is shared, relationships are built, and the meaning of our collective work is created. That is the heart of an organization’s work.” So it’s a series of alternating or co-evolving “strange attractor” conversations that eventually emerge new ways of acting that then feed back and iterate, to influence further conversations, and further action.

Three processes taken together capture how we might we rethink learning, and the organization of learning. First is through exploring pattern emergence and pattern replication, the non-linear, iterative nature of the development and spread of knowledge and practice. The second is through the role of a facilitative leader to listen, notice, guide, name, nurture, and connect what emerges. Third is through the coalescing of that emergence around the strange attractors of the values of deeper learning, the community of teachers working collaboratively on that deeper learning, and the practices and knowledge that develop. In a recent conversation with my wife, who teaches high school English in a public health academy, we explored these ideas, and she said, “That’s the way I have seen project-based learning [PBL] spreading into my life as a teacher, and into other people at my school, and in the PBL workshop we just did last week.”

She took part in her first PBL workshop six years ago. Each year she has replanned her units, her lessons, and her classroom activities (an example of what I quoted from Jal’s blog earlier, “work[ing] on smaller pieces of practice, but work[ing] on all of the different parts of those smaller pieces simultaneously...”) in ways that slowly, increasingly looked like PBL, and done that increasingly collaboratively with colleagues who shared her interest in developing their capacity to teach in these ways, with shared values around the content. What she described is a practice that should echo the main ideas we started with: We construct our knowledge of the world by acting on it to transform it. These actions are iterative, that is, we repeat actions in increasingly coordinated ways, resulting in an understanding of something emerging. And we do that iterative construction and action in social, organizational contexts, and in the process our practice improves. Practice makes practice.

You may say that Communities of Practice are not a new idea in schools. We’ve had PLCs for 30 years now, and CoPs for 20. But they haven’t led to the kind of changes that I am describing. Why is that? I believe it is because of what I stated in my initial assumption, that the organizational structure within which they are situated is a non-professional, mechanistic structure that, because of the unexamined epistemological choices embedded therein, limits the kinds of learning processes we can engage in. In addition, this same organizational structure at the district level encourages people still to be thinking and operating in a command and control mode, which is misaligned with effective adult learning. These views and ways of organizing result in our not prioritizing and supporting PLC or CoP learning processes, still assuming teacher learning and improvement happens in PD sessions. Despite the growth of PLCs and CoPs, the old habits of mind about learning and unexamined false assumptions deeply embedded in the ways we have organized our professional lives together inhibit the potential for fundamental change.

What would be the benefits of making these shifts? First, our collective learning would improve and increase dramatically, which would improve our teaching and our schools. Second, we would create organizations that coherently support this kind of networked, iterative social learning process, instead of getting in the way of that learning. Challenges to increased teacher effectiveness could be addressed. The inherently stable nature of our educational bureaucracies, amazingly impervious to change or improvement, which Bateson refers to as “The steady state... maintained by continual nonprogressive change,” might be replaced by rapid innovation and more deeply powerful learning for students and teachers alike. We would create the agile and nimble learning organizations that could support deeper learning. We might end up learning “the whole game in the microcosm” that Jal talks about, together, and become more passionate and joyful about the purposes we could achieve, the community we could build, and the practice and collective knowledge we could create.

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