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What do you learn for?

Innovations in education are missing much of what makes it so special. We need to remind ourselves that learning is not just about economics.

Earlier this month, I had my first official university reunion, and have been thinking about my time there. I have also been involved in two types of teaching recently, in a one-on-one academic capacity to secondary-school level students, and as a co-facilitator to professionals for Kitchen, Wolff Olins’ new school venture. These two different environments required very different types of attention and approaches, but in both cases the reasons for learning were similar: people want to equip themselves for the future.

Why we learn

Typically, we learn for one or a mix of the following reasons:

1. Economic – as an investment in our future utility and earning power, and eligibility to employers

2.  Moral and Social – for our personal and intellectual development with a view to social responsibility and democratic citizenship

3.  Epistemic – for the development of knowledge and understanding, learning for learning’s sake

New routes to learning

It is an interesting time in education. The rise of MOOCs (the fastest-growing instructional form of education globally) and SPOCs are well documented, with many platforms offering courses, programmes and schemes which threaten traditional models of access and price.

Earlier this year, an app called Spritz was announced which claims to enable people to read a novel in 90 minutes. The press it received isn’t surprising, it has all the hallmarks of extreme click bait (More! Faster! Apps! More efficient and faster apps!), and the product sounds attractive until you start to think about it (which, incidentally, you couldn’t do if you were reading this argument, or any, on that app). This Atlantic article suggested, far more eloquently than I could, that the app is not really even trying to make you read faster, but to transcend reading altogether. It is as if the only benefit of reading something is the ability to declare that you have read it.

There are other examples too. Coursmos, a platform for micro-courses, presents itself by saying, “Always wanted to learn, but were too busy? Education for Generation Distracted”.  At the time of writing, five of the first pages of recommended courses on Mindsy were about making an activity more productive, faster or easier. The only discernible function of learning is to help get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

And so this faster and easier swathe of learning allows people to remove themselves from the actual experience of learning.

Obsessing on productivity and economics

Learning at its best does not come easily (and often the challenges involved are what makes it enjoyable). Nor are its benefits limited to its measurable outcomes (a certificate of completion, a symbolic stamp of achievement, employment after the event and so on). Spritz encourages you to have read so you can say you’ve read something; it doesn’t allow for the absorption, contemplation or playing around with what you read. Having gained a qualification in five easy steps does not mean that you really understand it. The quality not only of the education, but also its subsequent application in the world, is threatened.

One concern about this goal-oriented, end-supersedes-the-means emphasis is that we stop thinking about quality, and only think in terms of economics and efficiency. Another concern is that learning increasingly becomes a solitary pursuit for individual self-actualisation: of course, people should learn for themselves, but learning with and amongst others is where so much real understanding, collaboration and progress is made.

Universities have traditionally rooted themselves in ‘the disinterested pursuit of knowledge’ but our increasing obsession with quantifying, measuring and ranking results, efficacy and outcomes threatens this. Students are increasingly being treated as customers, and if only assessed in utilitarian terms the product (of education) will become less impactful in moral, social and epistemic terms. Martha Nussbaum has argued against the increasingly utilitarian expectations placed upon education. It should not be subsumed into the business of economics, and students should not be treated as customers.

Despite some teething problems and legitimate challenges about quality, new models of education and learning will improve. This should be a positive and exciting prospect, but it is important to consider why and how we want to learn. If we read and study only for the outcome, not for the journey, it will be a great shame. Learning should offer us so much more.

Dan Gavshon-Brady is a strategist at Wolff Olins, London. He can be found @DanGB88