Can True Learning Happen in School?

Sometimes I dream that I've returned to Harvard.

It's always awkward.

Instead of a squat concrete monstrosity, Gund Hall is a steel and glass tower. It's much more spacious and clean in my dreams.

As in real life, the place is abuzz with activity, and, as in real life, everyone looks tired and stressed out, albeit with a glint in their eyes.

And I always come upon a group of my former classmates doing some sort of Aggregation of a Module exercise.

What usually happens next is one of my former classmates asks me a question, like, Did I finish a project? This time, somebody asked me if I had studied for a test.

And all these thoughts swirl around my dream head, like, I don't go here anymore, so why would I study for the test? And, Tests are useless.

And, In real life, you first encounter the test, and the existence of the test makes you want to search for the lesson.

But, my classmate is still waiting for an answer. I say, "Nope." And I walk away, watching.

It's usually a short dream.

I think about Harvard several times a month when I make each of my student loan payments.

Aside from questions about Classism and Repayment Period Survivalism, Harvard has given me with something for which I am truly grateful: a deep interest in pedagogy.

How do we learn what we learn? What's the best way to learn?

Is sitting in a lecture hall the best way to be on the receiving end of the transmission of knowledge?

Can anything involving a transmission of knowledge even be called learning?

(If you answered "Yes" to either of those questions, I challenge you to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.)

In a nutshell, I think the GSD really botched it when it comes to pedagogy. Don't get me wrong, they do some things right. T. Kelly Wilson's drawing class was done right. We spent much of our time actually drawing, with plenty of immediate feedback from Kelly. The remainder of our time together we spent deconstructing art, learning new ways of seeing.

Kelly's class was one of the most useful classes I took at the GSD, and it saddened me greatly when the powers that be decided that hand drawing was no longer relevant to our educations. The lucky students at Indiana University enjoy his teaching methods now.

It's not just the GSD that has botched pedagogy. A lot of schools do. I matriculated to the GSD with high expectations; I had this idea that a 400+ year old institution would have figured out the best way that students learn and teach accordingly.

That wasn't the case.

The value of my time at the GSD is in the disappointment itself; it was my disappointment that led me to learn more about learning and drove me to study pedagogy on my own. I've since read over thirty books on pedagogy. What I've learned about how we learn best has put me at odds with the way that school in general is conducted.

But what I’ve learned has also shown me that there are really effective ways of learning, ways that you typically don't find in school.

True learning is a by-product of having solved a challenging authentic problem. True learning does not happen according to a schedule. True learning does not commence just because the semester begins, and does not end just because the semester does.

It doesn't happen just because somebody at your school's accreditation agency has decided that a particular course is "required."

It doesn't happen just because your professor has finished a new treatise and wants to test it out on you before he sends it to his publisher.

It doesn't happen just because X number of projects must be completed in a semester.

It doesn't happen just because it's 10:30 am on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.

If someone makes up "an exercise" for you to do, and they already know what the answer (or result or product) should be, and their "teaching" consists of guiding you toward this particular answer, and if you are rewarded for arriving at this particular answer, or punished for not arriving at this answer, that’s not true learning. But that’s how most of our classes are conducted from our earliest days at school.

If you learned something, took a test on it or wrote a paper about it, and a month later forgot what you "learned," you didn’t actually learn anything at all. You stuffed some information, information that was probably transmitted to you while you were sitting in lecture, into your short term memory. Short term memory is useful for remembering that you have a lunch date, or for passing tests, but it’s not useful for actual learning.

Want a real eye-opener? Take a course's final exam several years after you’ve completed the course. When I was in college, I took a year of calculus and did very well. I also took a year of organic chemistry and did very well. When I try doing calculus test problems or organic chemistry test problems now, I completely and utterly fail. I learned nothing. The A's on my transcript mock me.

It's a joke and my student loan debt is the punch line.

But what about studio, you may ask. Good question. Studio is nothing like any lecture class. It's hands-on. It's you versus The Project. It's a struggle against forces beyond your control, parameters invented by studio critics: a site you've probably never seen (if it exists at all), an imaginary client, and a free-for-all imaginary budget. Your process is guided by your imcomplete grasp of the situation, a lack of sleep, an arbitrary deadline, and a studio critic who you probably hate.

What did you learn?

Here's how I might answer that question:

I learned that it's important to my studio critic that my design process be "rigorous," regardless of how ridiculous this makes the resulting form.

I learned that while "everyone" knows that "form follows function," I'm expected to make a form, and then stuff my program into it.

I learned that it's more important to make something crazy-looking, something avant-garde, than to design something can be built.

I learned that all of the things that I think matter -- like the site, the climate, the budget, being "green", being livable, etc. -- are less important than making an "innovative" form. I also learned that "Innovative" often means "ugly as shit" and "confusing as hell."

In short, I learned that everything that matters, doesn't. And everything that doesn't, does.

What I learned, after a year of trying it the Harvard way, was that I would have been better off, have more skills, and be tens of thousands of dollars less in debt, if I had just enrolled in a six-month program at Yestermorrow instead.

True learning is when you struggle to understand something that really interests you, and you read whatever you can find about this problem, and you talk to people who have experience with this problem, and you conduct your own trial and error research to help you to both understand and to solve the problem. Your brain builds this new empirical evidence into your neural network of other things that you have learned. It is accessible whenever you need it. It stays with you until you overwrite it with better, more relevant information.

This process does not fit into a standard academic schedule. Depending on the complexity of what you are trying to understand, this process could take an hour, a week, a month, or it could take years. It could take your entire lifetime.

What you learn, how you learn it, and how long it takes you to learn it cannot be successfully standardized, not where true learning is concerned, anyway.


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