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Learning versus performing

February 22, 2015

Last week I had a conversation with a Master’s student that made me think.

We were discussing what research method she should use and she said she wanted to “test a model” although neither of us could see how that could be done in the context of her research question. She told me that she wanted to do this because she’d used that method for her honours research project, she’d been told she was good at it, and she really wanted to do well in her master’s.

I suggested to her that master’s would be a good time to learn another research method, and that repeating one she had already mastered did not seem to entail much learning, but she reiterated that “I really want to do well”. She appeared really terrified at the prospect of doing something different.

So I’m wondering when “doing well” in a master’s degree changed from “learning as much as I can about doing research” to “showing that I can do one research method really well”. It seems that we have replaced the goal of learning with that of performing. Students, particularly “good” ones, have become so attuned to the idea of “doing well” or getting good marks, that that takes priority over learning.

For me learning and performing are at odds. When learning something, one must expect to be less than good at it, because there is a period of time when one is learning, that is, one does not know and has not mastered that which one is learning. If the view is held that you cannot, ever, be seen to be incompetent, then what space is there to learn new things? You learn by making mistakes, doing things wrong, messing up, and in the process becoming better at what you do.

If students are too afraid to try new things then their learning is going to be stunted.

I plan to go back and persuade this student that a really good research project is one where the research method is selected because it is appropriate to the research question, and not where it is selected because the researcher feels comfortable with the method. I hope that she can overcome her fears.

I really long to work with adventurous students who see learning as exploration, and who are willing to take risks, to explore unchartered territory, and to have fun in the process. More than anything I long to work with students who don’t care about the marks. Unfortunately education, the way it is, does not produce this kind of student. It produces terrified, stunted little creatures that are afraid to explore. It’s wrong!

From → Higher Education

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