I love learning and love institutions of learning. I’ve spent the majority of my life in the pursuit of learning.
If I start with my preschool years and add up all the years I spent in school, including my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I was in school from the age of 4 until the age of 34 (minus the years of my mission and a year taken off between undergrad and graduate school, though those three years were intensive periods of learning in my life). So, my 40-plus years of life I’ve spent 27 of them in formal learning contexts. Now, let’s add to that number how many years I’ve worked in higher education after I completed my formal schooling: going on 10 years. So I have a grand total of 36 years as a formal learner or working in formal learning institutions.
Despite this love of learning, I have seen times when I've been in an institution of higher learning and it's felt like a form of educational foot binding.
No, I don’t mean the type of foot binding practiced for a millennia in China. In Chinese foot binding, young girls had their feet tied so as to prevent further natural growth. Some group of Chinese believed that small feet on women looked beautiful. These individuals had enough influence to create a cultural institution that persisted for centuries, to the delight of the “cultured” and to the horrific pain and permanent debilitating of the women upon whom it was practiced.
So what do I mean by educational foot binding?
Let’s consider a few questions for a moment. If you had to describe a typical high school or college learning environment, what is it like? Who is doing the talking and the doing? The students or the teacher? Who is passively sitting and watching? How does the learning take place? By doing something or by reading and writing?
If your experience is like mine, you will have answered that the doing and learning is performed by the teachers, while the students remain in a passive state, the opposite of what “The Rules of Learning” recommend.
Now consider this: How does a child learn to walk? Do all children learn to walk at the same time? In the same way? Does any child require an instructor or an instructor’s manual to learn to walk? Or does a child learn by doing, by overcoming the fear of failure to try something, to learn from the experience, to learn from falling down and getting back up?
Let us return to high school and college education. How is it designed? For learners to learn by doing? Or do we first subject them to reading hundreds of pages of textbooks and listening to hundreds of hours of lecture from teachers and professors before the students are deemed capable to doing?
This, I suggest, is a form a foot binding.
We hobble our students, bind their ability to walk on their own when we tie them up with the traditions and modes of teaching and learning that have persisted for centuries without much critical reflection.
To be clear, I do not think that entire educational system is broken. Much of what occurs in formal educational settings is fabulous and commendable. But there are strong traditions and ways of teaching and learning that ultimately only serve to bind the feet of learners who could do far much more if we (as teachers) empowered them to do so.
Yes, I love reading and listening to experts. I believe that these forms of teaching and learning are extremely valuable and indispensable at times. However, for the sake of tradition and efficiency, too much of the educational system practices this form of foot binding, keeping the students from doing, from trying things out, from experiencing, from failing, from falling and getting back up. In some cases, students do not get to do their learning until after they have been certified with their diplomas that they are empowered to do so.
We should unleash the natural propensity for human learning by unbinding the metaphorical feet of learners from the shackles of bad pedagogy, the unthinking drive for educational efficiency, and the allure of pedagogical tradition.
Taylor Halverson (doctorates: Biblical studies; instructional technology) is a BYU teaching & learning consultant. http://taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.