Objective Learning, Humility and Real Achievement

I’m re-reading Shopclass as Soulcraft, which begins with Matt Crawford asking what value hands-on work offers.  He questions the abstractions in which we all traffic (consumerism, academics, politics) in the information age.

There is value in learning about something external from ourselves, something with absolute requirements unlike the everyone’s a genius in their own way/student success means everyone passes/let students direct their own learning so they aren’t bored mantras you see whirling around edu-speak these days.  Crawford is focusing on trade skills in the book, but he’s arguing for any skill that has needs beyond whatever criteria we choose to apply to it.  This would apply to languages (you either understand and can communicate in it or not), technical skill (you can rebuild that carburetor so that it works, or not), or even sports (you can ski down the hill, or you can’t).  These kinds of skills get short shrift in schools these days because we can’t bend the requirements sufficiently to pass everyone and claim success.

Conestoga’s Motorcycle Training

This past weekend I took a motorbike training course.  It was exhausting, and very rewarding, and it had a six and a half percent failure rate. Those people paid four hundred and fifty dollars and were unable to complete the requirements of the course in a road test.  They left frustrated, and in some cases angry, but in a very real way they demonstrated that they could not control and place the bike.  The instructors were transparent and explained the failed components in detail, but people still left early with high emotions.  It’s hard for people who are used to paying and passing to suddenly find themselves having paid and failed.  Doesn’t payment equal success?  Doesn’t consumerism replace competence?  It does in many situations, and increasingly in education.  Students become clients (especially in post secondary where they are paying directly for it), but even in k-12 tax payers are the clients and success for all is what they are paying for.

It’s fair to say the test asked us to demonstrate about 60% of what we’d been asked to do that weekend – it wasn’t brutal by any means, but controlling a motorcycle is a tricky business, and some people found the learning curve too steep.  Whether it was full body coordination or keeping what you’re doing organized in your head, there was a lot to manage in doing this test.  The criteria were clearly explained and had been practiced relentlessly for two full days, there were no surprises yet some people were unable to *do* what was required.  Alternatives weren’t offered, differentiation was self directed – by you – while you were learning on the bike, the instructors offered advice and it was up to you to take it or not.  Those that failed generally didn’t take it.  Riding a bike isn’t like driving a car.  You’re alone on it, you don’t have a voice in your ear making suggestions or stepping in with alternate controls, it’s all up to you.

The curriculum was demanding and had specific requirements that couldn’t be ignored. It was physically exhausting and required twenty four hours of your time over a single weekend, early wakeups and hours outside in very changeable April weather.  When someone showed up late on Sunday they were dropped out of the course (and seemed utterly flabbergasted at the situation); 100% attendance was required, and in order to see success you had to be there mentally, physically and emotionally.  There was a high correlation between failures and people who were always the last to show up.  As Crawford mentions in his book, learning an objective skill requires a degree of submission and humility to the task at hand – something that we ironically iron out of schools in order to demonstrate success.

For the rest of us, marks were given and certificates (which include a big drop in insurance costs as well as a direct pass to the next level of licensing) were given out in a ceremony.  People who got perfect scores were mentioned, and applauded. Everyone still in that room realized how much work they’d put into their success that weekend.  But they’d put in more than effort, they’d also been willing to be taught, to check their pride at the door and learn something challenging and new from the ground up.

There is an important difference between submission and humility. One can be humble and it enhances self worth, and allows learning in the oldest educational context we possess.  Submission is about the power of the strongest, humility is about an honest awareness of one’s circumstance.  A master at a skill is honoured when their apprentice is humble before the task because they are receptive and teachable, and they are also respecting the skill that the master possesses. That humility allows you develop perhaps the most powerful learning tool available to us, self-discipline, which in turn grants the serious student the ability to master skills that would otherwise defeat a dilettante. You assume the mantle of a serious, even professional student when you are able to apply self-discipline gained through the humble acquisition of meaningful skill.  In school we constantly seek ways to amateurize learning in order to satisfy a Taylorist economic logic.  We try to streamline and ease student passage, forgiving absence and inattention in a misguided effort to generate successful data.  Any statistic you’ve ever seen about education has nothing to do with learning.

This sounds like throw back language, especially in light of the MBA edu-babble popular today. Students teaching themselves in order to stay engaged?  Best not done around a band-saw, as Crawford suggests.  Students able to ‘pass’ with a 50% average? Or with weeks of absenteeism?  They’ve hardly mastered anything.  Students given multiple avenues to success with targets that get closer the more they miss?  This learning is empty and pedantic, and students recognize that. Reward comes with real effort, and real failure.  Guaranteeing success for all?  The surest way to a systemic failure of learning.

I hurt all over from this past weekend, but it was profoundly satisfying.  I worked hard, didn’t treat it like a joke, gave it my full attention and realized early on that the people instructing know so much more than I do that it would behoove me to be humble before their skill and experience.  I think that humility is what led to my success.  That success may very well save my life one day.  Engagement was never an issue.

I won’t see much of that humility and openness to learning in the diploma factory I’m returning to today, though I’ll try and try to put reality’s demands in front of my students and let them be frustrated by it.  It’s real success when you overcome an obstacle and figure something out, especially if you experienced failure in the process.  Not so much when people systemically remove obstacles to keep nearly inert objects in motion.  As self discipline erodes and humility dries up, the process of learning itself begins to break down.

Are you teaching curriculum today?  Or are you teaching how students should passively pass through the Kafkaesque education factory in which they find themselves?

Being taught how to actually do something with objective demands has made me proud, humble and grateful for the skillset I have as a learner.  When I see opportunities to approach learning with humility and develop self-discipline missing from so much of what we do in school, it makes it seem an empty, even dangerous place.