Opinions? Buy one get one free. But facts?

On Wednesday evening, I found myself – as you do – at a Postgraduate Induction Evening. No, not inducting them into organisations: inducting them into being postgraduates. Having spent many years in the worlds of learning and development, I had decided to actually do some learning. (Encouraging comments would be very welcome, by the way.) This article comes with appropriate caveats – the introductory talks that I attended were mostly about study and learning skills in an academic environment: what this world expects of you, and how to re-arrange your thinking and output so as to best impress those who will be assessing you.

And yes, that does sound a little like working: understanding how performance is assessed and aligning your efforts appropriately. (There’s a whole sideline here about the difference between final examinations and continuous assessment, but I’ll save that for next week’s essay challenge.) And without unduly re-opening the ‘what is education for?’ debate (been there, done that), the academic world isn’t as myopic to the issue as some in the commercial world might sometimes (sound like they) believe.

In one session about returning to study (I last graced a University’s doorstep in student capacity some 31 years ago), we brainstormed the changes in higher education over the last 10 years or so. The impact of technology and the huge increase in information to which we all have access was the most obvious answer, closely followed by the cost of learning. But we also identified students’ motivation (academic fascination and self-interest have been overtaken by the want/need to increase personal competitiveness in the employment market), and the response of the sector in increasing the vocational applicability of their course profiles. The ‘M’ word (marketisation) cropped up too: as someone pointed out, if the world suddenly finds itself in desperate need of anthropologists in 20 years’ time, either our view on our current options might change or we’ll have to start importing them. (Interestingly, the speaker was a biologist. There is more to life than pure self-interest.)

But another factor that was firmly added to the whiteboard was a focus on the process of learning, and of the transferability of skills. The point is not to be great in achieving, say, an MSc in Urban Geography; the point is to acquire skills that enable you to make a better contribution to the world as a skilled urban geographer. (I’m studying Creative Writing: please don’t ask for details on that one.)

The increased role of learning from and with your peers, and of group working, and the increasingly diverse nature of participants were also highlighted: these, presumably, are familiar to those of you reading this in an office rather than between seminars. As one speaker pointed out, the skills of learning are close to the skills of project management: time management, organisational skills and resource allocation, knowledge management, scoping and prioritising. The academics have grasped that learning is work: the best of business has grasped that work is learning, although I’d hazard a guess some organisations may still be in the remedial stream on this one.

The other point is about taking a step up, and using your newly acquired skills in research to argue your own case. (In academic terms, preferably an original one, although why that shouldn’t necessarily apply in commercial terms is a question that the business world might ask itself more often.) The diagram below shows a hierarchy of the skills involved. Now, it may be that I wasn’t as focused as I might have been on the event – or that I was applying sufficient depth of field to also see the applicability of my new learning to my own wider context (a little self-praise can be helpful) – but I couldn’t help but see this ‘step up’ in more than just undergrad -> postgrad terms.

A heirarchy of learning skillsThe lowest three steps of the pyramid represent expectations of performance at undergraduate level. The crude version is ‘ok, you listened to the lecturer; you’ve grasped the point and you can do or recall it’. A BA or BSc is not to be sniffed at, of course, but in terms of exceptionality these are not what they once were. The world has also stepped up: the percentage of the population going on to degree level study has mushroomed since I stood proudly in a field in Leicestershire in a mortar board and a Batman cape. Just as has (controversially) been the case with OFSTED assessments of schools, what was once ‘good’ is now more likely to be seen as ‘satisfactory’. Satisfactory is …well, satisfactory, but it doesn’t raise the bar. (There’s another angle on whether ‘good enough’ is still good enough in the reliably entertaining Rants Of A Madman blog.)

The higher steps of the pyramid are where the transition to ‘good’ or ‘exceptional’ is made. (I also noticed that ‘create’ is the pinnacle: innovation and informed rethinking of the existing are the goal. And, as Steven Johnson and Peter Cook have said in different ways, creativity and innovation are not bolts from the blue or eureka moments in bathtubs, but the result of a disciplined process that builds on the efforts of others.)

But the most vivid reminder that the world of work would continue beyond the lecture room walls came in one sentence:

There are few facts but lots of opinions.

It was suddenly very hard not to at least briefly think, “mmm yes, I remember that meeting/client/manager”. One of the key skills of learning when it moves beyond enabling recall is critical thinking. Applied to the likely mountain of opinion and the underlying molehill of fact, critical thinking requires the learner to:

  • Identify the difference between the two
  • Identify bias – is the opinion expressed based in fact, in selected fact, or pure opinion?
  • Look at an argument to identify whether or not it is based on plausible, credible evidence
  • Tell the difference between – and appropriately deploy – description (Who? When?), analysis (How? Why?) and evaluation (So what? Why should I – or my audience – care?)

I couldn’t help but think that here lays the difference between an unsupported wishlist and a well-argued business case, and between a sound strategic vision and a half-baked hallucination. (Those who’ve attended some of the less structured seminars in the University of Life tell me that a really vivid hallucination requires the visionary to be thoroughly ‘baked’, which can possibly be read as much as a comment on visionaries as on lifestyle choices.) Without critical thinking, it’s very easy to choose the wrong answers to the wrong questions. And sustainability is far more about exploring the possibilities of wind-driven than about whim-driven. Critical thinking helps you look at what you can resist: if the only thing you roll over and play dead for is temptation, you want to pause and reflect. (Or read less Oscar Wilde.)

At the postgraduate/’going beyond satisfactory’ level, there is a guiding spirit of enquiry. The first step is to define the question; the second is to design the framework for answering it. And the process is – deliberate quotemarks ahoy – ‘scientific’, in the sense that it is:

  • Systematic (what’s already known? Is it provable?)
  • Empirical (Unearth and review the evidence)
  • Rigorous (often, but wrongly, confused with vigorous)
  • Sceptical (you may realise that you will disprove either former ‘answers’ or your own assumptions, and should be honest if that is the case)

I’ll leave the lesson there, for now. In terms of ‘what can I take from this and apply beyond the classroom’, you can see this as the Description – or the basis of one. This blog lightly sketches some of the skills of being an effective learner. Analysis and Evaluation are yet to come, but I hope I have begun to make an argument that the classroom windows face outwards and the curtains are open. Learning doesn’t see itself as ‘something that happens in a special room, divorced from life’.

The rest of the world might, however, still need to show more gallantry in being prepared to hold the door open and let the learning in. Those effective learning skills have a place in the everyday as well as the weekly tutorial – unless, of course, you think you or your staff have nothing left to learn.

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