It's Time to Get Rid of Teaching and Learning

Sound the trumpets! Education is entering an age of student-centered learning wherein learning takes precedence over teaching. But if you think this newest model represents "innovative" thinking, you aren't looking beyond the donor-plaqued, ivy-covered walls of academe.

We already know that education cannot be confined to brick and mortar. Like Giordano Bruno's idea of god, it should be without circumference, a kinetic force that can be delivered anywhere and anytime, with learning centers in every country and household. But the MOOC masters are all about universal and timeless access to something that looks like learning and reduces cost while remaining measurable by standardized testing. It's as if those business people who for the last 40 or 50 years have been saying that we should run colleges like their businesses have died and gone to heaven. Which could be a good thing, because, as Thomas Kuhn writes, the old fogies' dying is a requisite for real paradigm change on earth.

So what businesses are we modeling higher education after now? Certainly not Apple, Google, Adobe, Groupon, Netflix or any other company that wasn't around 40 or 50 years ago. These companies and their (relatively) young leaders have deconstructed the idea of work and workers, reinventing their workspaces to allow for creativity, networking and collaboration -- focused activities that lead to inspired product and service innovations.

And what of the workforce? If that term sounds very 1960's, it's because it is. When it came into vogue, it referred to a narrowly specialized group for whom lifelong learning, like their other learning, occurred only in a thinly sliced field. But as the people at IDEO will tell you, the modern worker should not be a wire-thin spike, but rather a T, someone whose narrow specialty is shaped by an open and malleable ecosystem of diverse knowledge.

There is another way that T represents the new worker: TALENT.

The problem isn't that education is learner-centered or place-based, like snow shoveling or the other type of shoveling wiseacres talk about happening in college. The problem is that it's not about developing talent. Developing talent is our new work. Industry craves talent, but responding to this craving would create a paradigm shift that higher education, one of the most conservative businesses on earth, is not ready for.

Ready to hear a dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about? Educators (even learning-centered educators) are in love with their own knowledge. This isn't necessarily a bad thing on its own, but when you consider that an educator's power, prestige, and even their very identity is born from the knowledge they possess, you can recognize it as a millstone around the neck of change. An educator's knowledge is their stock, and as such the learning process is a form of investment by the student that causes the value of that stock to rise.

Why then would colleges, those repositories of learning, storehouses of wisdom, trash heaps of history, ever embrace a system that would devalue that stock? Who wants to give up their authority? Who wants to admit to a lifetime of teaching something that is not valuable or important? Who wants to undermine all the years invested in the development of their identity? Forget the raging debate over new and experimental educational models. These are the questions and reservations that truly define our august community.

But let's assume that we could in fact model ourselves after a business idea that is relevant to our current world. What would talent development look like?

It could look a lot like something we're all familiar with - learning to walk. When an infant learns to walk, the fact that its parents (authority figures) are already world-class walkers does not help them. Nor will many parents tell their fallen toddler, "You're doing it wrong." They will not say, "Watch me walk if you want to see someone do it correctly." They will instead offer the stability and support of a guiding hand, and when the time is right, they will let go. The child will continue to walk, and eventually will run, skip, jump, strut, shuffle, and stride. They may have coaches along the way that will help them improve their dexterity, but in the end they will move their feet on their own, developing their own style. Walking is a talent.

The next time you take a walk, try to wrap your head around what a college or university would look like if talent development were the organizing principle for everyone and everything - faculty, staff, and administration. Talk amongst yourselves or to anyone else you want to, inside or outside the walls of your institution, personally or virtually.

This is not a definitive blog. I will be back soon, not with answers, but with more fuel to feed the conversation.

Until then, walk carefully. Talent is about.