Learning’s Not a River

For educators, the summer is the time to think big about what we do. So here’s a question as big as any: Why do we organize learning into courses? For most of us, our time as students in the past, however distant, is inextricably linked to the courses in which we were enrolled. Going to school was synonymous with doing coursework. We scrambled to get into the ‘right’ classes and we celebrated when the ‘wrong’ ones were completed. The cyclical time frames into which we squeezed our academic careers (quarters, semesters, years) were important, arbitrary, and imperceptible in their ubiquity. We rarely if ever questioned them. And yet they had massive impacts on our student experience, some positive and some not so much, which is exactly why we should bring ‘the course’ under a critical lens today.

The roots of the word are worth examining. Etymologically, the word ‘course’ is related to the running of a river (from the French cors). Its linguistic origins suggest what we already know about learning that has been compressed into fixed periods of time. Its hallmarks include rapidity, unidirectionality, linearity, and dependency.

  • Rapidity: Courses favor speed, as any student who has run into trouble with deadlines knows. Learning is not a leisurely process when due dates loom and calendars fill up. The implication is that learning should be a hectic process, which it often is for today’s busy students.
  • Unidirectionality: Organizing a curriculum into a course of study suggests that it should be tackled sequentially, with a clear progression from one unit to the next. Opportunities to revisit material or reorder topics in response to learners’ needs and interests are unfortunately rare in today’s schools.
  • Linearity: A course moves along a narrowly defined path. Teachers are rewarded for setting out clear goals (learning objectives) and mile markers (grades) that let students know how far along a two-dimensional track they have progressed. Wandering, meandering, and exploring are implicitly ruled out, and digressions are treated as distractions rather than growth opportunities.
  • Dependency: The idea of a course suggests the need for guidance. Even in the most student-centered environments, teachers take the lead in defining the course of study and thereby heavily shape the student experience.

To put this simply, when a student takes a course, she is being led at pace down a narrow path in one direction.

Notice how different this is from the learning we experience outside of schools, in other parts of our lives. The overwhelming bulk of our personal growth happens in open environments, without constraints or schedules, and often without guidance. We might even suggest that structured learning is somewhat unnatural. (My preschooler daughter is learning her letters. She does not care a whit that there are twenty-six of them or that her weird father is referencing milestone charts to make sure she is on track.) There is even some evidence to suggest that unstructured learning is not only common but also more powerful. Scholarly research on implicit learning and anecdotal studies of self-taught experts (musicians, chefs, athletes, and more) speak to the power of unstructured study.

So why do we force the student experience into courses? In truth, courses are not how we organize learning; they are how we organize assessment. We impose time limits on curricula in part because we believe, perhaps wrongly, that giving every student the same amount of time to demonstrate progress is the fairest way to evaluate their efforts. Additionally, these time frames offer clear practical benefits. Teachers can take planned time off, parents know when to expect report cards, and business offices understand how to bill families at the start of the term. There is an efficiency in all of this, the efficiency of a ‘school as factory,’ to borrow Sir Ken Robinson’s famous metaphor.

If we reject this factory model, though, what are the alternatives? One is to conceive of learning as an experience rather than a course of study. An ‘experience’ — again, we can look to etymology for clues — connotes experimentation, play, and even failure. Happily, this is what learning looks like in the rich and joyful years of early education. (We don’t ask a kindergartner in which courses she is enrolled for the upcoming year, thank goodness.) Perhaps schools would do well to offer up learning experiences rather than formalized courses in all grades, even at the risk of coming off as overly cute or even pretentious. It’s worth thinking about how such a paradigm shift might affect a secondary school’s curriculum and programming, and whether such a shift would have a positive impact on students.

None of this is to ignore the practical realities of schools. It is admittedly difficult to imagine how a school runs itself — think staffing, budgeting, accreditation, scheduling — if its curriculum is not sequenced into courses. Would parents really sign their kids up for a school that offers “learning experiences” in place of traditional classes? Would teachers want to work there? Would colleges and other institutions take such a school seriously?

Taking into consideration these practical concerns but also the costs of packaging learning into discrete courses, what can schools do? A few things:

  • Schools can honor learning opportunities that exist outside of traditional coursework. These opportunities often live beyond the classroom, for example in enrichment programs or athletics departments, and as such they are treated as supplemental rather than integral to the school’s mission. Such treatment is unfair. Schools should invest in programs that lack the structure of traditional coursework exactly because those programs offer students authentic opportunities for personal growth.
  • Schools can look for ways to decouple reporting on student performance from arbitrary time frames. Nearly every transcript lists coursework by year, semester, or quarter, something that has become so normal that it goes unquestioned. There have been some recent efforts to report on student achievement without referencing the time students take to reach given levels of proficiency — the work of the Mastery Transcript Consortium is the most prominent — but these efforts are few and far between.
  • Schools can allow students to revisit coursework more easily. Given that we will not do away with courses anytime soon, how can we create space for students who need more time to consolidate their learning, to master a curriculum or set of skills? What’s wrong with a student submitting and receiving credit for work after the official end of a semester, for example? Are the practical costs of allowing that greater than the costs of closing off learning opportunities when the semester is up?
  • Schools can distinguish between coursework and learning in their language and communications. Administration and faculty should be willing to acknowledge that courses offer venues for intellectual and personal growth but do not have a monopoly on it. This is more than a matter of rhetorical framing; how we talk about coursework in relation to both learning and the broader student experience affects how students see themselves and how they act within the school environment.

This is not a proposal to scuttle traditional courses or coursework, but simply a suggestion that we examine more critically this particular feature of our current education system. It’s a feature that is so obvious, entrenched, and dominant that it seems almost impossible to challenge — sort of like paddling upstream. Just maybe, though, with a bit of creativity and intentionality we can tack slowly in new directions. Let’s see where they take us.