Teachers College, Columbia University

Assumptions, Adoption, and How Adults Really Learn

More on innovation in higher education

Dr. Donna Murdoch
Sep 12, 2013 · 4 min read

There is quite a discrepancy, in this era of disruption and realignment, between ideas and mandates at the macro level and the realities of implementation. Ideas come easy — the reality of implementation is the big challenge. There are so many moving parts to coordinate.

Unlike other businesses (and higher ed is a business, whether public or private) higher ed has remained pedagogically stagnant and relatively innovation-less for decades. Part of this is the culture of the Academy. Autonomy has always been encouraged. Adoption of new processes and paradigms has been optional, as opposed to, for instance, a company that might start using Salesforce.com. Adoption of that new technology in business is not optional. If there is a change, everyone adjusts. Business and higher ed have been very different in that regard, but by making incremental changes as innovation has occurred, business has been able to avoid what has become very disorienting for many in higher ed.

On the other hand, autonomy can yield creativity, discovery, and research leading to other types of innovation. A higher level of empowerment often means greater motivation and productivity. The autonomy and empowerment traditionally given to faculty has not encouraged innovation in education itself, but rather in subject matter of their expertise.

We have arrived at a point, however, where institutions no longer have the luxury of being able to submerge themselves in subject matter research without recognizing disruptions occurring at almost every level of process. Connectivism, networked learning, new technology and modalities, open resources, and new mindsets about collective intelligence and collaboration are disruptive both at an institutional level and in very personal ways. We are beginning to address these issues on an institutional level. In most cases, we are not addressing the individuals involved.

Assumption Driven

We tend to make assumptions about how adult learners (faculty and instructors, in my example) should adapt. Do we simply apply Rogers’ Innovation Adoption Curve? Online learning, technology, and its pedagogy are not as basic as trying out a new piece of software and evaluating whether or not it is worth investing time and money. The process of integrating technology into instruction is rich and multi-faceted. We may make many assumptions about how we can “train” faculty, while I suggest that we are making assumptions that they will arrive at the table to be “trained” at all.

Assumptions are present in any decision we make. The macro-level decision maker, the autonomous Professor, mid-level management in an organization – they all make assumptions that drive them and, in many cases, inhibit them. Assumptions and judgments evolve from our experience. We make decisions based on mind-mediated experiences, since we see and judge through the lens of that which we know.

Since we are tethered to what we already know, the assumptions we make based on that knowledge can stifle innovation. “I’ve trained people before, so I will be able to train them again.” Or, from the learner’s side, “I had trouble with it before? It will give me trouble again.” We see affirmations of our assumptions, because they are familiar. That’s what we notice. And when a new concept is introduced, we color it and make it conform. Since motivation drives effort, and our experience drives our sense of self, we need to sense that we are capable in new educational environments. We need to feel that we can achieve.

This can be extended to explain what Patrick McConlogue did in his now somewhat famous offer to help a homeless man learn to code. Patrick knew coding. He saw a young male. He assumed young men can learn to code. All other aspects of his post aside, what is not unusual is the reasons he made certain assumptions. A 28 year old male can learn to code. That Patrick himself would be able to teach him to code. We tell ourselves stories through the lens of our own experience.

Which means that the way we need to introduce innovation is to tether it to existing knowledge and past experiences. We might want to leapfrog ahead to do everything in new ways. But if we want to implement and execute realistically, we need to take the time to tether new learning and new adoption to existing practice. Find that hook, using the existing template of knowledge, and engage by using that which is known to introduce what is new. We often make assumptions that people will understand things in the same way we do ourselves. Letting go of assumptions and judgment about what people don’t know, and being empathic about our introduction of innovation might yield the best results.

The Transformation of Education

Insights, analogies, and experiences during this time of ambiguity and uncertainty.

    Dr. Donna Murdoch

    Written by

    Global learning innovation in the workplace. Adjunct Professor @TeachersCollege @Columbia @PennGSE. Opinions are my own..

    The Transformation of Education

    Insights, analogies, and experiences during this time of ambiguity and uncertainty.

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