What are they learning?

What exactly are students learning when they take a business writing course?

By learning, I mean a persistent change within an individual that can be observed in the behavior of the individual. That may not be the best definition of learning — and I know the scholarly debate about the meaning of the term has a long pedigree — but I hope this is sufficient for a blog entry today.

The educational psychology literature includes important distinctions between terms such as knowledge, aptitude, ability, skill, talent, and trait. Each of these terms gets debated, but they also contain important differences that imply or entail not only different theoretical understandings of human learning but also different pedagogical practices and expectations. So the question becomes: What is the correct theoretical construct for the thing we teach in business writing? Is it a skill? Is it a talent? Is it an ability? Or is it not a single construct but rather a set of them that combine to produce the behavior we see when we give a student an assignment? (I think here of the Flower-Hayes cognitive models of 30 years ago.)

Another important question has to do with the degree to which the things learned in our classes generalize to different contexts. If a student learns to produce work that we regard as high quality, does that mean they will produce similar high quality work in new settings and in response to new situations? Or is the learning context-dependent to the degree that the learning is not portable.

These are extensively debated topics in educational psychology. I’m only slightly familiar with the literature. But it seems that we in business communication would be well served to address such questions in a more explicit way.

Within business communication — and other communication scholarship — there is a long-standing and unresolved conversation about central questions and methods of advancing knowledge. Indeed, the notion that we are trying to advance knowledge is itself deeply contested. But to the degree that outsiders look at us and ask what we are doing, it would be helpful to be able to articulate, in a thoughtful way, what kind of learning we are trying to foster in our students. And by articulate, I mean on a deeper level than “I know it when I see it” kinds of talk. That works internally but is largely unpersuasive externally.

I see two primary areas worth further consideration. First, we could explore and engage the scholarship on writing and literate practices to come to grips with the range of theoretical and methodological discourse across multiple disciplines. Second, we should do the foundational work in educational psychology to be able to speak consistently and intelligibly about what it is we are trying to accomplish with our pedagogical practices.

This may be happening in many places in our field, but if it is the work is largely local.

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Are we learning?

Norbert Wiener, a communication scientist who helped create the field of cybernetics, defined learning this way:

Again, feedback is the control of a system by reinserting into the system the results of its performance. If these results are merely used as numerical data for the criticism of the system and its regulation, we have the simple feedback of the control engineers. If however, the information which proceeds backward from the performance is able to change the general method and pattern of performance, we have a process which may well be called learning.

We learn when the results of our actions are used to change the way we act.

Data gathering – like the kind they do in the North Alabama Conference and that envisioned by the Call to Action steering committee report can be used by others to “criticize” and “regulate” a system, but learning only happens when the system itself uses the results of its own performance to change its behavior.

Often, the way we speak of “accountability” in the church is in the engineering sense. Someone else will gather information about our performance and then tell us how to change to “do better” in the future. This may be a necessary step for us at some times, but it is not the ideal state.

The ideal state is to have us self-regulate, to learn. When our own behavior – as individuals or as congregations or entire conferences (?) – leads to results we do not want, we use the information to change the way we act until the results and our goals match. This is using feedback to learn.

The first step to all of this, however, is clarity about goals. If my goal is to have a comfortable place to go on Sunday morning and a place to get my kids married, then my self-regulating behaviors will be different from someone who wants to be reaching the lost sheep.

If my goal is to keep the numbers up and the offerings flowing to prop up the existing real estate, then my self-regulating behaviors might be much different from someone who wants to spread holiness of heart and life.

Again and again, I come back to this question. What our our goals? Do we as Christians, as United Methodists, as members of congregations understand our purpose and goals in overlapping or common terms?

If not, is it any wonder that we keep missing the mark?