Organizing for Learning
A New Imperative
By Peter T. Ewell

From the December 1997 AAHE Bulletin:

To get systemic improvement, we must make use of what is already known about learning itself, about promoting learning, and about institutional change.


Change initiatives designed to improve undergraduate education have been launched under many banners. General-education reform, assessment, active learning, service-learning, and collaborative learning are among the most prominent, with technology-enhanced instruction perhaps the latest. In part, this flurry of activity arises because external pressure for "improvement" has become unavoidable: Employers, politicians, and citizens at large have growing doubts about what is really learned in college. In part, the activity is attributable to a sincere desire on the part of many faculty to do a better job. They are unhappy with the quality of learning that seems to result despite their efforts, and they are unhappy with a largely immutable instructional delivery system that seems to frustrate all attempts at a different order of outcome.

Despite sound conceptual foundations and sincere intentions, though, most efforts to change the existing system arise in the form of particularist "movements," each with its own rhetoric, vocabulary, tools and techniques, and sources of support. Rather than cutting across all aspects of campus functioning, each effort thus tends to become a train on its own track, isolated from its fellows and from the real ways the institution does business. Few are supported by existing incentive structures such as pay, promotion, and tenure for individual faculty members, or budget making, political position, or reputation for academic units and institutions. Against the grain of existing structures and incentives, these movements have scant chance of long-term success.

Our limited success in actually improving collegiate learning has thus not been for want of trying. Instead, the handicap is the result of two important attributes of most of the approaches that we’ve up to now tried:

They have been implemented without a deep understanding of what "collegiate learning" really means and the specific circumstances and strategies that are likely to promote it. At one level, this means that we sometimes do things that are at least partially wrong — initiatives that emerging research on human learning tells us won’t work at all or that will yield only limited returns. Lack of collective understanding about the nature of learning itself, moreover, makes the actual goal we are shooting for on any given campus fuzzy at best.

They have for the most part been attempted piecemeal both within and across institutions. This means that often-significant investments of time and resources, however well-motivated, don’t fit together very well. At a deeper level, new initiatives aren’t usually launched with much awareness of what we know about how complex organizations actually change and how they can be best induced to do so.

To overcome these conditions, colleges and universities must engage themselves far more deeply in well-informed discussions about the characteristics and sources for higher learning. AAHE is committed to fostering such conversations, as highlighted by a major program track at its National Conference on Higher Education in March 1998 (see the track description on "Organizing for Learning" in the September 1997 Bulletin).

Supporting this track is a publication — planned for 1998 — that assembles and annotates seminal writings drawn from the literatures of cognitive science, human learning and development, teaching improvement, curricular and instructional design, organizational restructuring, and quality improvement. Each of these literatures is rich and vast; any one provides an effective way into the larger topic. Taken together, they are remarkably consistent in the picture they paint.

Condensed from that planned publication’s first chapter, the article that follows is thus both an introduction and a teaser. Its three principal sections aim to sketch succinctly what we know from these various literatures about higher learning itself, about the kinds of settings and techniques that foster such learning most effectively, and about the organizational strategies best suited to change on its behalf.

What We Know About Learning
A decade of pathbreaking research in the field of cognitive science suggests that indeed big differences exist between knowledge based on recall and deeper forms of understanding. That research forces us to recognize that all learning is rich, complex, and occasionally unpredictable. Building effective environments to foster it must rest on collective knowledge and active discussion of this complexity.

Drawn from this considerable body of work, the following seven insights about learning itself seem particularly compelling as starting points for campus attention:

  • The learner is not a "receptacle" of knowledge, but rather creates his or her learning actively and uniquely. Learning is an essentially creative act. Its proof lies in the learner’s ability to go beyond the simple "reproduction" of knowledge to engage in fundamentally new forms of understanding. Psychologist Jerome Bruner strikingly portrays learners as "epistemologists" — actively engaged in constructing unique ways of knowing and finding things out, even as they add to a particular stock of knowledge. This characterization of learning, of course, is quite at odds with our dominant instructional models, which stress additive content transmission.
  • Learning is about making meaning for each individual learner by establishing and reworking patterns, relationships, and connections. Cognitive science tells us that individual brains "learn to make themselves work" actively and individually by establishing new patterns of synaptic connection. The result is a unique set of "mental models" that each of us uses to make meaning out of specific situations. One consequence is different learning styles among learners — a diversity that must be accommodated by effective instruction. Another is that established ideas don’t always go away — even when "new" ones are taught and apparently "learned."
  • Every student learns all the time, both with us and despite us. Synaptic connection making occurs constantly and not just in formal "learning" situations. Most of the resulting learning, moreover, is implicit — arising out of direct interaction with complex environments and a range of "cues" given by peers and mentors. This insight helps explain the common research finding that college students learn a lot outside of class. It also admonishes us to take conscious advantage of every available setting as an opportunity for learning.
  • Direct experience decisively shapes individual understanding. Cognitive science also tells us that the brain’s activity is in direct proportion to its engagement with actively stimulating environments. Although disagreement remains about the extent to which individual learners can generalize what they learn from discrete and different environments (the so-called "situated learning" controversy), this insight certainly lends credence to our efforts to create active student engagement in any teaching situation.
  • Learning occurs best in the context of a compelling "presenting problem." Maximum learning tends to occur when people are confronted with specific, identifiable problems that they want to solve and that are within their capacity to do so. The first condition emphasizes the strong role of "thinking dispositions" that determine when students will actually invest energy in learning. The second compels attention to creating learning situations that carefully manage the levels of challenge provided: too much, and the brain simply "turns itself off."
  • Beyond stimulation, learning requires reflection. Brain research tells us that high challenge produces major surges in short-term neural activity (termed "beta-level" activity). But building lasting cognitive connections requires considerable periods of reflective ("alpha-level") activity as well. Absent reflection, solving "presenting problems" usually ends learning encounters at a point well short of the cognitive reorganization that deep learning requires. Effective learning situations thus need to encompass time for thinking.
  • Learning occurs best in a cultural context that provides both enjoyable interaction and substantial personal support. Finally, new insights into the ways traditional cultures gain and transmit knowledge (drawn from sociobiology and anthropology) remind us that effective learning is social and interactive. Key features of the necessary social milieu that we should be mindful of in creating new learning situations are direct personal support for manageable risk taking (and its occasional negative consequences) and frequent opportunities for peer interaction and feedback.

What We Know About Promoting Learning
Taken individually, each of these insights about the nature of learning isn’t much of a surprise. But colleges and universities remain "novice cultures" in developing approaches consistent with these "obvious" insights. Rather than being guided by an overall vision of learning itself, established through systematic research and the wisdom of practice (both hallmarks of an "expert culture"), reform efforts tend to be particularistic and mechanical.

Yet decades of experimental work in educational psychology and instructional design have taught us a lot about the relative values of specific pedagogical settings and approaches. In parallel with what cognitive science tells us about the nature of learning, this body of work suggests that the following six "big ticket items" are good places to start in remaking instruction:

  • Approaches that emphasize application and experience. Because students often see little direct utility in what they are learning, and have few opportunities to try things out for themselves, much of the subject matter they actually acquire takes the form of "ritual knowledge" designed to keep the instructor happy. One kind of remedy, symbolized by approaches such as internship and service-learning, tries to break down artificial barriers between "academic" and "real-world" practice (as well as between the curriculum and the cocurriculum). Another emphasizes curricular designs that foster appropriate knowledge and skills "just in time" for concrete application in current classwork or experience.
  • Approaches in which faculty constructively model the learning process. "Apprenticeship" models of teaching are effective because they allow students to directly watch and internalize expert practice. Such settings also assign students consequential roles in what is being done — roles that emphasize, too, why it must be done right. The demonstrable effectiveness of undergraduate participation in faculty research is a case in point, as are the internship or practicum components of many existing practice disciplines.
  • Approaches that emphasize linking established concepts to new situations. Research on "analogical mapping" confirms the utility of approaches that involve recording and analyzing commonalities among quite different situations, then using the resulting constructs to gain insight into new problems. The best gains occur when students are given both the conceptual "raw materials" with which to create new applications and active cues about how to put them together. For such approaches to work as advertised, though, students must do the work themselves and faculty must assiduously avoid "telling" them how to make these linkages.
  • Approaches that emphasize interpersonal collaboration. Because it seeks to produce "knowledgeable individuals," most instruction emphasizes individual work. At best, under this current paradigm, working together is seen as inefficient; at worst, it is viewed as cheating. In contrast, research findings on collaboration are overwhelmingly positive, with instances of effective practice ranging from within-class study groups to cross-curricular learning communities.
  • Approaches that emphasize rich and frequent feedback on performance. We know that the ways students are assessed powerfully affect how they study and learn. Managing the frequency and consequences of such assessments — by using weekly quizzes or nongraded practice assignments, for instance — can thus pay immediate dividends because students can use their mistakes to identify ways to improve. More importantly, such practices shift the focus of instruction from "teaching" to "coaching" — creating iterative opportunities for students to try out skills, to examine small failures, and to receive advice about how to correct them.
  • Curricula that consistently develop a limited set of clearly identified, cross-disciplinary skills that are publicly held to be important. We know that curricula designed as intentional and integrated "learning plans" can affect learning powerfully. Needed integration must be both "horizontal" (emphasizing the application of key skills in different contexts) and "vertical" (fostering sequential vectors of development) to be effective. And both depend critically on making collective campus commitments about what should be learned in the first place.

What We Know About Institutional Change
Research-based insights about what constitutes good teaching come, again, as no surprise. Each one of these insights has inspired admirable initiatives on a variety of campuses already. But most have also been around long enough to wonder why we can’t pursue them systematically — as organizations rather than as individuals.

Here a third set of insights — this time drawn from the literatures on organizational change and continuous improvement — come into play. The following six appear especially relevant for developing the kinds of change processes really needed to "organize for learning":

  • Change requires a fundamental shift of perspective. Current academic blueprints place "knowledge" itself, and the mechanisms for "delivering" it, at the center of each institution’s design. As a result, they decisively construct what institutional members think they are "supposed to do." But instead of starting with academic "programs" and their familiar, requisite structures, alternative design visions start with students and what they need to be successful as learners. Shifts of perspective such as these, experience in corporate transformation has shown, demand more than just proclaiming a "new" organizational vision. Instead they require all members of the institution to fundamentally rethink what they do.
  • Change must be systemic. Instructional reforms, moreover, are typically advanced in the form of separate and distinct sets of activities. Little thought is given to the manner in which each reform, if really taken seriously, might affect all components of the institution and the relationships among those components. "Systems thinking," the literature on organizations tells us, first demands a comprehensive audit of current and contemplated policies, practices, and behaviors. It also requires a detailed analysis of current values and rewards and how these will inhibit or support desired changes.
  • Change requires people to relearn their own roles. At most colleges and universities, staff-development activities are auxiliary — engaged in at the discretion of individuals and largely unconnected to one another. "Organizing for learning," in contrast, demands approaches that emphasize the character of learning itself and that model the same learning practices they seek to develop. They must also attempt to imbue faculty with a sense of collective accountability for learning of the same character and depth as is currently accorded scholarly research.
  • Change requires conscious and consistent leadership. Experience in organizational transformation emphasizes the role that top administrators must play as "leading learners." It also suggests that administrators must "round up" scattered innovations by creating new lines of lateral communication and alternative reward structures. A final related lesson for leaders is that organizational change is always about people, so attention to feelings, perceptions, and symbols is overwhelmingly important.
  • Change requires systematic ways to measure progress and guide improvement. Building a "learning organization" involves creating institutional capacities for gathering and interpreting data at all levels. At the highest level, "institutional research" needs to be recaptured for learning, rather than being mainly confined to administrative and reporting functions. At successively lower organizational levels, concrete mechanisms for gathering data, and the incentives to use them, are equally important. Finally, the ways in which information about performance is actually used is decisive. If feedback is used in high-stakes situations to evaluate individuals, for example, instead of being harnessed to understand and improve collective activities, nothing useful will occur.
  • Change requires a visible "triggering" opportunity. A final organizational insight is that new initiatives rarely start from scratch. Like learning itself, the most successful organizational transformations begin with a particular felt need — fiscal constraint and the consequent need to restructure, or a particular instance of deficient performance that is visible and hard to avoid. Part of the art of transformational leadership is to recognize and capitalize on such opportunities when they arise.

In the Last Analysis
Every system is perfectly constructed to produce the results that it achieves, long-term observers of organizational dynamics often say. That higher education is currently underperforming — both in its own eyes and in the eyes of others — should come as no surprise then, given its extant organizational structures, values, and patterns of communication.

Explicit recognition that the current system is a system — intact and self-perpetuating because of a complex network of existing values and supports — is thus fundamental for change. Only by beginning from a new point of departure can we hope to break the constraints on both thinking and action that this system imposes. In the last analysis, this is what "organizing for learning" is all about.



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