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The Path and the Field: A Metaphor for An Education Renaissance

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Updated: Thursday, October 17, 2013

June 21st, 2011 

I remember very well as my university in 2003 and 2004 began to roll out an eportfolio system that was really a tracking system for re-accreditation. At the time, many people seemed to like the idea: it seemed so in keeping with how education is "done." The idea that we could re-think a number of courses with learning goals in mind, create rubrics, and therefore re-vitalize and re-organize the learning process was attractive to many people.

However, within a year, the leaders of this effort (I was among the leaders and thus complicit) realized that if faculty could better see the path toward the newly established learning goals, then students could, too. Therefore, the group began to work with the vendor to create an academic roadmap -- it would help the students plan their academic career, they said.

All of this work was described as "tracking student progress toward learning outcomes." Now, looking back, I see this effort in a different light. I see it mostly as amplifying the worst aspects of higher education, for obvious reasons: technology is being used to extend even further faculty control and initiative while students remain passive objects.

Underlying this effort is not only the behaviorist mindset higher education is still slave to, but a fundamental metaphor that influences all that we do: the path.

Higher education in almost all respects implicitly declares that the way toward knowledge and wisdom is pre-set. In a way, thinking this way 60 years ago had an element of truth since knowledge, compared to today, was stable. When knowledge is stable, it makes sense to emphasize teaching.

Today, knowledge is not stable. It is more fluid, dynamic, and foundationally disrupted than ever in recorded history. In a time of rapid change, emphasize learning. Or, in other words, get away from the metaphor of the path. The path leads to anachronistic conceptions. Or, there really IS no path any longer.

Good academic thinking should now start with the mental image, the metaphor, of a field. If you walk into a field and follow a path through the field, you see only what everyone else has seen. It will be new to you, and you will learn on that path what others have learned earlier. However, maybe the path now leads no where.

If you walk into a field and just explore and discover, going in all directions, you find new experiences. You will find multiple ways to move through the field. And, you will know the field as no else has known it before. If you are on your own unbroken path through the field, you must pay attention.

The path metaphor suggests the behaviorist model of education we have followed for a long time. The field metaphor suggests, instead, a learner-centered, experiential, situated and active model of learning.

A path and a field are simple metaphors to keep in mind but represent vast differences in how we view learning.

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