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The Theory of Human Centered Learning

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The Problem: Content-Centered Learning

A simplified version of content-based learning includes a presentation of data, some kind of assignment designed to measure student understanding, and perhaps a creative project that urges some application of the content. In a flipped classroom the presentation of content happens outside of the classroom, enabling the assignments and creative projects to take place within the learning community and with additional input from the facilitator. Altogether, the objective is knowledge as demonstrated by a recall or explanation of certain content. 

However, outside of the classroom, it doesn’t matter how much someone knows about writing if they are unable to do it. For example, as I was seeking an editor for my book, one of the first people I asked for help could talk about writing, writers, and literature for hours. They are a wealth of information about writing, but could not actually follow through with actually doing the work I was looking for. This does not mean that they are incapable, but simply that their education in the subject has taught them to define, explain, analyze, and critique writing, but not how to do anything with it. That would require something else altogether – something that helped to shape the person into a writer.

The Need: From Theory to Practice

Coaches and driving instructors alike are not looking for someone who knows about the subject, but someone who is able to make it their own. This ultimately changes a football fan into a football player, someone who knows about driving into a driver, someone who knows about education into a teacher. This is why many degrees now require field placements – because the jump from a seat in the classroom to the front of a classroom is too big of a leap to make on one’s own. The jump from a textbook to an operating table would not improve anyone’s health. We get this intuitively in when we say the ‘practice of law,’ or ‘medicine.’ Experimentation is the practice of science and every graduate student gets to practice research in their particular field. Unfortunately, this has also become less of a practice and more of a performance leading to stultifying, heady, boring, and completely inapplicable dissertations that nobody ever wants to read or try to use. 

While there is a place for formal processes and quality controls, the objective cannot be to curate knowledge – for that would be an impossible human quest. Rather, it must be to cultivate knowers. Education must be designed around the individual in order to produce readers, not people who know about literature, artists, not people who can explain paintings. If I want to succeed at business, I must be someone who can do it, not just explain it. This is the leap that individuals currently have to make on their own because a content-based educational experience stops explanation and analysis. Education based on the individual does not define the outcome of biology as the ability to explain 15 different facets of a plant, but as an individual whose curiosity and interest in the subject has been raised, who has been given the ability to explore it further, who can think like a biologist, and may be able to contribute to the field. 

The Theory: Human-Centered Learning

This is Human-Centered Learning: producing leaders, not people who know about leadership; producing scientists, not people who know information about a particular field; producing artists, not people who know about art. Sports teams already have this figured out in many ways because the outcome is easy to see and measure. The thought process of a mathematician is a bit harder to capture because the activity is mental rather than physical. Still, it would be a mistake to overlook the non-physical factors that contribute to the success of an athlete. Similarly, it would be a mistake to overlook the physical factors that contribute to the success of a leader. A musical artist is not just someone who can press the keys of the piano in proper order. Something else must be present which is incredibly difficult to measure. Not everyone behind the wheel of a car is a driver. We might call them bad drivers, but that is only because they are not driving at all. If they were driving, we would consider them to be good drivers.

Do we get this? A bad scientist is ‘bad’ because he is not practicing science. A bad football player is not playing. We might consider this relative to others, but that is only because some people demonstrate what it looks like to actually play football or practice science. Even so, it is not possible to claim that a person is football or is science. These things are elusive. We might be able to capture certain elements of the game or the scientific process, but it is not possible to fully quantify them. If it were, then we might say that everyone who could do a certain number of movements was a football player, or a scientist. However, in the real world, these things are not measurable.

That is why our educational assumption is flawed. It attempts to take a measurement and then to fit everyone within its arbitrary and artificial bounds. “To know” something is to have duplicated whatever definition is in vogue. 

I would like to propose a new standard: to know is to become. We all have the friend who can talk about cars for hours, but we wouldn’t let him pick up a wrench to help change the oil. Then there is the guy who doesn’t say much about it, but his car is always looking clean, and well-maintained. Which one actually knows about cars? The first may have general knowledge (information), but the second has specific knowledge (relationship). When most Americans use the word knowledge they mean the first kind. The first kind of knowledge is also at play when we don’t know the answer to a question. However, the second kind of knowledge comes into play when somebody says “he knows his stuff.” This is not some abstract ability to repeat a collection of information, but a result of personal encounter that can be transferred and applied to a wide variety of settings. 

A further example of this idea can be seen in the difference between a Facebook friend and a real friend. I have information about the first kind, but I have a relationship with the second kind. I might know what Mount Everest looks like from seeing a photo, but the sherpa who climbs it every couple of weeks actually knows what it looks like. There is no question about which one of us you would choose as a guide if you wanted to do any climbing there. This particular distinction comes into play when comparing teachers who know vast amounts of information about business to those who have experienced vast amounts of success in business. The first teacher is an expert in the theory of business, the second is an expert in the practice of business. If I learn from the first, I will also become an expert in explanations. If I learn from the second, I may become a businessperson.  I would prefer a guide who knows how to follow the trail up Mount Everest to the PhD who has studied everything about mountain climbing. This is true only if I want to climb the mountain. If I want to analyze my experience of the climb and seek to understand it, then I would turn to the second who has a much greater variety of information to work with. Thus, both are relevant and both have their place, but the one needs to come before the other. 

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