Smiles ahead - why a strategy to educate the whole person is the way forward
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Alice has several encounters with the infamous disappearing and reappearing Cheshire cat. Alice pleads with the cat to stop his antics and he obliges by gradually fading away until all that is left is a prominent grin. For me, this is an excellent metaphor for what can happen to students over the course of their degree. They arrive as a distinctive cat, bringing with them their own worldview and attributes. However, during their studies, the focus can become so fixed on content, knowledge and learning stuff that other learning experiences and opportunities for development are often not recognised. The showy grin of grades and degree requirements takes centre stage, while the rest of the commendable attributes of the cat don’t always make an appearance (much to the detriment of the student).
So how do we keep both grin and cat? In this post we’ll take a look at how universities and employers can best support teaching and learning practices that embrace the notion of educating the whole learner to ensure students leave university with more than just a degree certificate, and an even bigger smile on their face.
Career ready or future ready?
Whilst learners are no doubt asking themselves how they can best prepare for the challenges of being readily employable for jobs that may not even have been conceived of yet, universities are grappling with the question - what should a university education look like for the 21st Century? And while it can be argued, quite persuasively we think, that university has never been solely about being trained for a particular career, graduates nevertheless list “getting a job” as a key driver for undertaking a degree. Universities are therefore beginning to make explicit what they see as the key rationales for university education and how this mission will be supported by the institution. As a result, we are seeing the notion of educating the ‘whole learner’ becoming a prominent part of the strategic plans of universities across the globe. Indeed, almost half of the strategies we recently analysed made reference to the importance of educating the whole person. Whilst this concept was articulated in a variety of ways, it can be best described as the ambition of universities to develop resilient, globally aware, enterprising, future-ready graduates. Our CEO, Shane Sutherland, explores this term in more detail in our Future Ready blog post. Similarly, in an environment in which it is now estimated that an individual may have up to 17 jobs encompassing as many as 5 careers in their working lifetime, employers are grappling with what that means for their own employee Learning and Development and how best to support their employees as independent learners.
What am I learning? Beyond discipline, beyond the classroom
The key to achieving the goal of educating the ‘whole learner’ (or to stick with our theme – retain the whole cat) is recognising that learning also happens outside of formal, planned learning occasions. If the challenge for universities is in providing and articulating opportunities for learning beyond discipline knowledge and professional competency, the challenge for learners is in recognising their developing attributes, skills and talents, and being able to frame them in a narrative of personal growth and achievement.
Learners need to be armed with knowledge of the skills they possess and how those skills are transferable and adaptable. Professional identity needs to encompass more than discipline-specific skills and knowledge and include a broad set of skills, behaviours and dispositions (sometimes referred to as ‘soft’ skills, or increasingly framed as ‘21st Century skills’), and learners may need help in explicitly developing, recognising and articulating their value. If you're wondering specifically about the kind of technology learners need at their disposal to support the development of 21st Century Skills, then our features and functionality checklist (with over 300 areas for consideration) would be a terrific addition to your research.
Whose learning? Moving beyond the LMS
Cultivating a culture of teaching and learning that supports the holistic development of learners is unquestionably a great idea, but it’s an ambition which is often hindered by LMS capability. Educating the whole learner requires an approach that extends beyond course content and learning stuff, and you only have to start thinking about the opportunities afforded by field trips, community learning or study abroad to realise that this kind of experiential learning could be better supported by a personal learning environment that is ‘course agnostic’ and designed to help learners record learning of any experience – curricular or extra-curricular.
PebblePad allows users to easily record and reference curricular and extra-curricular activities.
The Future of Work in Australia report notes: “While the pace of change can be confronting, technological progress is not something ‘happening to us’, but a process under our control.” Here at PebblePad, we couldn't agree more. Our view is that by providing learners with a private and secure space in which to gather and reflect on their records of experience, and to choose the ways in which they will create, share and showcase their capabilities, we encourage them to take control of their own learning and make the most of experiences both inside and outside of the classroom. It’s an approach which challenges (and quite rightly so) the educational status quo and empowers learners to become owners and initiators of their learning rather than being passive recipients of learning content.
The role of feedback
If we are concerned with educating the whole learner, it is clear that learners have to be active agents in their learning. In supporting learners to take responsibility for their own learning and development, an approach to feedback that is formative and dialogic in nature and allows for learner self-assessment and reflection is essential. The Feedback for Learning project discusses the role of technology in enabling capacity for effective feedback. In particular, it notes:
- the effectiveness of collaborative learning spaces in supporting feedback
- the capacity for technology to support learners and assessors in rich discussions about assessment
- use of alternative media in place of written comments to provide feedback – audio, video and screencast recordings, for example
Developing the whole learner in the workplace
The challenges of ensuring that learner development encompasses more than disciplinary knowledge and skills are not confined to university studies. Indeed, professionals in the workplace are often focussed on engaging in and recording a diverse range of professional development activities. If we allow our Cheshire cat metaphor to make a reappearance, then the grin which was the degree classification in university now represents the job role or level in a workplace context. To that end, and in an effort to preserve the complete cat, workplace learners should be supported in capturing and reflecting on the informal learning that occurs on a daily basis.
Our conversations at Learning Technologies in both 2017 and 2018 showed that many L&D professionals are becoming increasingly concerned about how to support their learners make sense of what they have learned and encourage them to utilise and share that learning on a day to day basis. And this makes perfect sense when we consider the 70-20-10 learning methodology, whereby 70% of employee-learning is actually done through the learner’s own experiences. It is vitally important that employers and employees recognise – and have acknowledged – the learning and development that takes place outside of formal training. A recent study revealed that of the top 5 reasons millennials leave a job they like, three are learning and development-related. It seems clear to me that organisations are missing opportunities to develop and retain internal talent by failing to look at the whole cat.
The rabbit hole of 21st century learning enlightenment
Let's face it, it's unlikely (but perhaps not impossible) that you'll ever bump into a white rabbit who leads you down the rabbit hole of enlightenment when it comes to all things 21st century learning. And, while there are more credible (but decidedly less fun) research avenues, it's also unlikely you'll actually find the definitive solution for how to educate the whole person, no matter how far, wide or deep you search. Indeed, even the Key Skills for 21st Century Report acknowledges that there has been little research to demonstrate how transferable 21st century skills are within and across disciplines, and further into employment and career development. Yet, despite a lack of knowledgeable rabbits and credible research, here at PebblePad we believe that by providing a framework for learners to record learning experiences, collect evidence of skills and achievement, and a private space for reflection and sense-making, then we're getting somewhere close to the right model for educating the whole learner. Add in the ability to create and share many different portfolios - for a range of purposes from assessment to job applications, and for a variety of audiences - and, in the words of 18th-century poet John Wolcot, "Lo! like a Cheshire cat our court [learner] will grin".
While we're sorry that we can't offer up a rabbit and access to the rabbit hole of learning enlightenment, our features checklist offers a viable alternative. It contains a raft of ideas on developing learner-centred strategies to develop the whole person. No rabbits, no riddles, just some great ideas, advice and a host of clever features. Download your free copy today.