Sunday, September 25, 2011

Learning as Care

On page 83 of 'Being and Time', Martin Heidegger explains that what is fundamental to Dasein, i.e. what is means to be human, is 'concern'. He goes on to clarify that he is using the word 'concern' in a special sense - laying the groundwork for revealing the true nature of our essence: as care.

Whilst language and the complexities of translation shroud his work in obscurity, it is easy to convey what he is saying in more familiar terms: what sets us apart from other creatures is our ability to stand back from things and wonder about them - not just to use a table, for example, but to look at it in front of me and consider it as a table, and to wonder about it. Cats lie on tables, people ponder them. We 'care' about the table - we don't just use it.

The sad reality though is that in this sense we live most of our lives more like animals: caught up in the rush we conform, we follow norms, we do what we do because that is what we have seen others do. Even chickens have been shown to learn through observation. Heidegger doesn't actually say we behave like animals - he says we are 'fallen', meaning that we are so caught up in everyday activity and in using things that we cease to stand back and wonder or care about them. We lead 'unexamined lives'. Of course if someone were to say 'you don't really care about your life' you and I would probably object - we would cite our career, our future plans perhaps. But if this is different kind of concern than that which we would experience if we were diagnosed with a terminal illness.

A similar point in sometimes made by colleagues in learning: every once in a while someone will stop a meeting about a learning system, about a learning project, about a learning strategy to say 'do we even agree what learning is?'. I have observed that generally the reaction is to nod in appreciation of the profundity of the question then politely resume what we were doing before - planning, implementing, busying ourselves with the concerns of learning without ever being concerned about learning. Move along, no need to be embarrassed - everyone else is doing the same.

Over the last few years it has become clear to me that whilst people certainly derive much of their learning from the mechanisms that we share with animals - classical and operant conditioning, observational learning - that there is a large area of human learning that works differently, and which we will never understand until we appreciate that learning is characterised by care. To put it another way: any theory of adult learning which does not place care at its centre is simply wrong.

I have tried to sketch what this theory might look like elsewhere in this blog: the 'Affective Context Model'. But in fact is perhaps easier to get across if we just stop and reflect on learning. I routinely ask people what they remember from school and it is clear that care is the common denominator: they remember good teachers - teachers who cared about their subject, teachers who cared about their students, teachers who cared about them. They remember subjects which interested them - which they cared about. They remember friends, girlfriends & boyfriends, triumph and embarrassment. They remember exciting school trips and activities, they remember things they hated. They remember their first day.

A very similar pattern holds true of organisational learning. This is an approach which explains which Sir Ken Robinson is right to care about passion, why Roger Schank is right to insist on storytelling, why Cathy Moore is right to entreat us to orient learning around goals. This is an approach which will tell you who is a good teacher and who is not. Schools create a kind of artificial concern with tests; businesses make the flawed assumption that for everyone on a course, the topic is close to their hearts.

We naturally recoil from a definition of learning which involves care - because we have come to feel that such terms are not a proper part of a scientific theory or a businesslike dialogue. But care is foremost in my mind at the outset of every learning project: if only because if people really cared about something we would have no work to do. And if we can't make people care, then we have usually done no work. All around us, informal learning goes on - is the engine that lies at the heart of every organisation - fueled by care. People who join our organisations and find themselves 'in at the deep end', on a 'steep learning curve' - for no other reason than that they care what their new colleagues think of them. Because they don't want to embarrass themselves.

In overlooking care in our formal learning interventions we frequently make two big mistakes: we disseminate information without giving people a reason to care (indeed if we simply gave them a reason to care they would learn things for themselves), and we fail to provide learning resources to people who do care, who have an appetite for learning but are nevertheless starved of information.

In looking at the range of learning media which we intend to deploy in support of a desired outcome, only care enables us to identify the proper approach: if our target audience care about a topic (for example because it is relevant or needed for a pressing challenge) then the format can be simple, plain, text. Many years ago my team at Siemens built an immersive story-based simulation in order to train people to use their phones. A great experience - but not much help if you actually have someone on the line and need to know how to transfer a call. Then, you need a quick reference guide. I have tried to sketch roughly what I have in my head, below.

Equally, the tendency of organisations to spread mandatory messages in a top-down fashion frequently misses the mark: don't tell people what is important, tell them why, tell the story. A story or a scenario or a simulation are all effective precisely because they carry the affective context - they tell us about something and why we should care at the same time.

There will be some people who read this and think 'of course - we all know that motivation is important' - but this is not what I am saying. Motivation is a small subset of care. Care is a complex thing only partly under our control. To give an example: if two speakers at a conference were to have a punch-up on stage this is something that would stick in your memory a long time (and affect your behaviour towards the speakers), despite it not being something that mattered deeply to you in a professional sense. Our minds are designed to care about some things more than others, and we have only limited influence over this. But we do have some: I have started remembering more of what I hear about energy markets since I joined BP, and learning professionals will remember more of what is said at conferences than will the average person - because learning is something they care about. I can't recall the words from the hymns I sang every morning at school - I didn't care about them.

Still in doubt? Imagine how quickly you would learn about a serious illness if it turned out that you, yourself possessed this illness. (there is an interesting TED piece on this). So care is not simply a matter of motivation. Care is the central mechanism at the heart of all human learning - it governs both how we store information and how we subsequently use it.

On page 427 Heidegger writes "As care, Dasein is the 'between'." I know he intends something different but I quite like this image: of the careful teacher bridging the divide between what the learner is, and what she can be.


  1. I agree with much you have said here.

    That having been said, I have two comments. First, there appear to be several definitions of care operative in this post. There is the instructor's care for her students. Then there is the care for the subject and the care for learning both of which exist (potentially) for either the instructor or the student.

    Those 5 definitions of care need to be teased out a little more thoroughly. And it seems to me that the two that are most lacking in today's learning environments are the instructor's care for her students and the students' care for learning. Oddly enough, those two go hand in hand.

    My second comment is a question. It's one I wrestle with and don't have a fully developed answer for. That is, as instructors, should we, and if so, to what extent and under what circumstances, attempt to make our learners care for the subject at hand or for learning more broadly?

    When I taught college, I experimented with several different approaches, and finally decided that if adult students at a 4-year liberal arts school didn't care about learning more broadly, it wasn't my job to teach them that. I treated them all as if they did, and if they didn't, shame on them. I did offer real-world context for our subject (English, both composition and literature), and I felt that it was my duty to do so.

    Now, as a writing trainer working primarily with government biologists, I don't feel the need to do that. By and large, my students understand the vital importance of their writing, and they don't need a pep talk from me before we dive into the tools.

    I'm interested to hear other perspectives from other instructors on this matter.

  2. Thank you for your thought-provoking post. In this piece I tried to outline the following meanings of the word 'care':

    1) Care as a concernful relationship with the world around us. Though the most 'philosophical' level of care the lack of this kind of care is most in evidence around us as people are seen lost in the day-to-day routine, no longer able to stand still and ask about what it really is that they do and why.
    2) Care for the essence of a thing: in this case the care for learning - for what learning really is and for questions such as 'how does learning work?' or 'what is good learning?'. In the same way a journalist might care about 'good journalism', for example.
    3) Care for a topic: some teachers care deeply for their subject-matter and this kind of care may carry over to their students (sometimes without the teacher really caring about the student at all).
    4) Care for others: it is possible - perhaps increasingly so - to be a good teacher without knowing very much at all about a subject. After all, it is all in the books. But a teacher who shows a real concern for their students may inspire those students to learn.
    5) Care as the central mechanism for learning: this is not really a separate meaning, but rather describes a process by which various types of concern determine the ways in which we store and process information. To give an example: today the type of care that drives most learning in schools is fear. Tests and associated punishments are used to compensate for students' lack of concern for the subject-matter. Fear of failing a test is what allows students to learn in order to pass a test. I probably don't need to dwell on why, in my view, this is a bad thing.

    Perhaps this goes some way towards answering your question, Michelle: I think Heidegger is correct in saying that the essential nature of humans is care. This means that everything we do - wonder, fear, love, hate, worry, excitement etc. - are all forms of care. So it's a long list. But in a teaching context some are better than others. What is clear to me is that there is no learning unless the learners care. It is best if the learners already have this care (it was my experience that this tended to be the case with mature students, not so much with teenagers). If they do care then the format of teaching is much more of a 'get-together' and I think they will benefit most from a teacher who cares for the subject. Where students do not care, the challenge of teaching is to show them that care is possible - not force them to care with tests.