Some may view teaching and learning through a conceptual lens that sees, but confuses, them as one and the same. Using that lens, we might assume the following: if teaching occurs, learning happens. But this is a particularly blurry form of tunnel vision that reflects a serious narrowing and clouding of higher education’s purpose; it assumes that the purpose of colleges and universities is to teach, while, in fact, it is for students to learn.
There are different kinds of learning, though we use the word “learning” interchangeably for all of them. A student can get through college by memorizing, absorbing content knowledge in one or more fields (say history, environmental science, mathematics, or psychology), and repeating back information given by professors convincingly enough to merit a passing grade. To call that process learning suggests that learning, at a very basic level, just means knowing something that you did not know before, and knowing it for long enough to pass the test.
Things “learned” in that way may, or may not, “stick.” But there is a different kind of learning — the kind we should expect of higher education. Experiments in the psychology and neuroscience of learning show that learning that “sticks” — the kind that leads to the changes we expect of college, what we call higher learning — requires rich engagement with new material, not just memorization, and that the outcome of this engagement is a change in the mind — a change in how one thinks and makes sense of the world. We “see” that change when students develop greater depth of understanding, can apply their new knowledge in the world, can describe a new perspective, or show new personal, social, or civic maturity. That change in the mind is not just an abstraction; we now know from brain research that learning has flesh-and-blood correlates. We change our minds because something has changed in our brains as a result of a learning experience. This is what students seek through higher education.
Beyond jobs and greater economic opportunity, we have come to count on higher education for a more subtle, idiosyncratic, and even mysterious process of development and change in students, something that transcends the acquisition of greater earning power and long-term growth in wealth potential: the intellectual, personal, and social emergence of a human being. These are the powerful changes that truly define the goals of higher learning.
The kind of higher learning we advocate requires that students be full and engaged participants in a powerful intellectual, social, and developmental process requiring rigorous self-discipline, effort, and commitment; demanding teachers; an inspiring, motivating, and diverse curriculum; and an intentionally designed challenging and supportive learning environment. It is a kind of learning that requires the attainment of substantial knowledge, conceptual understanding, critical thinking, communication skills, various ways of knowing, compassion, moral integrity, and a genuine sense of humility. The kind of learning we believe in teaches content, but also emphasizes the importance of imagination, meaning-making, and connecting and synthesizing information. It involves the ability to think critically and solve problems, to judge what is relevant, what is accurate, and what is morally right.
Higher learning is not the result of the simple accretion of courses or credit hours or simply retaining students to graduation. Rather it is the cumulative effect of a pervasive culture of engagement that rejects the passive reception of knowledge as defining higher education. And engagement is more than keeping students busy; it is about purposefully reflecting, researching, writing, speaking and connecting intellectually and emotionally with their studies.