Print studies for a thesis project responding to my high school notebooks
To better understand the factors at stake in learning, in my thesis research I delved into constructivist learning theory, self-determination theory, self-efficacy theory, multiple intelligences, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, limbic hijack, grit, play, and more. (In case you’re wondering, it’s not uncommon for an MFA in graphic design to explore disciplines considered distant from design. Effectively a vessel for content from other realms, graphic design by its very nature interdisciplinary.)
As I worked my way through countless psychology studies, my theory — that making was a secret sauce for intrinsically motivated learning — was gaining traction.
And yet, as we entered our second year in the program and the thesis process shifted into high gear, the evidence around me got more complicated. Something was shifting. We would design layouts on one monitor while streaming Netflix on the other. We rejected our professors’ feedback more often. We were still working like dogs, yet somehow we weren’t making very much. A lot of us were spinning in place, just like students in any other discipline when they get stuck.
So much for those self-determined thesis topics providing intrinsic motivation. So much for hands-on studio classes unlocking experiential learning. So much for the secret sauce of making.
Everything I had come to understand about learning up to that point began to coalesce in this way: Whether you are a thinker, a maker, a scientist, a whatever — learning requires an embrace of the unknown, and the unknown is scary.
What had probably looked like stubbornness, laziness, and lack of focus was in fact, beneath the surface, indecision and avoidance. Under that, pure anxiety around learning itself.
Don’t misunderstand me. Novelty is exciting. At the neural level, it’s wildly engaging. But when your education requires you to try new things, and to try to master them; when you’re being judged on that attempt; when your future rides on that judgment — that is a lot of unknowns to prevail over. (And those are mostly epistemological unknowns. There are also social unknowns when we try new things in front of an audience: is my idea ridiculous? does it expose me too much? will it once and for all reveal how much I don’t stack up?)
When learning is subject to these unknowns, especially for an extended time, it begins to feel high stakes. And if my recent experiences and research have suggested anything to me, it is that high-stakes contexts are toxic to learning.
To be clear, by “learning” I don’t mean a superficial command of disconnected pieces of data that eventually disappear without a trace. [See the photograph above.] I mean new lenses of understanding and experience that fuse with (or alter) existing lenses and make lasting impressions. This kind of learning is organic, nonlinear, and multichannel. It flourishes in a state of curiosity and a willingness to experiment.
By contrast, a high-stakes learning environment can heighten the anxiety of the unknown to such an uncomfortable and inconducive degree that learning is reduced to a right/wrong proposition. Many learners respond accordingly: taking pains to avoid “wrong” answers, conflating learning with having the right answers, and viewing curiosity and experimentation as risky approaches.
Unfortunately these responses seem like a fairly natural and predictable result of high-stakes learning. Moreover, they seem to be the default outcome in many educational settings.
Next: How I Learned to Embrace the Unknown