What can we learn from accidental learning?



“I just stumbled onto this. . .” I heard the phrase a couple of times in presentations during the recent Teaching Professor Technology Conference. Faculty presenters used it to describe their discovery of an aspect of instruction that worked well, such as an assignment detail or activity sequence. Since then I’ve been thinking about accidental learning and the role it plays or might play in the instructional growth of teachers.

The phrase carries a number of connotations. This isn’t intentional learning—it’s not planned. The teacher makes a decision, implements it, and it works. Often the outcome is an unexpected, but pleasant surprise. It feels like a gift. Accidental learning tends to be easy learning, which is nice. So much of what we need to master requires effort, in many cases lots of it.

However, I don’t like some of what the “stumbling onto” phrase implies about learning to teach. We shouldn’t be just wandering around, making decisions willy-nilly, trying out whatever comes to mind or crosses our paths. Instructional planning is more purposeful than that, and it is guided by decisions that greatly increase the chance that students will have significant learning experiences. We don’t have to meander around hoping to stumble onto something that works. We can take a more direct path to good teaching ideas.

Moreover, when accidental learning does happen, it can be something more than a lucky happenstance if the outcome is subjected to thoughtful analysis. Why did that particular decision or design feature work so well? What made it work? Will it work the same way if it’s tried again? We can also stumble onto insights when something we try doesn’t work. With the same kind of analysis, we can confront the failure, seek to understand its causes, maybe fix it, or decide that it’s beyond repair.

Too often teachers are not as systematic in their thinking about teaching and learning as they could or should be. I think it harkens back to the fact that most of us were never trained to teach. We’ve learned how by doing it and so our understanding of how it works is pretty much intuitive, more sensing and feeling than explicit understanding. That doesn’t make intuitive knowledge wrong or bad, but it does make success (and failure, for that matter) harder to explain and easier to just chalk up to chance or bad luck.

Yes, there are things that happen in courses that defy explanation. It’s magic—a one-time confluence of factors that combine to create a big dramatic learning event. However, most of the time there is a rational explanation for why something works or doesn’t work.

I also don’t like some of what the phrase implies about teachers. When you “stumble onto” something, there’s a sense that you aren’t looking where you’re going. What happened was so in your path that you almost tripped over it. It bespeaks a level of inattentiveness that doesn’t characterize effective instructors.

I worry about the conclusion drawn from an accidental learning event; feeling this is often lightweight learning. Say, for example, you put students in groups of four, gave each group a different problem, and had one randomly selected student put the solution on the board. It worked beautifully in that course, with those students, and for that kind of problem, but is it the definitive way to handle homework problems in class? I doubt it. Easy learning lands us on that first, often superficial, level of understanding. It marks a starting point, a first step, in this case, in the complicated process of getting students working collectively on problem solving.

“I just stumbled onto this …” is only a phrase, and it’s used generically to describe all kinds of different discoveries, not just aspects of successful teaching. However, the phrases we choose to describe occurrences are related to our thinking about them. I so want us thinking about teaching and learning in ways that befit their complexity and in ways that appropriately influence our instructional growth and development. Yes, we can stand in awe of those magical moments and enjoy the gift of accidental discoveries, but both can be studied and better understood. Along with serendipity, we need planned and purposeful inquiry into those ingredients of instruction that reliably promote student learning.