Zen and the Art of Quality Learning, Part 2


Phil Denman, OLC Quality Scorecard Suite Coordinator

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As discussed in Part 1 of this series, author Robert Pirsig uses much of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to chronicle his pursuit of the meaning of the word “Quality” and why it is neither an objective or subjective process. 

Pirsig connects the idea of Quality to his experience as a university instructor and suggests that his pursuit of Quality, or rather, his inability to teach it due to university policy, became the impetus for his resignation from academia and the catalyst for him to write ZAMM. 

In this post, I will continue pulling at that thread to detail how the concepts of “care” and “gumption” in ZAMM apply directly to educators.

Insights on Care of Learning

As I grappled with this understanding, I found another parallel in the narrator’s reasoning that struck a chord with me, leading me to reflect on the idea of Care within the context of learning. Pirsig suggests that Care is the counterpart to Quality and that Care can hold a truly transformative power in the pursuit of Quality.

“I talked about caring the first day and then realized I couldn’t say anything meaningful about caring until its inverse side, Quality, is understood. I think it’s important now to tie care to Quality by pointing out that care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristics of Quality.” (Pirsig, p.283)

The narrator, as a university instructor, sought a productive pedagogy grounded in Care – a commitment to the well-being and growth of his students. Similarly, Care plays a pivotal role in crafting learning experiences, and it is the lifeblood that fuels the pursuit of Quality in learning. It is the passion, dedication, and genuine interest in the well-being of students that propel educators and instructional designers to create transformative learning experiences.

Without Care, the journey becomes mechanical, lacking the depth and authenticity required for true Quality. The narrator’s insights as a university instructor resonated deeply with me and emphasized the importance of a pedagogy grounded in Care. This concept aligns closely with the research of Catherine Denial, Distinguished Professor of American History and Director of the Bright Institute at Knox College, whose recent book, A Pedagogy of Kindness (to be published later this year), centers on the idea of instituting kindness, and presumably Care, to the teaching and learning process.

The connection between my own educational journey and the narrator’s aspirations reinforced my understanding that the integration of Care and Quality is essential for the future of education.

Understanding Gumption in Teaching and Learning

Similarly, the idea of “gumption”, as Pirsig defines it, is the force that drives an individual to undertake a task with excellence and zeal. In the context of learning, gumption is the fuel that powers educators and instructional designers to craft engaging, effective, and meaningful learning experiences for students. It is the passion and motivation that distinguish a routine course or program from one that resonates with learners and stands the test of time.

Pirsig illustrates this point by connecting the idea of Quality to one’s decision to pursue excellence in all things they do, which ultimately results in lasting Quality:

“The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidance, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together … The real cycle you’re working in is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.” (Pirsig, p.333)

As we transition to the professional landscape, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the pursuit of Quality in online education demands a significant dose of gumption. Gumption serves as the foundation for crafting courses that not only meet academic standards but also resonate with the diverse needs and preferences of learners.

Recognizing External and Internal Gumption Traps

The path to Quality is fraught with various “gumption traps”, a term used by Pirsig to identify the external Setbacks and internal Hang-ups that can hinder progress and can impede the infusion of Care into the pursuit of Quality. These concepts can also be evaluated through the perspective of course designers, educators, and administrators.

External Setbacks

Setbacks in Quality related to teaching and learning often stem from external circumstances, threatening to drain the gumption of even the most dedicated educators. One common setback related to quality education is technological challenges, such as platform glitches, connectivity issues, or software malfunctions. These external gumption traps can disrupt the flow of course development and facilitation, testing the resilience of those involved.

Another external setback is the evolving landscape of educational technology. Rapid advancements and changing trends can create a perpetual learning curve for educators and instructional designers. Staying abreast of these changes becomes crucial to maintaining the gumption needed for quality course design. Continuous professional development is the antidote to this setback, ensuring that educators are equipped with the latest tools and strategies.

Internal Hang-Ups

Hang-ups, the internal gumption traps, are often more insidious as they emanate from within the individual. The narrator’s journey in ZAMM identifies three categories of internal hang-ups: “truth traps”, “muscle traps”, and “value traps”.

Truth Traps: In the context of online course design, truth traps manifest as preconceived notions or biases that hinder intellectual comprehension. Educators may hold onto outdated pedagogical beliefs or resist innovative teaching methods, limiting the potential for quality improvement. Overcoming truth traps requires a willingness to challenge assumptions and embrace evolving educational philosophies.

Muscle Traps: These traps impede physical actions, hindering the implementation of effective teaching strategies. Online course designers may encounter muscle traps when faced with complex technological tools or when physical fatigue sets in during extended development sessions or Zoom meetings. Proactive measures such as ergonomic workspace design and regular breaks can help mitigate muscle traps and sustain gumption throughout the design process.

Value Traps: Among the hang-ups, value traps pose the most significant threat. “Value rigidity,” a calcified understanding of the world, can impede course designers and administrators from reevaluating problems as they arise. To conquer this dangerous trap, educators must slow down and cultivate a genuine interest in the inner workings of their courses and programs. This involves understanding students’ needs, embracing individual learning preferences, and enabling one another to adapt and refine their courses and programs continually.

However, through the lens of Care, these challenges can help transform potential issues and problems into opportunities for growth and improvement. Technological setbacks become invitations to refine the online learning environment, and internal biases can prompt introspection and a commitment to inclusivity. Constant improvement becomes the goal.

In Part 3 of this blog, I will provide guidance for educators to avoid certain “gumption traps” in their professional lives related to Quality learning, discuss the OLC Scorecard Suite as a means to guide improvement, and share ways that you can partner with OLC related to Quality initiatives.

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