Zen and the Art of Quality Learning


Phil Denman, OLC Quality Scorecard Suite Coordinator

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Embarking on a journey to define and seek quality in online and blended learning experiences is a deeply personal exploration. Recently, I joined the Online Learning Consortium as the Coordinator of the Quality Scorecard Suite where I support institutions and organizations engaging in the evaluation of programs and courses for continuous improvement. 

I owe a lot of my interest and understanding of the pursuit of Quality to one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), and I believe that my exposure to this book twenty-five years ago and its perspective on teaching and learning would ultimately lead me on my own path to working with OLC, long before I ever knew that instructional design was a career or that I would one day pursue it.

My new role with OLC has given me the opportunity to authentically reflect back on my fifteen years of experience as an instructional designer at major public universities to ask not only what Quality is, but also why it is important, how it can be measured effectively, and what barriers might stand in the way of achieving it.

In this post, I will share my insights into parallels that can be drawn between the philosophical underpinnings of ZAMM through the context of learning development. In Part 2 and Part 3 of this blog post, I will explore the ideas of “care” and “gumption” in ZAMM related to the learning process while also providing some practical advice for educators to avoid potential pitfalls during the improvement process.

Quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

For the uninitiated, ZAMM is a fictionalized autobiography and philosophical novel that chronicles a motorcycle journey of author and narrator, Robert Pirsig, with his son, as he explores the concept of Quality, interwoven with the author’s personal and philosophical reflections on his pursuit of excellence in life. 

One of the most quoted passages from this work seeks to define the idea of Quality and encapsulates the narrator’s struggle with defining the word throughout the book:

“Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists?” (Pirsig, p.188)

Pirsig continues to explore the nebulous concept of Quality and later presents a perspective on Quality that challenges the traditional dichotomy of subjectivity and objectivity. Furthermore, Pirsig takes this idea and argues that Quality is not merely a subjective or objective attribute but rather a fundamental aspect of reality that underlies both, putting Quality in a position of hierarchy above both subjectivity and objectivity. 

“The sun of quality does not revolve around the subjects and objects of our existence. It does not just passively illuminate them. It is not subordinate to them in any way. It has created them! They are subordinate to it!” (Pirsig, p.244)

He expands on this by suggesting a holistic approach to the pursuit of Quality, unifying the subjective and objective realms, asserting that an understanding of Quality transcends rigid categories and requires a synthesis of intellectual, emotional, and intuitive elements. Pirsig’s stance emphasizes a dynamic and interconnected perspective on Quality that goes beyond the limitations of a purely subjective or objective viewpoint.

“Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct.” (Pirsig, p.256)

While much of the book continues to discuss this concept, Pirsig, as author and narrator, never quite lands on what he believes is a fitting description of Quality (a conundrum which ultimately drives much of the story line), but suggests that “Quality is not a thing. It is an event. It is the event at which a subject becomes aware of an object” (Pirsig, p.244). In these terms, Pirsig continues to suggest that Quality lives outside both subjectivity and objectivity and can only exist at the intersection of the two.

Quality and its Relation to Learning

For educators, administrators, and instructional designers, the quest for Quality in learning is a labyrinthine journey, filled with twists and turns that challenge preconceptions and demand introspection. Pirsig, a former university instructor, directly connects education to his definition of Quality several times throughout ZAMM, including the last half and continuation of the first “poof” quote referenced earlier in this post:

“If no one knows what [Quality] is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others … but what’s the betterness?” (Pirsig, p.188)

Pirsig further connects education to Quality in a rebuke of grades that not only rings true for many learners, but also calls into question the very nature of some of our classrooms and perceived learning outcomes:

“Grades really cover up failure to teach. A bad instructor can go through an entire quarter leaving absolutely nothing memorable in the minds of his class, curve out the scores on an irrelevant test, and leave the impression that some have learned and some have not. But if the grades are removed the class is forced to wonder each day what it’s really learning. The questions, What’s being taught? What’s the goal? How do the lectures and assignments accomplish the goal? become ominous. The removal of grades exposes a huge and frightening vacuum.” (Pirsig, p. 203)

In fact, the narrator suggests that his discontent with grading and what he saw as a failure of that system led him on his journey to define Quality, and it can be argued that this ultimately served as the catalyst for him to leave academia and pen this book.

“The movement from this to his enquiry into Quality took place because of a sinister aspect of grading that the withholding of grades exposed…When spontaneity and individuality and really good original stuff occurred in a classroom it was in spite of the instruction, not because of it…Teaching dull conformity to hateful students wasn’t what he wanted to do.” (Pirsig, p.204)

While the idea of removing grades from the process of teaching is not likely for most of us, the author’s desire for his students to think for themselves to determine what is Quality, rather than to look to him for approval, illustrates his desire to stimulate true learning. This same philosophy drives many educators to seek Quality in their own work and can become central to our own understanding of whether or not the education we promote is Quality.

In terms of online and blended learning, much like life, Quality is both highly subjective, varying from one learner to another and evolving with the ever-changing landscape of education, and also highly objective, being measurable by levels of student satisfaction and comparison against similar learning experiences. However, what may be deemed high-quality by one student might not resonate with another, and what may be perceived as valuable to one institution may not be as valued by another, emphasizing the need for a more nuanced, personalized, approach to evaluation. 

Much like the narrator’s pursuit of Quality in ZAMM, my odyssey through online education has led me to the same profound realization – the elusive nature of Quality and its essence related to learning is neither subjective nor objective, but somewhere in between.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will expand on these ideas in relation to ZAMM, diving deeper into why “care” is so important to the teaching and learning process while also examining the concept of “gumption” and “gumption traps” that educators and administrators may fall into during the evaluation and improvement process.

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