Active Learning and the Business of Life

How the research process prepares students for the post-education experience.

To go to Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands, you drive north an hour and a half from Seattle to the ferry landing at Anacortes, then spend a delicious hour chugging through sleepy inlets and harbors, surrounded by verdant islands, a snow-capped mountain range in the distance. Seagulls and cormorants swoop and dive around you. If you are lucky, you may spot dolphins, even a whale. It’s like journeying to another country. Quiet, remote, especially in the off season, the serene beauty is a national treasure. But I wasn’t there for scenic calm. My destination was Friday Harbor Laboratories, the marine facility of the University of Washington. There, the operative word is “research.”

I was lucky enough to stay in one of the scholars’ residences at Friday Harbor Labs in March of 2017. It happened to be a brief period of bright, clear blue skies in the midst of the wettest season in decades. All that rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of the locals. However, several evinced real worry about the changing economy spreading over the San Juan Islands. A young man who waited on us at dinner late on the night of our arrival was there at the bakery, bright and early the next morning. The following night he came over to our table at a different restaurant. “It’s a split economy here,” he said. “Everyone has either three houses or three jobs.”

I thought about it for a moment, “That’s not so different from New York where I live,” I said. “Only, it’s three apartments, not houses—but definitely three jobs. My students and some of my friends are all working multiple jobs. It’s life in the new economy.”

Connecting Knowledge to Experience

How do you prepare students to thrive in this economy? That has been my question for over a decade, as I’ve traveled around the country finding out how current students and recent graduates are coping with change, how institutions and their faculty are finding ways to prepare students for an uncertain future.

I’d first learned about Friday Harbor Labs some years before, when I was serving as the vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke, a new position designed to develop innovation across the various departments, disciplines, and schools of the university. The Duke Marine Lab at Beaufort, North Carolina, was one of the programs reporting to my office, and I knew some of our researchers who were studying the Atlantic Ocean collaborated with Friday Harbor scholars working on the Pacific. What I hadn’t anticipated at Friday Harbor Labs, though, was the art on display everywhere. It turned out that the residences weren’t just for marine scientists but also accommodated artists, humanists, social scientists, and others who worked on research projects singly or in groups, side-by-side with the students in residence who were taking classes and conducting original research in marine science.

It’s All about the Process

One night, I walked to the Lab’s dining hall with a sophomore who was there for a term. “Are you enjoying your time here?” I asked.

“Enjoying? This place has changed my life.”

When I asked what he meant, he told me he had a new mission in life. He was discovering how his cell biology research project could lead to a career in fishery and wildlife management. He hadn’t thought before about what the more theoretical, speculative explorations in the field might have to do with the way policy decisions are made and implemented both locally and at the highest levels. He also said that, before coming here, he hadn’t lived outdoors so much of the time. He loved it. He wanted a career where being in nature was part of his job description. He’d even started keeping a journal of his life on the island.

Suddenly, all those courses he’d taken, from first-year writing courses to calculus, all those various summer internships and jobs, were coming together for him and he was seeing how his life ahead was continuous with his learning. College wasn’t just about filling in requirements on the way to a degree, syllabus to syllabus, paper to paper, exam to exam. It was as if a window had opened, and now he could see the horizon, a through-line from the classroom to the future.

“Most of the students come here thinking they will be doing research that will win a Nobel Prize,” Friday Harbor Labs Director Billie Swalla told me, smiling kindly. “Then, three quarters of the way through their term here, they come into my office crestfallen. Some of them even cry in frustration, because their research project hasn’t unfolded as they hoped. That’s when I ask them if they’ve learned anything while being here. They always brighten then, and say, of course, they have learned more than they imagined possible. I tell them then they have achieved exactly what we had hoped for them. It’s not about the research project. We want them to learn the process of doing research.”

This is basically the kind of active, engaged learning that Lev Vygotsky pioneered long ago and that progressive educators have championed ever since. Some call it “lifelong learning.” For Vygotsky, learning deeply and actively was a way of life.

Come for the Education, Leave with Life Lessons

The students at Friday Harbor Labs come for marine biology and leave with life lessons. They learn that research is really hard. Reference librarians and scholars know this, but, for too many students, it’s easy to put together a term paper the night before it’s due. It takes something serious—a capstone project in which one is invested, like the ones students undertake at Friday Harbor Labs—to understand the issues any serious researcher must grapple with to assemble something new, verified, evidence-based, and, ideally, all presented in a way that is eloquent and compelling.

Research is a hard taskmaster. To design a project that can be completed, where all one’s data can be tracked and verified by others, to be able to set the parameters and control the variables so others can test and replicate (or refute) your results, requires patience, attention, practice—and sometimes luck. A finished, published, peer-refereed paper in a notable scholarly journal is merely the tip of an iceberg of experiments tried and found wanting, reconceived, and then tried again. There are lots of failed experiments—trials and errors—on the way to a successful outcome. Like life in the new economy, when one solution fails, you have to be confident and resilient enough to try another.

There is another lesson to be gleaned here too, a larger, political lesson for the rest of us. All over America, there are pundits, politicians, and policy makers saying it’s time to go back to the “basics”; they are using words like “fundamentals” as a weapon to justify funding cuts to public higher education. They insist it’s time to get rid of the “frills.” That often means programs like Friday Harbor Labs. But these rigorous, interdisciplinary, hands-on learning experiences are the opposite of frills. Here students gain the skills they need to survive and thrive in a world changing too fast. Knowledge may become outdated, a career might be “uberized,” and then, what you can still count on is your own ability to learn how to learn.

What the student I met on the path to the dining hall will know, whether he pursues a career in fishery and wildlife management or opens a small business or decides to become a doctor or a lawyer or a nature writer, is that behind his everyday work life is a complex apparatus of rigorous learning, doing, researching, testing. He may forget the facts he memorized in college. He will never forget his term on San Juan Island, at Friday Harbor Labs. He may have come hoping that his research would win a Nobel Prize. He left with something both more realistic and valuable: the tools of deep, engaged, active learning that will serve him no matter what may lie ahead. In a changing world, learning how to learn is the true fundamental. It’s a survival skill in the new economy.

“Guest of Choice” is an editorial initiative offering original contributions by librarians, academics, and public intellectuals who have something of interest to say to our core audience. The views or opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Choice, ACRL, or the American Library Association.

About the author:

Cathy N. Davidson is distinguished professor and founding director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the 2016 recipient of the Ernest J. Boyer Award for Significant Contributions to Higher Education and the author, most recently, of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (Basic Books, September 2017).