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Learning and Teaching Fellow
Department of Computing and Mathematics
'Transformative' Models for Learning, Teaching and Academic
Professional Development – A 'Self-ish' Approach
With the increasing size and diversity of the student body, there is
a need to employ sophisticated approaches to learning, teaching and academic
professional development. This article highlights some of the choices
that academics face when preparing students for lifelong learning and
our professional development as practitioners and learners in a ‘learning
society’. It proposes ‘transformative’ models for real
change that can work for individuals, departments and learning communities
to improve and support learning and teaching.
The well-worn adage, ‘learning for learning’s sake’,
which stresses the sheer joy of learning is being replaced by ‘learning
for social purpose’, which emphasises the wider social and political
contexts of emancipation and empowerment through the acquisition of knowledge
and understanding (Wallis 1995). This has been reflected by a pronounced
shift to demand-led, student-oriented and employer-oriented provision,
where academic curricula are being transformed to reflect the ‘realities’
of the external political, social and economic factors.
While in the twentieth century, a graduate qualification was an important
element in guaranteeing high status - and usually securing well-paid employment
- the twenty-first century trend encompasses also the notion of the education
of the workforce, sustaining the economy and social integration. In this
context, educators are being cast much more in the role of facilitating
effective learning through reflective, pragmatic and experiential approaches
which place the individual learner much more at the heart of the learning
process. With individuals taking greater responsibility for learning throughout
their lives, comes a new definition of a ‘learning society’,
where higher education is seen as indispensable to economic progress and
for supporting and enriching society (NCIHE 1997, White Paper 2003).
In the so-called learning society, ‘lifelong learning’ involves
the use of educational resources for personal development, a radical and
critical, educational programme and the participation of larger numbers
of individuals and the community. In such a climate, universities can
provide education, training and cultural-educational induction conducive
to social and economic development.
In the midst of this change and to support it, professional development
of learning and teaching at the academic level needs to go beyond PGCE
training; the teachers themselves must also become practitioners of lifelong
Delivering the Curriculum
One of the first learning and teaching issues we encounter as academics
is in the design and delivery of the curriculum. A range of curriculum
models have been suggested to deal with the increase in numbers and to
tackle student diversity. One which is widely recognised is the ‘objectives’
or ‘product’ model described below.
The objectives model involves identifying specific measurable outcomes
to be achieved and devising methods and modes to achieve these outcomes.
This includes appropriate assessment tools to measure the outcomes and
an evaluation strategy to check that the actual outcomes match the planned
This approach excels in products that are easy to measure and, therefore,
can be readily used to evaluate resource allocation and effective learning.
It assumes that all learners will follow the same route to a common ‘destination’
that is pre-determined by an authority, essentially us, the academics.
Students are given assessment tasks which enable them to assess their
progress relative to the task. They are therefore assessed, not against
each other, but against the tasks and, accordingly, teaching is often
geared to the tasks. Biggs 1996, points out that, given such a situation,
students are less likely to learn according to what the formal curriculum
intends but according to what is most likely to lead to success in assessment
You may have encountered manifestations of this problem. Barnett 2000,
argues that, at a time of greater diversity, common ‘destinations’
and ‘thresholds’ limit diversity; that curricula become discrete
units of content, such as facts, skills and competencies. As a result,
understanding may be contained and held back at levels which simply ensure
a satisfactory performance. This can lead to situations where what is
known by an individual becomes less important than what they can do. Student
statements such as, “now that I’ve completed my course work,
I only need to get a few percent on the exam…”, testify. In
such a learning environment the learner is more likely to become concerned
with the acceptance of, and submission to, external standards and controls.
According to Rawson 2000, this leads to the notion that it is educationally
acceptable for society to be operated on the basis of ‘power over’
rather than ‘power with’. This is hardly a sound basis for
a learning society; or rather, a learning-to-learn society.
Stephenson and Weil 1992 argue that an alternative approach is required;
that curriculum needs to emerge from a process of discussion and critical
dialogue between learner and educator. Within adult and continuing education
there has been a long-established practice of curriculum and syllabus
negotiation; a partnership between academic staff (the university and
its procedures) and the student body. In this way the learner is able
to develop knowledge and skills from negotiated pathways throughout the
curriculum, including moving towards potentially unanticipated individual
outcomes. The strategy can develop critical thought and a deeper understanding
of underlying concepts by encouraging questioning and personal responsibility
for the curriculum.
Unfortunately, negotiated practice can be difficult in the context of
a mainstream credit- and award-bearing higher education institution. Rawson
2000 supports the use of learning-centred approaches which focus upon
the whole person of the learner and not just the transmission of knowledge
to the person as an effective way forward.
A central concept here is that a more sound basis for lifelong learning
and a learning society involves an awareness of individual learning styles
and refers to the work of Honey and Mumford 1992 as illuminating. Such
approaches encourage students to focus on personal development.
‘Learning styles’ can encourage students to look at how they,
as individuals, approach their learning and how they can improve their
approach in order to become more effective learners. Much has been written
about learning styles and learner-centred approaches, and there are a
variety of techniques and resources available to academic staff to incorporate
into their teaching programme. Two personal examples are outlined below.
The first of these relates to the autumn of 2001 when I was fortunate
to secure a University Learning and Teaching Fellowship. Starting with
the view that attitudes and motivation have a very deep impact upon how
students orientate to study, my project sought to explore the importance
that stakeholder groups, such as students, staff and employers attached
to cognitive, practical and transferable skills within the Computing courses
of my home department of Computing and Mathematics. The most significant
results from a first-year questionnaire - on their higher education choices,
their confidence in existing skills and their beliefs about the importance
of cognitive, practical and transferable skills – was used to inform
aspects of the second-year curriculum through a revised and dedicated
unit entitled ‘Professional Development’.
My second personal example falls within the precinct of learning and
personal development. Since personal development requires the engagement
and exploration of the whole person, I was interested also in teaching
resources that supported student learning. ‘Teaching Study Skills
and Supporting Learning’, Cottrell 2001, is a valuable source
for staff who are interested in providing students with an opportunity
to benefit from gaining an understanding of how they shape their ‘learning
selves’ in both positive and negative ways through individual and
group exercises. This work also offers a useful framework for exploring
factors that can inhibit or promote learning and which can guide useful
Despite our natural propensity for learning, our life experiences can
pre-dispose us to develop cognitive frameworks which can inhibit extended
learning. Essentially, the human mind can adapt or ‘transform’
new information until it fits our pre-existing references rather than
be open to a modification of the terms of reference. So, each student
can arrive in our classes with a different pattern of inhibitive and motivational
responses, affected by, for example, environment, behaviour, emotions,
capability, belief and identify.
One area, like belief, can exercise a strong hold over learning. Underlying
beliefs about ability and performance, rather than particular skills or
actual performance, are most influential in a student’s progress
(Cottrell 2001). Beliefs about self-worth and individual potential are
especially powerful and beliefs about intelligence and the causes of past
under-performance can be particularly influential on continued under-performance.
Whilst delivering the Professional Development unit, I used a series
of student self-evaluation questionnaires and exercises to raise student
awareness of personal inhibiting factors in order to improve their orientation
to study. This approach proved useful in reducing anxiety for students,
but it became apparent that the approach was of limited benefit without
preparation for new learning.
If we are to promote learning as a ‘transformative experience’,
requiring an inner transformation, a simple act of ‘exposure’
is not sufficient. Students need to put into practice what they have learned
about themselves for new learning to take hold. To coin a phrase: they
need to be more ‘self-ish’. Inevitably there is a conflict
in a content-constrained curriculum between spending time encouraging
students to manage inhibiting factors and providing them with the opportunity
for new learning.
Students also need just as many opportunities to ‘get it wrong’
as to ‘get it right’. It is through making mistakes that we
can learn. Trying to banish error and failure, according to Knight and
Harvey 1996, would be like trying to banish information about the gap
between what we know, understand and can do and what we could know, understand
and could do. So, students ought to learn to expect to get things wrong,
since this is part of the process of development and involves the individual
in a self-reflective learning process.
Learning and teaching both involve a continuous process of encouragement,
motivation and critical reflection and, at times, the ability to be satisfied
with what has been achieved given the time constraint. Although aspects
of learning and teaching depend considerably on the system within which
it takes place, time is the most significant inhibiting factor for student
learning. Feedback and the importance that is attached to the improvement
of student learning from a new learning opportunity is the next most significant
factor in student learning.
Consequently, a robust basis for lifelong learning is to provide students
with the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and encourage them to
improve on what they can already do. This inevitably leads us to focus
on the role played by academic staff in helping to support lifelong learners
within a learning organisation. The discussion that follows looks at learning
development issues for academic staff.
Academic Professional Development Issues
If academics are to play a significant role in the learning society,
then we have a responsibility to be aware of:
- theories of learning and teaching
- variety of learning styles
- research evidence in support of learning and teaching.
It would also seem reasonable to expect that we be at least proficient
in the key function of our own learning and for the University to support
and encourage this through professional development.
There is however, an ethical dimension to professional development: who
develops whom, in what ways and on what authority? (Knight and Harvey
1996). The term ‘staff development’ rather than professional
development can give the impression that employees ought to be developed
in ways that are suitable for an organisation to better achieve its targets.
Fine. But where it becomes associated with prescriptive views of good
teaching and promotion of learning, it may be seen by some as an attempt
to impose change on professional identities and a device for top-down
control: the ‘academic freedom’ issue.
At MMU all academic departments are required to undertake Professional
Development Review (PDR). This may be perceived by some, as just another
‘accountability-driven’ approach and a symptom of an ever-increasing
move towards an ‘audit culture.’ On the other hand, ‘wholesome’
professional development requires the participation of all interested
parties working towards the creation of a ‘learning organisation’,
where central management is responsible for core values and key working
principles, whilst implementation is devolved to the stakeholders who,
in the process, retain their autonomy. Responsibility to provide programmes
for continual self-development at MMU is devolved:
- Academic Division
- Learning and Teaching Unit
- Learning and Teaching Committee
- Personnel Division
- Learning and Teaching sub-Committee.
Through this network the framework is set at the institutional level
by the University Learning and Teaching Strategy, encouraged and supported
by Academic and Personnel Divisions, contextualised by Faculties, implemented
by Departments and interpreted by individuals.
But the process should not be allowed to settle as top-down approach.
We, as individual academics should ensure that the ‘equation’
is ‘commutative’. We must use the institutional structures
to influence the provision of resources that are suitable to professional
development at the academic level. However, professional development,
like learning, comes through ‘doing’ and reflecting upon that
‘doing’. Nonetheless, reflection is of limited value unless
it involves attention to an individual’s core notions of learning
and teaching. It is noted that the Institute of Learning and Teaching
in Higher Education (ILTHE) promotes reflective practice but, at the time
of writing, academic membership is fluxional and the relationships of
the professional body with other agencies of learning development, e.g.
Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) is under review at the national
From the practitioner’s perspective, what we learn constrains what
we believe and a danger with reflection is that it can be self-confirming
(Boyatzis et at 1995) and change-limiting, unless there is some attempt
to move from merely a transmitter of information to an agent of ‘transformation’.
In other words, we must ensure that we move ourselves from a teacher-centred
to a learner-centred approach.
It is innate in our academic credentials that each of us is able to exercise
critical self-reflection. But how extensively do we practise, for example,
examining assumptions about why and how we teach? This critical reflection
depends upon our ability to understand the limits of our frameworks of
understanding and provides an appreciation of when and where they might
be profitably used. It calls for a change in knowledge and attitude and
the development of expertise and the process of coming to understand.
We need to be more ‘self-ish’ too.
Promotion of change can be achieved through the existing PDR system with
the possible use of learning and teaching portfolios. But this needs to
be supplemented by discussion at the departmental and institutional levels.
Much has been done in terms of the establishment of a University-wide
learning and teaching policy and working groups to improve educational
provision, including disability and on-line learning.
An example of improved practice is the Learning Developments Group recently
established in the Department of Computing and Mathematics. This group
aims to foster a learning culture by engaging colleagues in collaborative
enquiry to improve learning provision. It represents a potent vehicle
for change where colleagues work as reflective practitioners, cascading
knowledge and experience throughout the department. The overall aim is
to make the results of the enquiry public for the benefit of all. Close
working relationships also exist in the Faculty of Science and Engineering,
between the Faculty Learning and Teaching Committee, Media Services and
the Learning and Teaching Unit which have resulted in improved learning
and teaching provision for staff and students alike.
Much can be done to further improve professional development opportunities
for academics as practitioners and learners. For instance, the creation
of professional academic development programmes that go beyond the existing
two year part-time Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). To suggest
- action research methods for improved team working and improved educational
- designing and delivering the curriculum more effectively using on-line
- critical reflection for the purpose of personal development and lifelong
Summary & Conclusion
Change can be a painful process for both students and staff to manage.
There is a danger that increasing pressures and workloads, alongside what
may be perceived as accountability-driven approaches, can encourage a
compliance culture and change without change. Opportunities and mechanisms
that support critical reflection, the ‘self-ish’ approach,
are required for academic staff as practitioners and learners to work
more effectively as lifelong learners. Some of these mechanisms already
exist and other suggestions for improvement have been made.
This article has also discussed some of the issues associated with fostering
lifelong learning in a student environment. It has examined the delivery
of the curriculum and the use of ‘learning styles’ and learning-centred
approaches. Essentially, students need not just an opportunity to increase
their understanding of their individual (self-ish) inhibiting learning
factors but new learning opportunities which incur appropriate feedback
and time to learn and time to change.
Higher education institutions themselves must become ‘learning
organisations’, valuing those academics that have the necessary
skills in individual, group and organisational learning processes to facilitate
change in others. Academics will need to continually reflect on their
educational practice and improve their generic, research and subject specific
skills. In short, they have to use their time more effectively to become,
lifelong learners committed to professional development and change.
It is time to change and we must make the time for change.
Barnett, R., Supercomplexity and the curriculum, Studies in Higher
Education, Volume 25, No.3, 2000.
Biggs, J.B., Assessing Learning Quality: Reconciling institutional, staff
and educational demands, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education,
Boyatzis, R.E., Cowen, S.S., Kolb, D.A., et al, Innovation in Professional
Education, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 1995.
Cottrell, S., Teaching Study Skills and Supporting Learning, Hampshire,
Honey and Mumford 1992, Manual of learning styles, Birmingham,
Knight, P.T. and Harvey, L., Transforming Higher Education, The
Society for Research into Higher Education, Open University Press, Buckingham,
NCIHE, National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, Higher
Education in the Learning Society: Report of the National Committee (The
Dearing Report), London, 1997.
Rawson, M., Learning to Learn: More than a skill set, Studies in Higher
Education, Volume 25, No.2, 2000.
Stephenson, J. and Weil, S., Four Themes in Educating for Capability,
in Stephenson and Weil (Eds), Quality in Learning: A Capability Approach
in Higher Education, Kogan Page, London, 1992.
Wallis, J., (ed) Liberal Adult Education: The End of an Era? University
of Nottingham, Nottingham, 1995.
White Paper, The Future of Higher Education’, HMSO, 2003
telephone: 0161 247 1494
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