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Published by the Learning and Teaching Unit
Summer 2003
ISSN 1477-1241
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Vol 2 Issue 2: Flexible and Lifelong Learning

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Editorial
Brian Murphy

Lifelong Learning: the agenda and the response
Rob Halsall

Flexible Learning within MMU: Working smarter not harder
Fred Lockwood

"What the ..@#~* PDP* < $*|>.. is going on ?"
Trevor Williamson

How adults really learn- or what we think we know about how they learn!
Jane Artess

'Transformative' Models for Learning, Teaching and Academic Professional Development - A 'Self-ish' Approach
Shaheena Abbas

Developing a Departmental Employability Strategy
Chrissie Gibson

The eUniversity
David Lambrick

Skills for Lifelong Learning: A Progress Report
Louise Willmot

Professional Modern Apprenticeships
Vic Leyden

Lifelong Learning Means You Too
Hannah Peace

Faculty Learning and Teaching Reports

Learning and Teaching News from the Library

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Photo of Shaheena Abbas

Shaheena Abbas
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.

Introduction

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 learning.

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 outcomes.

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 tasks.

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.

Learner-Centred Approaches

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 intervention points.

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
    • Development and Training
  • Faculty
    • Learning and Teaching sub-Committee.
  • Department
    • Individual academic

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 level.

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 a few:

  • action research methods for improved team working and improved educational practice
  • designing and delivering the curriculum more effectively using on-line techniques
  • critical reflection for the purpose of personal development and lifelong learning.

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.

References

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, 21, 1996.

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, Palgrave, 2001.

Honey and Mumford 1992, Manual of learning styles, Birmingham, 1992.

Knight, P.T. and Harvey, L., Transforming Higher Education, The Society for Research into Higher Education, Open University Press, Buckingham, 1996.

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



Shaheena Abbas
e-mail: s.abbas@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 1494

 

July 2003
ISSN 1477-1241


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