Learning Perspective: Students

Where are the students in the learning game, and what do they want out of it? I read Donald Clark’s “7 Fails” that he awarded the education system during the Berlin Educa debate, and found his description of students and what they are trying to get out of the system disturbingly familiar (not actually what he was writing about, but it came through loud and clear). The disturbing part is his opening framework outlining how the system (as it stands) has so abysmally failed the students.

Having said that, the students are getting exactly what they are demanding from the system. They want to know what they have to do to get the qualification they think they should have. They want procedural learning. How do I pass this piece of coursework? is all they want to learn. Is this on the exam? is a common refrain. All I want to learn is how to give you what you need to award me an A (or B or C or whatever they want). Tell me how to do it so I can satisfy the requirements.

This isn’t what the world needs – even if it is what business leaders demand of higher education. A couple of months ago I wrote about learning for talent or learning for labour. What our students don’t realise is that procedural learning is algorithmic? What they are demanding is learning for labour. Most of the skills they are asking for can be done by computers. For too many of our students, they gain qualifications through producing mediocre, uninteresting essays or ticking boxes in MCQ that ask for the colour of the sky in ever more sophisticated (confusing and obscure) ways (exactly what we ask them to do). Computer are close to being able to do this, and in the very near future I can foresee a computer programme earning a passable degree from almost any one of our thousands of HE institutions.

This is what is happening to the qualifications that we are mass producing. We are producing a massive labour pool through the teaching techniques we use and our students demand. Labour can be, and is being, automated and outsourced. Our post industrial, capitalist society is destroying labour, and elevating talent.Talent is related to initiative, creativity, and passion, and is not easily replaceable by automation.

We are wasting millions of our most precious resources – our human resource – by extinguishing initiative, creativity, passion, and the ability to think through our mass education system. Businesses demand qualifications, students demand qualifications, and we oblige. All it takes for mediocracy to smother excellence is for us to wring our hands and ask “What can we do?”

Jef Staes made the point (in the Berlin Educa debate) that “We have 2D teaching and 2D testing that leads towards 2D thinking and 2D people who live and work in a 3D world.

It doesn’t have to be that way.


2 thoughts on “Learning Perspective: Students

  1. I like much of what you have to say. I wonder, however, if you have alternate perspectives. I do not question your teaching ability – I’ve never seen you teach or measure your student performance. I do know that a limited perspective is the normal human condition. I also know that teachers see the world from their own eyes. What if they could see their performance from the student perspective. How would they perceive their performance if they could watch their performance as a fly on the wall? What change would a different perspective suggest?

    I agree with your assessment that many learners are there to obtain a qualification. What does that mean? Sometimes a true statement leads us to false conclusions. Can we be sure that learners with a narrow qualification focus, do not want to learn? And if they don’t, is that a fixed condition? And what is the cause of that condition – could there be something in teaching/learning model reinforcing that condition? Anything is possible until we make it impossible.

    There is a cost to the narrow qualification focus, and that only begins with incompetence. Having identified the problem, what can we do about it?

    For some interesting reading, consider Steven Brookfield’s Becoming a Critically Reflective teacher.


  2. I am certain that most students, as humans, desperately want to learn. However, I think that the education system has stopped being about learning, and the focus is on process and awarding qualifications. Teachers teach to the test, and students expect us to.

    I have a wildly successful final year module (see student comments here) where the students learn. The students select the module knowing what they are getting into, and I have about 60 per year. When I apply the same principles that create this brilliant teaching environment to a first year compulsory module, I have about half the class up in arms because I have deviated from the “I will tell you what I want you to learn, and you repeat it back to me at some future date – with a little more” model that permeates throughout HE today. They demand the procedural learning that will maximise their award.

    If you don’t see this in students today, you are a very lucky teacher.


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