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Learning in HE

Audrey Watters tells us that learning is a verb and not a noun. I agree. For too long, learning has been treated by educationalists as a thing rather than a process. Tony Bates reminds us that learning involves cognitive, personal and social development. Learning is, according to Clark Quinn, strengthening associations between patterns in the brain. Learning, when it is expanded to include within its scope knowledge, understanding, synthesis, and creativity, is about the building and strengthening connections between neurones and networks in the brain. It involves the contextualising of information in the memory, language, emotional, executive and social systems in the brain. The process of contextualising means that we make new connections, strengthen existing connections, and enrich our internal representation of the world. It is all about networking.

When information was scarce and the world was slower, the learning process had built in time for the contextualisation of information. Discussion and debate were an integral part of learning. The content base of a subject was kept manageable, and good students integrated the information they were given into their cognitive, personal and social experience; the information was contextualised.

With the rise in the value of information, and the subsequent increase in the availability and value of a qualification form a HE institution, the efficiency gains necessary to deal with the massive increase in student numbers without the proportionate increase in the resources needed to keep the experience the same has had a profound impact on how students see education.

For many of our students today, getting an education is about getting a qualification. The learning is incidental to the process. Cramming, the memorisation of large amounts of information in a short space of time for the purposes of passing an exam, works. Cramming has become the normal behaviour for students in HE today. With large numbers of students, ever increasing amounts of content to learn, compartmentalisation of subject areas through modularisation, and pressures of time (working students and shorter study times), the system is all about cramming for a qualification. This doesn’t mean that our students don’t occasionally find something that catches their attention, and they delve deeper to understand it, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Qualifications, content and cramming define our current higher educational system. We ask students to memorise what we already know, and then regurgitate it for qualifications. Is it any wonder that the unwritten social contract between our learning institutions and society in general are breaking down (Donald Clark’s Fail 1)? Is it any wonder that lecturers and administrators in HE today feel uneasy? Is it any wonder that HE graduates leave disillusioned and cynical?

When are we going to move to a symbiotic learning/education relationship? When are we going to reintroduce contextualisation as the primary goal of learning in HE? When is our fixation with content going to transmute into a fostering of understanding?

We live in a different world where the tools and the understanding is there for us to do it now. We need more than just a few champions to change the system, but we have to start with what we have. Keep working – the future can be as bright as we make it.

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