Scholarship Of Learning Blog

At the request of the University, I have started a new blog for teachers here, and have committed to regularly posting something to improve teaching and learning in the University. Here is my second post.

When teaching, we have to ask ourselves what we know about student learning.

Most teaching staff, if asked, could identify with the four points Maryellen Weimer highlights in her chapter about student learning in Taking Stock. Her four points are as follows:

  1. Students are passive
  2. Students lack confidence as learners
  3. Many students lack the basic study skills necessary for University
  4. The only thing that motivates students are grades and marks

The surprising thing for most of us is that we have a great deal of control over each of those four observations. The over-reliance on traditional teaching methods by many of us can be to blame for some of the ways students approach their learning.

Over the next few posts, I will present evidence about both how some approaches are not good for learning, and how we can change our approaches to be more supportive of student learning.

Before these posts, I would like each of you to consider the area of teacher cognition. Dan Spencer writes:

Borg, in a introduction to teacher cognition, outlined what is generally accepted today about the nature of teacher cognition and its relationship to what teachers do:

  • teachers’ cognitions can be powerfully influenced by their own experiences as learners;
  • these cognitions influence what and how teachers learn during teacher education;
  • they act as a filter through which teachers interpret new information and experience;
  • they may outweigh the effects of teacher education in influencing what teachers do in the classroom;
  • they can be deep-rooted and resistant to change;
  • they can exert a persistent long-term influence on teachers’ instructional practices;
  • they are, at the same time, not always reflected in what teachers do in the classroom.
  • they interact bi-directionally with experience (i.e. beliefs influence practices but practices can also lead to changes in beliefs).

All of us need to both recognise teacher cognition in ourselves, and what that means in terms of our own teaching practises. We need to be prepared to set aside our own beliefs and desires about teaching and learning and be willing to be guided by evidence. As psychologists, we need to keep in mind the difficulty of behaviour change, as illustrated by Charles Jennings post earlier this month:

Alan Deutschman, the author of ‘Change or Die’ makes a pretty stark statement about people’s reluctance to change:

“What if a well-informed, trusted authority figure said you had to make difficult and enduring changes in the way you think and act? If you didn’t, your time would end soon — a lot sooner than it had to. Could you change when change really mattered? When it mattered most?”

He goes on to say that even if you think you’d change, it’s unlikely to happen. The scientifically studied odds are nine-to-one that even if confronted with life-or-death decisions, people simply can’t change their behaviour.

One of the areas of psychology that helps me understand resistance to thinking and change is the study of racial prejudices (not that having teacher cognition is racist in any way). When I talk to lecturers (and others) about the evidence related to teaching practise, they don’t want to consider the evidence – they want to cling to their beliefs, in spite of the evidence. Beliefs are wonderful things, but beliefs that are not supported by evidence can constitute an irrational belief system – something that we are all familiar with, and can be comfortable with. However, we have to be willing acknowledge that what we have is an irrational belief system. In our professional lives, we need to do better than that.

Next week, I’ll post something about fostering passivity in our students, and then follow it up with a few posts about what we can do about that.

Teaching Malpractice

Is there such a thing as teaching malpractice?

With all the evidence that would make up the corpus of the scholarship of learning, do we as institutions have a legal obligation to adopt best practise (in a real sense – not in an everybody does it this way sense)?

The current thinking in HE is that we are professionals, and we can approach our teaching in any manner we choose. It doesn’t matter that the approach we favour is ineffective as far as learning goes, we have a right to choose the way we want to teach.

Would this be acceptable in the medical world? When I go to a medical professional for treatment, they have some obligation to treat me with the most effective form of treatment (I would hope). If they don’t, and I find out that they haven’t, I can enter a claim for clinical malpractice. Is this a possibility in the world of higher education.

Let’s take lecturing as an example of teaching practise. In 1972, Donald Bligh wrote a comprehensive review of the research evidence on teaching in HE – curiously, the book title was What’s the Use of Lectures? In this review, he looked at over 700 studies that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of lecturing as a learning event. As Graham Gibbs recently wrote in the Times Higher:

More than 700 studies have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.

For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. Studies of the quality of student attention, the comprehensiveness of student notes and the level of intellectual engagement during lectures all point to the inescapable conclusion that they are not a rational choice of teaching method in most circumstances.

A review by Hughes and Mighty written in the more recent past (2010) reinforced Bligh’s damning indictment of lecturing as learning events written over 40 years ago. The recent article in The Atlantic by Corrigan looks at the debate about lecturing and says about those defending and supporting lecturing:

In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view.

When does the use of a teaching method with so much evidence stacked against it become malpractice in education?

More importantly, when does the wilful ignorance of the scholarship of learning in education become grounds for a malpractice claim? In October of last year, Corrigan highlighted the results of a survey showing that only 8 percent of college teachers reported “taking any account” of research on teaching and learning into preparing their courses.

This is unacceptable!

How could any institution or sector defend themselves in a court of law if a class action lawsuit were to be launched against them for malpractice.

As I read the reflections of my students who just completed my Science of Education module in the autumn, I actually had tears in my eyes as I read of their frustrations with the missed learning opportunities they had experienced (and paid good money for). They were lamenting the time spent wasted sitting passively through lecture after lecture, believing that they were engaged in an effective learning activity, only to find out, in my class, that lecturing is such a poor method of learning (they find this out themselves, I never actually tell them this – it is part of their self-directed learning experience).

In my mind, this is as unacceptable as allowing homeopathy practitioners access to state funds to treat serious diseases because they believe that what they are doing is effective.

I look for the first group of students who take on a HE institution in a civil suit over their collective wilful ignorance when it comes to evidence based practice for effective learning. Not being a lawyer, I have no idea what their chances of winning might be, but from a rational point of view, I wouldn’t bet against them.

How have we made something as exhilarating as learning, as oppressive as education?

Milgram, Zimbardo, Asch & Education

In July, 1961, Stanley Milgram began conducting his first experiment into obedience. The findings were sensational – between 61 and 66% of all participants, regardless of the time or place or study were prepared to inflict fatal shocks to another participant when they were told to (I have never found this that unusual – for centuries we’ve had soldiers in armies prepared to kill another person when they are told to). People obey.

In August, 1971, Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment. The study was cut short when it was found that the participants readily identified with their place in the artificial society. People are impressionable and obedient.

In 1951, Solomon Asch began his studies into conformity within a group. Of the participants who were tested, 75% reported that a line that was clearly shorter than two others was the longest line on a slide when all of the other participants in the group reported it before them. People conform to group thinking.

In February, 2014 these three findings form the backbone of the educational programmes in higher education. Students are obedient, want to fit in, and are willing to conform to what the other members of their group think.

We know that universities tout self-directed learning as a core tenant of their graduates. However, self directed learning doesn’t happen in the “I’ll tell you something, and you repeat it back to me in three months” model of dependent learning that is the norm in HE today, or as George Siemens puts it “When students take a formal course, success is measured by how well they internalize (whatever that means) and repeat back to us what we told them.” This kind of learning is built on a foundation of obedience and conformity. This is called dependent learning, and it is the bulk of todays learning in HE.

The educational world isn’t even embarrassed by this (at least not in primary school). My daughter recently went to a parent teacher evening where she was told that my three year old grandson was finally beginning to learn one of the central components of education: conformity (you can imagine my relief).

Conformity and obedience in education is expected. The entire premise of a module or class beginning and ending on a particular date, with assignments due on particular dates, and learning tightly scheduled and planned well in advance requires obedience and conformity.
Never mind that creativity, critical evaluation, metacognition and most other higher order thinking skills are stifled by conformity. When I have to produce a detailed marking criteria prior to the assessment even being set, then room for creativity and surprise is gone.

We don’t expect our students to surprise us, and they regularly don’t.

In a high level meeting (the University Teaching and Learning Committee) I was at last year, there was serious discussion (I lost in the end) about having regulated penalties for exceeding word limits for student work (read conformity). One of those present said that he didn’t want to read War and Peace every time he marked an assignment, to which I asked, …what if your student actually produced War and Peace? To which the assembly essentially laughed and said Our students? Not in this life!

Our students are good at obedience and conformity. Fitting in is essential for success. Being exactly like everyone else is the key to success – at least for getting a degree.

I guess that when the institutions producing graduates are built on the foundations of conformity, obedience and fitting in, that is the kind of graduate that will be produced. I guess, on that measure, we are quite successful as a sector.

How have we made something as exhilarating as learning, as oppressive as education?