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So what do we meaning by 'Learning'?

This question that has been researched for many years in the field of education.  The school...

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Linda Price
7 July 2010

This question that has been researched for many years in the field of education.  The school systems that sprung up in the early part of the twentieth century were not underpinned by research into how people learn but by ‘commonsense assumptions that had never been tested scientifically (Sawyer, 2006, p. 1).  These assumptions were based upon what Papert (1993) characterised as instructionist approaches to learning.  These can be summarised as:-


  • Knowledge is a collection of facts and procedures
  • The goal of school was to get the facts and procedures into learners’ heads
  • Teachers’ jobs were to transmit the facts and procedures to learners
  • Simple facts and procedures are to be learned first followed by more complex ones; sequencing of these was determined by teachers, authors, or professionals in the field
  • Successful learning was determined by testing learners on how many of these they had acquired

(see Sawyer, 2006, p.1, for a full description)


Research into learning did not begin until the instructionist model was well established.  Around the 1980s it became recognised that learners could generalise their learning and apply it to a greater range of contexts when they engaged in learning the concepts rather than memorising facts and procedures (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983; Marton & Säljö, 1976; Sawyer, 2006; Richardson, 2000). The United States National Research Council (see Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000) reached a consensus that instructionism was flawed and that a deeper conceptual understanding enabled the learning of facts and procedures in a more useful way that allowed better generalisation and transfer to greater range of contexts.  Although research into learning was happened in different traditions an overarching principle emerged:  learning is a deeper conceptual understanding characterised by qualitative changes in the learner.  Papert (1993) recognised the failures of the educational system and argued for a shift from instructionist approaches to constructionist approaches that allowed children to develop their own knowledge through the act of constructing.  He argues that the "the goal is to teach in such a way as to produce the most learning for the least teaching" (p.139).


This failure in the general approach to education is not restricted to primary and secondary education; it is also a failing of higher education too.  Differences between what is ‘taught’ by teachers and what is ‘learned’ by students are acknowledged (Snyder, 1971) illustrating further the failings of instructionist approaches. The memorisation of facts and figures is ill-matched to the needs of a knowledge-based economy (Bereiter, 2002; Hargreaves, 2003).  The demands of westernised economies require learners to act as professionals, able to construct new knowledge and ideas and take responsibility for their own continual learning during their lifetime (Sawyer, 2006; Sharples, 2000).   The challenge for learners has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find it and use it appropriately (Bransford et al., 2000) and our goal as educators is support them in that task.  Unfortunately, learning in higher education is rarely evaluated in terms of qualitative changes in individual learners.


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Gráinne Conole
11:30am 8 July 2010

Great topic for a cloud Linda and nice evolving set of academic references. I touched on this yesterday in my keynote for Greenwich and categorise learning theories into 4 types:

  • Associative - lndivudally focused, outcome based
  • Constructive - application of prior knowledge, learning by doing
  • Situative - learning in context, through others
  • Connectivist - learning in a network, through others and mediating artefacts (tools etc within the environment)
The first three are the categories Mayes and De Freitas used in their review of theories for elearning (2004), the fourth draw on Siemen's ideas of connectivism and notions of networked learning etc. Seems a strong connection with Actor Networked Theory too. Will add a link to the cloud.

Richard Heugh Telford Drummond
4:12am 6 September 2010 (Edited 4:12am 6 September 2010)

Thanks, Linda - some serious food for thought there. Probably the most vexing question that arises is the one in your very last sentence; "Unfortunately, learning in higher education is rarely evaluated in terms of qualitative changes in individual learners". Much measurement of educational attainment is in terms of predetermined learning outcomes, usually and at least implicitly crierion referenced rather than referenced to individual progress. This is, of course, partly industry-driven. It is much more useful to employers to know that students have, for example, mastered the basics of accountancy than to be told that student X can now think for herself , to her own satisfaction - whatever that may mean or however that can be measured. Do you have any thoughts on how learning can be assessed on an individual basis and in a non-quantifiable manner?

Love to hear your views,


Linda Price
8:53am 6 September 2010

Hi Richard,

thanks for your comment.  There are some interesting issues here.  The first one to consider is in relation to your comment about employers.... and what they might want.  You are probably right in that they do want well 'trained' potential staff, and I think that is a tension.  In my view our role as educators is to develop thinkers - those that question and those that consider their actions in the context of a big wide world (call me a dreamer perhaps :-)  )  I'm not so sure that employers want that.  In many cases they do not want their actions/decisions questioned.  On the other hand there are some enlightened employers who are more interested in not so much 'what' potential employees know - but on their ability to find out or learn (in future events) what they don't know.  i.e. having a corpus of staf that can self update and learn for themselves.

The second interesting issue you raise is developmental assessment - yes that it a difficult one to tackle and its easy to see why HE has adoped criterion referencing practices as they are easier to administer.  However I don't nrom referencing is impossible.  I think our assessment practices need to include 'discernment' so that we enable students to demonstrate that they have enough 'wisdom' and not just information to know the difference between one thing and another and to be able to articulate sound reasons for their decision.  I'm looking at this issue with a student of mine who is researching the developmental stages of gradaute TAs over a two year period.  The assignments allow the student in each occasion to decribe the teaching situation, their observations of it, what went well and what didn't.  The interestering observation is that students begin their journey by characterising diffiuclties in the teaching situation in terms of 'what was wrong with the students' and ended their teaching journey with 'what was wrong with their teaching' (ofcourse there was much variation in between).  This however showed how far each perosn had travelled in terms of the development of their thinking about the theories and practices of teaching.  A final assessment (essay perhaps) then that allows the student to characterise their journey and to articulate the process that they might have gone through does allow for the student to reflect while also 'getting' marks for their efforts.  Through this process their are aware of thier own development, each one will be different for each student, and the marking of the essay can be centred around how well they can discern their own changes in development and link that to other theroetical developments in the field.

All of this is context and disciplinary specific of course.  But I think there is room for research and development in this area for all of us regardless of our disciplines.  I think the most difficult thing that practitioners have to contend with is the institutinoal context within which they find themselves.  If the institution is unsupportive to changes in assessment practices then any such venture is likely to be problematic.

What do you think, Richard?


Richard Heugh Telford Drummond
2:54am 9 September 2010

You're right, Linda.

There are a few enlightened employers 'out there'. I know of one Director of a Finance House who prefers to employ Philosophy graduates who have learned to think in terms of logic and the art of the possible. Training for him is a secondary issue. But alas, most employers want a well trained, competent workforce (Beware, the words are loaded.) I rather fear that my major in Medieval Literature would not easily get me a job these days. There is almost a secondary task that falls apon educators. As well as educating thinkers (I agree with you totally), we also need to educate employers to the fact that, in the Information Age (or was that the last decade?) graduates with a body of knowledge or a learned set of skills are not going to be particularly useful a year or so down the track - unless they have learned how to learn and are willing to keep learning, to keep abreast of the ever-changing context. Again, both the skill and the attitude are hard to quantify, but they are essential survival skills.

Developmental assessment is difficult - both criterion-referenced and norm referenced assessment have their place, and their flaws. An interesting experiment i saw recently was one of individuated self-assessment, verified or modified by an external assessor. it worked a bit like this: The course was a mass-delivery ODL course, so there were predetermined outcomes that the student 'bought into' by signing up for the course. (The luxury of individually negotiated learning goals still seems out of reach, but I would love to hear of any progress towards them). Attached to each assignment is a self-rating matrix that lists down the side the learning outcomes being assessed and across the top three questions: how well have I met this outcome? (rating 1-n) Where is my evidence? How will I use these skils and knowledge? This self-evaluation, along with the tutor's review, then forms a portfolio of evidence that can stand independent of the course. As with your TA example, the hope is that students will develop growing self awareness and skill (wisdom if you like) as they progress through the course, and the tutor will move from being judge to affirmer/coach. I hope that in its execution it will be more than a fine dream.

Would love to hear of other approaches to individuated developmental assessment - particularly in the context of mass-delivery courses - that you or others have come across.



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