16 December 2010

On making learning more difficult by making it easier...

Who writes curricula, or rather syllabi?

In further (rather than higher) education, on the whole they are not written by people who have studied on the kinds of course they are designing. The course designers are, probably, graduates who have progressed to their present positions via quite a different route from that followed by the students who will take their course.

(I'm sure there are counter-examples, of course, and I can remember that when I started in FE teaching 40-odd years ago, there were respected vocational teachers in the college who had come up "through the ranks", as it were, and were actively involved in designing ordinary and higher national certificates and diplomas in shorthand and typing, in office practice, and other vocational areas. They represented the community of practice in the Lave and Wenger sense, even if they were located in a college. But the process has become more professionalised since then, and the practitioners' voice is fainter, with the exception of some of the National Vocational Qualifications.)
And of course the writers are older and experienced (and quite probably experienced teachers in the area).

What these factors mean is that designers have a totally different perspective on the content from that of the learners. That is not surprising, but it appears to have some less obvious consequences.

Let us also throw into the mix the pressure on the awarding bodies (for whom the designers work) to create courses on which "learners" (i.e. students) can "achieve" (i.e. pass); colleges get a bonus for students who pass.

I have undertaken several teaching observations recently on such courses, and on the whole they have not been very good. At one level that is only to be expected; the teachers I observed have only just come to the end of the first term of a two-year part-time course and in these cases they have little experience under their belts.

But that is not the whole story. In one case the teacher thoughtfully provided me with some of the course documentation including photocopies of pages from the "official" textbook which she was using as a handout.

(Not best practice, but with a heavy timetable and no time to develop her own resources, understandable.) So I could see that she was following the required Scheme of Work almost to the letter. The handout declared authoritatively that there are four theories of such-and-such (well, it all depends... and two of the theories were simply variations on a third, but there was no acknowledgement of that), and the teacher was supposed to "get through" these at the rate of ten minutes each, and to test that they had been "learned" (whatever that means in this context). Being fair to her, again, she was not very familiar with the area she was teaching, and so she had to stick largely to what the book told her*. She offered few examples, because she was not confident they would be "correct".

And I could tell that some of the information on the handout was misleading and even simply wrong.

The students, rather sadly, were bored but compliant. They "researched" allocated topics (Googled them), and paraphrased what they found and the relevant paragraph from the handout, and two of them gave short presentations by the time the session ended. They spoke when spoken to, but volunteered nothing. They exhibited a weary familiarity with yet more half-understood gobbets of information they were supposed to "learn", without a clue as to why.

The teacher and I had our post-observation discussion. I checked on the academic/vocational level of the programme (3; the next level below first-year undergraduate level). She agreed it was dumbed-down to near meaninglessness, because that is seen as the way to get the students to "achieve".

As I drove back I realised how many times before I had been to such a class. I wrote about one in 1999.

It's to be hoped that with more experience, and a little (well, a lot of) reading round the subject, and confidence from her training, this teacher will like so many others get to lighten up a little and her proficiency will lead to more learning. But it's difficult when she is constrained by the limitations of the curriculum.

What appears to have happened is that in order to ensure that the students pass (and thereby ensure that this particular awarding body continues to be used by the college in this vocational area) the content has to be made as easy or simple as possible. Einstein is frequently paraphrased as saying “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Courses like this appear to have violated that threshold. In an attempt to reduce the "learning" to discrete gobbets of information, they have ignored the context and the connections between those items, so that learning one provides no assistance with the next one.

(A few weeks ago, one student offered a micro-teaching session on an introduction to Chinese calligraphy; it was principally a practical session but of course provoked many questions from group members, some about the difference between a logographic and an alphabetic system of writing. C. pointed out that every character in a logographic system has to be learned from scratch; while some are composites, the link between the elements is not mediated by phonemes in the same way as in an alphabetic system. So one character offers little as a clue to another; it's the same issue. And learning three or four thousand separate characters is a formidable task!)
After another session I compared the content with a bowl of beads. They can be mixed up any way you like. Pick one out (teach it) and it has no implications for the rest. There is no system of knowledge. It cannot be other than inert. But thread the beads together, and picking one up will bring others with it... Context and connection are not optional extras.

In trying to make things simpler, this curriculum made them a whole lot harder.

The designers seem to have forgotten, at their distance from the students, what it is like to study this stuff. The teachers (we hope) and the designers have an overview of the field. They know where everything fits in so it makes sense. The students on the other hand are just thrown one thing after another in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. They are like puzzlers trying to make sense of the jigsaw without the picture on the box.

Surface learning and at best the unistructural level of the SOLO taxonomy is as good as it can possibly get. There is a special challenge in “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

* One little-remarked feature of vocational programmes is that of course they include some necessary background material which may be based on academic areas of study which may not be the teacher's own area--physiology, sociology, even physics, for example. Since each of these specialist topics may not feature very much, it falls to the main teacher to be a jack-of-all-trades teaching all of them even when her or his knowledge is shaky. (Yes, a great opportunity for e-learning indeed, but not much used.)

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