I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

In last week’s blog I was talking about how people learn and pointing out that we don’t know as much as we might think about this. My friend Lindsay Wright posted a comment quoting Timothy Galway which suggested that learning involved either changing the way we think or the way we act.
At one level, this seems self-evidently correct. Nobody learns in a social vacuum. We tend to learn for a purpose. For example, if I sign up for dance lessons it is, presumably, because I’d like to improve my dance steps. This is clearly a case of changing the way I act. If, on the other hand, I sign up for a course in philosophy, it is to change the way I think.
Now, of course, whilst all this seems self-evident, I have to ask: is it? For a start there are all sorts of reasons people take educational courses. If people go to dance or gym classes, they may well want to learn something that changes the way they act, or their motivation may be nothing to do with learning to dance, but rather a way of meeting other people. Far from changing the way we act, that learning might simply be reinforcing a pre-existing pattern of behaviour.
And, if we extend this to the example of philosophy, and sorry to disappoint all my philosopher friends, but whilst students of philosophy may be motivated by a desire to change the way they think, many will simply continue to believe and think as they did before. They may know a bit more about Aristotle, Kant, Marx or Rawls, but their fundamental mode of thinking may not alter at all.
I think what this provides an example of is what the sociologist Robert Merton called ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions. The manifest function of learning is the learning itself, what we learn; but, the latent functions of learning can be many things, including social acceptance, higher esteem, relationship formation etc. In defining learning in a formal sense as an activity likely to result in a change in thinking or doing, we exclude many learning activities that do neither of these things. Indeed, the majority of education, including higher education, which purports to be about learning is indeed about teaching – not quite the happy bedfellows we might have imagined.
Which brings us back to an earlier point concerning the relationship between teaching and learning. Teachers might like to think that they change the way people act and/or think, and in some instances they might do so, but should that be their aim? Is it my goal when confronting a group of students to change the way they act or the way they think? Should I consider it a failure if I fail to do so?
So much teaching is concerned mainly with passing exams, that we have slid into a lethargic acceptance of results as the only measure of success. Many HE teachers will claim that their students only really care about their mark, but who can blame them? If learning is no longer about thinking or acting, but merely acquiring, then it is inevitable that students will only take part in activities that seem to increase their chance of success. For the teacher with a passion for their subject this raises a dilemma: how to convey that passion?
Perhaps an answer is to be found by subverting a quote which I think came from sociologist Stanley Cohen. Our job is not to tell our students what to think, but rather to give them an idea what to think about. If we can do that successfully then it is possible that the latent side-effect of our teaching will, indeed, be a change in the way they act or think.


Think (about your pedagogy)

“What is your pedagogical viewpoint?” might sound like the World’s worst chat-up line, but it is a question worth considering. Most people go into teaching with some sort of ideal about what they want to achieve. Nobody enters teaching for the financial rewards, which is not to say the pay is awful. Compared to many workers university teachers are both well paid and well looked after. But not to the extent that somebody who was money-mad would be interested.
Neither is teaching likely, in most cases, to result in public adulation. Sure, students can be grateful and a handful of academics develop lucrative TV careers. But, on the whole teachers, even good teachers, remain under-valued. We are not rock stars, that’s for sure.
So, what drives us to teach? What values underpin our teaching? What do we think about when we think about teaching? Here, I shall make a confession. When I was first employed in a higher education institution, I had no teaching qualification, at the time I didn’t even have a Ph.D., generally considered the minimum entry requirement for a career in H.E.
It never occurred to me that I needed a teaching qualification. I had an idea that being a “lecturer” was simply an extension of “careers” I had had in the past. I was a confident public speaker, both from years spent working as a club DJ and from my involvement in politics. I thought this and a commitment to my students was enough to get me through. My poor students! How they suffered as I learned my art.
If you had asked me back in those heady days about my pedagogy I would not have had a clue what you were talking about. If I had worked out that it was something to with my philosophy of teaching, I might have muttered something about being ‘student centred’. Looking back, I’m rather relieved nobody asked me, its never pleasant making yourself look an arse is it?
One reason I wasn’t asked, of course, was that the question never occurred to any of my colleagues, nor to my interview panel. But, shouldn’t that question be asked of anybody who wants to make a living teaching? Would we be happy with a pilot who had no experience of flying being employed to fly a 747? Or, a surgeon, who had some vague idea that he might like to use a scalpel, being let loose on real patients? Yet, to some extent that is exactly what we do with teachers in higher education.
As teachers we can improve through practice, through professional development and by watching others. But, students only get one chance at their education. They are not there to meet the new improved you the next time. Don’t we owe it to them to try to get it right from the start? Of course, there is something to be said for learning from experience, but that is only true if we are reflexive in the first place.
Come on, anybody who works or studies in a university can name staff who despite being high profile researchers are a disaster in front of students. They get away with it because it remains the case that research is more highly valued by academics than teaching. If you are a lecturer, what would you rather do: teach or do research? If you are a student who would you rather be taught by: the professor with the string of book titles to their name or the recently appointed, enthusiastic young lecturer with commitment and energy?
If you are a lecturer the answer is not pedagogic, but strategic. Do you want a career or not? For students, I suggest you think carefully about what you wish for. So, when asked about my pedagogical outlook I find it difficult to answer mainly because it is not a question I have spent anything like enough time thinking about.