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.


A change is gonna come, (or maybe it’s here)

Everything changes. After all evolution seems to be hard wired into us, yet for all sorts of reasons we cling to our old behaviours. This seems as true in education as it is in other parts of our lives. Some people, take a bow Mr Gove, fetishize the past to such an extent that the only explanation is that they must have been born in a previous century, accidentally frozen and then thawed out in time to visit misery on the rest of us.
Most academics are, and here’s a shocker, quite good at passing exams. For us, lectures, seminar papers and final exams worked. So, if they worked for us, they should work for everybody, right? Well, no actually. The notion that because something worked in the past, it is fit for the present is, frankly, a nonsense. That modern students should be forced to sit in rows listening to the sage on the sage says much about the sage and little about the needs of the student.
A recent paper in ELiSS (Enhanced Learning in the Social Sciences) argued that social tools, such as blogs or wikis, “allow the expression of learners’ thought, opinions, and ideas, enabling the construction of an online presence that arches over many spaces.” The authors, Monica Aresta, Luis Pedro, Antonio Moreira and Carlos Santos report on the use of what they call ‘personal learning environments’. These are online spaces where students can build and enhance their digital presence.
It is probably worth pointing out that their sample was 22 students taking a Masters in Multimedia Communication. One would, no doubt, expect such students to have a higher than average digital literacy, and to be open to this kind of experimentation. But, what of the rest of us? Indeed, for those of us teaching in the more ‘traditional’ social sciences or arts/humanities, what lessons?
I may be mistaken but I don’t think our students are as wedded to, so-called traditional pedagogies as many academics remain. But, and I believe this is a myth needing busting, neither are all young people digitally connected.
The key point about the Aresta et al study is a recognition that almost all of us now have an online identity, and that this has become as real as our other identities. By failing to acknowledge and nurture the online identities of our students, we do not just do them a disservice, but put ourselves into the position of evolutionary throwbacks.

Tommy, can you hear me

If you’ve ever done an online tutorial, you’ll likely have experienced a point where you have asked a question, and all you get back is a deafening silence. It is tempting to think, paraphrasing The Who, that nobody can hear you. The temptation is to blame being online, as though our face-to-face seminars and tutorials are overflowing with chatter-boxes.
What is happening, then, in these online sessions where students refuse to speak? One simple explanation is that it is something to do with the artificiality of using a microphone. This is plausible until we consider that the majority of our students seem to have a piece of technology welded to their ears most of the time and it does not hinder their ability to speak.
In an evaluative survey of 300 Open University students which I carried out last year, I tested the hypothesis that students did not like using a microphone. In an array of attitudinal statements 38% agreed that they did not like using a microphone. However, as a control, I also asked about whether they disliked talking in tutorials. Guess what? The figures agreeing that they were anxious about talking in tutorials was 38%, and when I correlated these two questions, it turned out that it was, more or less, the same people.
Now, we always need to keep some perspective when comparing face-to-face teaching with online as battle lines can easily be drawn and rather than a discussion we have an argument which neither side wants to lose.
My figures suggest that about 4 in 10 students are uncomfortable speaking – in any environment. I suspect that in the face-to-face setting we have tried and tested strategies for overcoming this. Putting students into pairs for example, or just doing all the talking for them. In the online environment, however, instead of thinking creatively we too often fall back on the old ‘the technology is to blame’ excuse.
Online tutorials are still relatively novel both for tutors and students, and as we feel our way into making them more mainstream we need to be bold in developing strategies for coping with things that we may have glossed over in our face-to-face experiences. The non-talking student is nothing new, but whereas in a classroom that student has the option to speak or not; in the online classroom built- in chat functions and interactive whiteboards provide an opportunity to engage students in ways that classroom teachers can only dream about.
So, is the problem of non-talking students overcome in the online classroom?