Monday, December 5, 2011

Educational reform? Start with the right questions....

Educational reform is a complex area - not only are individual aspects complicated in themselves but the various aspects often interact and entwine and become jumbled in our thought processes.
So where do we start?  How do we know where to direct our energies?  One answer is to ask the right questions before we dilute our energies on activities that may not result in improved student outcomes - irrespective of how they are measured.   A recent post at the The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning may have recently done just that by identifying what the authors call “...the Seven Definitive Questions” of learning.

So what are these questions?
  1. How does learning occur?
  2. Which factors influence learning?
  3. What is the role of memory?
  4. How does transfer of knowledge occur?
  5. What types of learning are best explained? (If we can understand it better we can provide for it more.)
  6. What is the relevance of instructional design? Five assumptions are made about learning here:
      1. Learning is multidimensional
      2. Learning occurs in various planes simultaneously
      3. Learning consists of potentialities which exist infinitely
      4. Learning is holistic
      5. Learning environments are living systems.
     7.  How should instruction be structured to facilitate learning?

So what does it all mean?
The authors identify several implications, including;
  • Online learners have the capacity for a breadth and depth of knowledge that in the past was reserved for the minority with geographical access to educational institutions.
  • Courses can be designed that have less reliance on set texts and readings. “Instead learners can be provided with topics and themes and encouraged to seek out information sources and resources to inform themselves.”
  • The “isolation” of online learners may actually be a blessing in disguise as it allows “undistracted thinking and reflection”.  “Further, online learners have the freedom to learn at a time and place that is right for them. That is, they have more control over their learning environments. Learning can be engaged in comfortable, personally motivating spaces and places that become their individualized classroom.”
A question that occurs to me after reading this piece is why is it that our classrooms are perceived to be uncomfortable and disengaging places? Certainly they can be - but surely not all should be classified this way? There is a sense though in which the answers provided by the authors may not be as important as the responses their questions might prompt at the school level.  If teachers can confidently explain their understanding of these “definitive” questions they are likely to have a sound understanding of the educational process.  If not...perhaps some professional discussions around these questions would be of benefit. Or perhaps this list is not as “definitive” as the authors suggest?  Schools could do worse than trying to identify what they think are the really important core questions to do with education. Some of my own questions would include;
  • “What do we think we know about how students learn?”
  • “What are some of the ways in which we teach?”
  • “Does our method of teaching align with the way our students learn?”   
  • If not, what will we do about it? *
Of course, coming up with “the answers” is the easy part. The real reform begins when our teaching practice reflects our beliefs, not just convention.

Post Script:
I have to admit that I found some aspects of the original article cited here rather dense and wordy. Whilst it  appears to be talking about learning theory in general it then leans towards adult learning, particularly in the online environment (which I suppose is hardly surprising given the focus of the e-journal).
There is also some significant content that I have not presented here but which would reward examination. The source article is certainly worthy of both reading and reflection. Read the source article by Janzen, Perry and Edwards here.

* I have asked myself these and similar questions many times and have come up with the TARGETS mnemonic to guide my educational practice. It is the result of my own reflection and research into effective education and may be of interest.

Credits; graphic

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