Vol. 15 : No. 12< >
Efforts in redesigning higher education to bring about shifts from a teaching pattern to one focused on learning stall abruptly when we try to put into action what we have been formulating verbally. A major chasm exists between the knowing and the accomplishing, between the need to make some changes, and the knowing of what should be done or, more vitally, how to do them. Opposition to the shift might even evaporate if we could transcend our paradigm paralysis over what university education should come to be as we enter the twenty-first century. Putting inertia, stereotypes and anxieties aside, I suggest that several main challenges or rationales obstruct the highways to learner-helping.
The first involves a fundamental shift in our thinking, something which is difficult to do. Teaching, especially the kind that "tells an informative story" and then tests students for the amount and accuracy of retention, is only distantly related to the act of learning or learner-centered teaching. Learning takes place through another series of activities altogether, and involves skills, exercises, interactions, revisitings and assessments, which are not a part of traditional teacher-centered teaching.
Learning takes much longer to accomplish than teaching. It happens one or two bits and bytes at a time, and not as the result of a single, stimulating hour-long lecture. It requires initial fact-and-idea ingestion, followed by going back for review and reinforcement in different ways over and over again. It takes irrigation, cultivation and stimulation to accumulate data, internalize, contextualize, compare, reflect, interpret and evaluate. Learners also vary; they are not all cut from the same mold. Learning acquisition rates and styles, mental flexibilities, cognitive-creative preferences, ability to work with abstractions and symbols, personal motivations or long-range goals differ widely due to geography, age, gender, race, culture and training.
But we as teachers naturally see ourselves as taking part in the equation and the action. We do not want to eliminate ourselves, our teaching-selves that is, from the process of student learning, in part because we are experts in our particular fields and also because teaching is how we pay our bills. The fear of being displaced or replaced by a host of existing and emerging technologies and on-line services if we stray very far from the well-trodden path, may well be a big part of the overall problem.
It also may help us greatly if we begin to make some clearer distinctions in our descriptive lexicon in order to differentiate some aspects of what we have previously called Teaching. We could separate Learner-Centered Teaching from Teacher-Centered Teaching and Content-Centered Teaching -- hopefully without having to resort to such acronyms as LCT, TCT or CCT! Certainly the latter two ways of doing things are an important aspect of the larger educational picture, but the MOST important current transformational consideration lies in the former -- in the learning, which must be the accomplishment of the learner.
From that perspective, the most successful teacher might be defined as the one who becomes most able to help the learners become autonomous, that is, learn to learn on their own. Many specific paths and processes will lead to this goal, each of which may depend in part upon the nature of the field of study, the comfort level of the teacher, the size and circumstance of the group and the method of interaction being used. However, if a teacher sets up an effective learning program, explains it, starts it off, allows students to do their learning through a series of escalating assignments calculated to lead them through the necessaries at their own individual paces, that teacher can then back away bit by bit and allow the learners to gradually assume more and more control over their own learning. This may imply that the teacher, who is omnipresent to begin with, can increasingly let go, hover less and eventually get out of the way all together as long as he or she is within earshot of any calls for help!
Why lecture at all, you might ask? Why engage in any teacher-centered rather than learner-centered teaching when we can see that the latter works better for the learners? This exaggerates the case, of course, because it is not that the lecture is innately evil and needs to be thrown out altogether, but rather that some particular aspects of the presentational format can be useful in learner-centered teaching, especially if they are followed by some effective discussion which focuses on the learning rather than the facts themselves. When I say that I not longer lecture the way I used to, what I mean is that I now use bits and pieces of a story or a brief multi-media encapsulation which will serve as a springboard for the learning process, which takes place as students talk about their reactions, ideas, contexts, implications, and so on.
Nonetheless, one major reason for the perpetuation of the lecture is that most teachers were lectured to when they were students, and now, as teachers, they tend to take the easy road and pass it along. Perhaps we teachers have not truly learned about learning. Most of us, myself included, received no instruction or training in how to teach, while we had known how to learn from (or almost from) birth. In school and college, we watched what our professors did, tacitly assumed it was the proper way, and when we were hired as classroom teachers, "did unto others as had been done upon us." Lecture, review and test were the order of the day back then, and in many (most?) cases, remain so now.
Actually, are we not caught up in our own patterns and petards? When we examine our inherited vocabularies, institutional policies, expectations, schedules and even classroom layouts, we see the clear imprint of the teach-by-lecture tradition. From a teacher's point of view, the lecturing we have traditionally used is thought to be the, or one-of-the most efficient ways to provide information to students. We can cover a lot of ground rapidly with a lecture, and with enough good lectures we can transmit information about an enormous subject area.
Never mind whether the lecture is learning-efficient or even learner-friendly, allowing the learner truly to teach the self rather than merely record information in classroom notes for later memorization, subsequent testing and post-test forgetting. We often may believe we have done our job simply by organizing the course, creating the lecture and delivering it -- plus reading the tests and grading them. From the point of having given the lecture, is it not subsequently up to students to show us they have done their jobs by scoring high on the test? But in truth it does not work that way. We know it doesn't, but we deny or ignore the fact, and will often claim that we have taught well exactly what needed to be taught, and the real problem lies with the students, since they "simply wouldn't learn it."
We also like lecture because it allows us to be the dean (or queen) of the routine scene, or the engaged-sage on the classroom stage. We are the focus of attention, we are the show; we perform, and we include all our personal experiences, beliefs, wisdom as well as biases, both academic and private, as we present our conclusions in our disciplinary expertises. Could we not make a case for introducing some ideas in a brief lecture, and then debating many current polemics over important ideas in our fields, present pro and con for each in a reasonably objective fashion? That would give students the chance to make up their own minds.
But we do not do that. We claim it will take too long, and we won't be able to cover all of the material. Or we argue that classroom debate will degenerate into a bull session of kids swapping ignorances. Many of us do not feel comfortable moderating a discussion, since we have trained ourselves best as tellers rather than askers and facilitators. We are not experienced in engaging gently and inquiringly in thoughtful dialogue about points we do not agree with, and we may even fear we would lose respect from students if we had to admit that some of our intellectual positions are based more on personal preferences than solid academic grounds. Besides, we would have to be on our toes all the time if we were to let students debate some of what we believe. After all, we have already made up our minds, so why not just tell all those students the "truth" and not waste time!!!
Lecturing is also an enjoyable thing to do for most lecturers. We have fun giving our performances, even if we are happy when it is over and even if we sneer at the "mere entertainers" who do it with stage, music, floodlights and megabucks. (I often think one main reason for criticism of faculty who teach on television comes from stereotyping TV as entertainment, plus maybe a dollop of envy?) Presenting a solid lecture feels good; applause gives pleasure, and we get a big lift when we deliver a well-honed manifestation of our hard work, extensive erudition and clever composition.
I know that feeling well! As goes one current saying, I've "been there, done that," and when I shifted over to Learner-Centered Teaching, the hardest thing I had to do was to stop lecturing and transfer the information over to print, cassette and videotape! (I do confess that every once in a while I will create a zippy shortie in class, and I love it. I naturally justify doing that from the andragogical purpose of a change of pace, as an illustration of applying one of my teaching models, or as a modicum of training for students in listening to and learning from lecture.)
It is also in our US educational cultural heritage; our traditional ethic lauds hard work, even if it is only with books, research, design and revision. We do well when we do good, so to speak; it justifies positions and paychecks. We revere and relish the words, the anecdotes and narratives; we enjoy telling our stories, we savor the verbal play, duel with word-games, and take pride unashamedly in our wit, wisdom and word-crafting. Listening to ourselves spiel evokes effervescence -- telling my personal stories well gives me a boost! There is nothing sinful about this -- at its worst it is only boring (which one can instantly see when watching videotapes of students listening to the lecture). So why should we ever consider not talking and not telling students what we know? They have to learn this information anyway, why not tell it to them? It is the easiest way.
Besides, don't we also wonder if those kids are really bright enough to get it, or do any learning on their own? That seems to be one part of the teacher-centered attitude. If the students are not learning from what we are telling them in good, clear English (American?) prose, "maybe they just don't have what it takes to succeed in a real university." Am I exaggerating here? Do teachers ever assemble batches of student bloopers, or collect and display the dumb mistakes students make on exams? Do they ever laugh at student boo-boos? Does watching others' mistakes somehow make us feel loftier?
Sure, some of those may be humorous, but is part of the laughter not also self-adulatory? The student is dumb and teacher is smart -- often called the Edgar Rice Burroughs approach, "Me teacher, you dummy!" Just for fun, next time you are in the lounge or coffee room, listen to the chatter about whose students are the most moronic. The attitudinal point here is that if one assumes witlessness and naivete on the part of students, it is more difficult to encourage and motivate growth. It also may be harmful, since students know and can smell whether they are loved, tolerated or despised.
But even if all students were top-notch, there still has not arisen in our institutions any genuine incentive or motivation which will encourage teachers to make andragogical changes. There is no clear reward for altering how one brings learning into the classroom. Old ways perpetuate themselves, though in various guises; if you move chairs and tables around to facilitate small group work, you had better return them to their original position before the next teacher arrives, because if you don't, you will hear about it every term.
And despite the myth of students being "revolutionary and avant-garde," many, sometimes most, are instead rather conservative. Conditioned into compliant and passive receptivity, they balk at changes. They become nervous, anxious, and they aggressively protect their high-grade averages from potential danger, often by complaining to chairs and deans. Elementary and Secondary Teachers, returning for updates and advanced degree credits are also leery and often highly threatened by any departure from what they are used to succeeding with.
The major recalcitrants however, are a triumvirate of (1) professors (not all old and grey) serving on department promotion and tenure committees, (2) managers whose organizational-chart mindsets uphold a one-size-must-and-will-fit-all mentality, and (3) a gate-keeping power-posturing calculated to minimize any change of any type by forcing even minor suggestions into endless committee hassles. Unfortunate but true, I have learned it is easier to make changes in my own classroom, based on my personal academic freedom and allowable room for experimentation, than it is to get consent. But even then, you risk offending those who will vote on your departmental standing. Forgiveness may be easier to get than permission, but it earns no points towards promotion and pay raises.
The true crossroads or watershed here is in "Teaching versus Learning." If there is one single roadblock in university redesign, it is this; as teachers we are so conditioned to making choices for our students that we automatically establish curricula and course-content based upon what we believe students ought to know, modified slightly by the political power realities in our own institutions and in our ability to gain support. Of course, our chairs and deans also seem to expect Teaching rather than Learning, as do students. It is rare to find an educator or administrator who uses the appropriate vocabulary.
Think about the syllabus factor. I personally prefer to create a syllabus for my arts and culture humanities courses in conjunction with students. If I have a number of music or dance or ceramic majors in the class, why can I not incorporate their knowledge, experience and willingness to share ideas with us into the program? But the rules say I must turn in a syllabus before the course starts. When I don't do that, you can bet that I hear about it. A similar example involves final examinations. The university catalog carries statements requiring them. They do not fit my andragogy; the students in my system of learning do not need them, and I do not give them. Perhaps we need to rewrite, update, reorganize, and transform the rules along with the practices.
Even if one survives the conditionings, apprehensions, dis-incentives, belittlements and discouraging words, there remains the reality of the classroom encounter, the "what-can-I-do-next?" Exactly what changes can and should the teacher initiate? There are no specifics, no blueprints and no accessible models for doing it, even though many teachers tell me they would love to gather together their own impartial, workable combination of theory, principles, rationales and down-to-earth procedures, sequences, exercises and facilitation methods to help them move from pedagogy to andragogy so they can effectively attend their ever-more diverse learners. At the same time they do not want to draw any negative attention from colleagues. To be safe about it, they also want a litany of documentation from Learning literature which will absolve in a scholarly manner their departure from the norm, just in case they are challenged! Is it any wonder that the transformation is taking tons-of-time?
The bottom line, however, is teacher attitude. The fundamental factor underlying all the tones of transformation relates to how the student is perceived by the teacher. One vision of this is the most traditional teaching model: a passive human receptacle into which a teacher pours knowledge from many generations. The implication is a student without knowledge who must be given it by designated providers. This is not far removed from the "tabula rasa," or blank slate, of the European Enlightenment and early Romantic Era.
A more accurate way for a teacher to perceive a learner is to consider him or her as already somewhat formed in knowledge, presuppositions and conditionings by the family and society which raises and fashions the child. Therefore, whatever is poured in by the professor will not meet a vacant, objective and impartial reception, but rather will be internalized in relation to what is already known, perceived and believed. As is often said, it is not that "seeing is believing," but rather, "what you believe shapes what you can see."
Even when we use the vocabulary of learning, and are trying to remember that learning is paramount, we will still often backslide. We will not ask the student what their preferences are, but rather formulate the outlines, the sequences, the criteria and the priorities based on our "teacher's views." We tend to tell students what we think they should know, rather than help them learn to learn by asking the right questions and arriving at reasonable, meaningful responses based upon grounds which they (not we) can validate.
Our paternal approach might have been valid a couple of centuries ago as we entered the industrial age, but it is out of place in our accelerating era's transfiguring society, institutions, employment, leisure and values. If we do not know what precise future to prepare students for, how can we establish hard and fast formulae over what they should learn and how they should learn it? We are not certain, we are not yet convinced that we MUST change, we do not see enough teachers around us changing, and the teaching market has not bottomed yet. It might be wiser to help students learn how to learn, but let us wait until we see where things are going.
But it will happen, and is happening all around us even if we do not clearly see it. The attitudinal masterkey lies in perceiving and acting upon the difference between: the teacher as provider, to student-as-recipient, and the teacher as learner-helping guide for the learner (who has his or her own distinctive pace and style of acquisition and accomplishment). In my view, this is the bottom line, and I would paraphrase John F. Kennedy by suggesting:
"Think not of what you can give to students from yourself and your own knowledge; consider instead how you may arrange many varied learning opportunities so they may learn in their own ways, at their own paces, perceiving the many options, alternatives and implications from which they may formulate their respective useful choices."
In my mind, this is clearly the NUMBER ONE factor. If we as teachers can keep focused upon the idea that the learning is more important for us to concentrate on than the teaching, and that all choices need to be made in support of helping students experience moments and milestones of learning, then the most difficult part of the transformation will already have been accomplished. I would re-emphasize here that we must reshape and redesign our vocabularies formulating a clear distinction between Teacher-centered teaching and Learner-centered teaching. After all, merely to look at it from the "available market" perspective, people are living longer, changing jobs more, learning new skills, seeking alternatives in new fields so as to enrich their lives. There will be endless varieties of tasks for those who can help learning to occur. We teachers have an interesting and exciting future ahead if we will move into teaching for learning.