The problem of learning – Accreditation, or moving from novice to expert behaviour?

This post will reflect on some of the questions raised through my reading of “The New Science of Learning” (Sawyer, 2006). In the introductory chapter, Sawyer discusses the emergence of the “Learning Sciences” and highlights the ways in which they present a new paradigm of learning when compared to the traditional instructional model. Sawyer draws on Papert’s (1993) description of traditional schooling known as instructionism where:
“knowledge is a collection of facts about the world and procedures for how to solve problems…Teachers know these facts and procedures, and their job is to transmit them to students.” (Sawyer, 2006, p.1).
He argues that whilst instructionism is well suited to the demands of an industrial society,
“the world today is much more technologically complex and economically competitive, and instructionism is increasingly failing to educate our students to participate in this new society.” (Sawyer, 2006, p. 1)
In contrast to this, Sawyer highlights the view that
“in the knowledge economy, memorisation of facts and procedures is not enough for success. Educated graduates need a deep conceptual understanding of complex concepts, and the ability to work with them creatively to generate new ideas, new theories, new products, new knowledge.” (Sawyer, 2006, p. 1)
When I was reading this chapter, I was constantly reflecting on the fact that this information is not new, I’ve heard it in different forms for my entire teaching career, but instructionism still dominates most of the teaching that I witness. Why is this the case? Is it the teachers, the system, the environment?
Ultimately I fell to reflecting on where I am situated as a learner.
In table 1.1, Sawyer compares deep learning and ‘traditional’ classroom practice – in the traditional classroom practice, learners engaged in more “surface learning”, whereas, in the deep learning students were actively involved in “redesigning their brain.
When you put it like that, who is going to argue with the fact that deep learning is better than surface learning. But, on reflecting on my own attitudes as a learner,  I realised that in some contexts I could classify myself as a “deep learner”, but in a other areas, I definitely exhibit the traits of a traditional one.
When I’m engaging in learning by choice, because it’s a perceived area of need, or passion – then I exhibit the behaviours of a deep learner. This is evident when I’m engaging in professional reading, discussions, reading blog posts and engaging in twitter conversations about pressing educational topics. However, when the purpose of the learning is compliance, mandated “up-skilling” or accreditation, I tend to approach my learning from a surface level.
This insight leads me to reflect that maybe one of the reasons that the shift towards deeper learning has failed to eventuate in the majority of our schools, is not because of a resistance to change on the teacher, or system’s behalf, but rather that the students are framing their learning as a “hoop jumping exercise”. That their perception of the purpose of schooling (to get good grades and go to university) is restricting their ability to engage in deep learning. When this perception is reinforced through community conversations, government policy, overcrowded curricula and an increased focus on knowledge as a collection of facts, it’s no surprise that, despite the best intentions, we have not made the systemic shift required to address the needs of our future economy.
This is further emphasised through Sawyer’s discussion on the problems of learning where in which education is conceptualised as the “problem of transforming novices into experts by developing their ability to reflect on their own thinking in these ways”. In this view, expert behaviour is not seen as have expert knowledge, but rather:
Expertise is based on:
  • a large and complex set of representational structures
  • a large set of procedures and plans
  • the ability to improvisational apply and adapt those plans to each situations unique demands
  • the ability to reflect on ones own cognitive processes while they are occurring.” (Sawyer, 2006, p7.)
Most importantly, “studies of experts show that they are better than novices at planning and criticising their work-both reflective activities” (Sawyer, 2006, p.7). The research cited by Sawyer highlights the belief that
“One of the central underlying themes of the learning sciences is that students learn deeper knowledge when they engage in activities that are similar to the everyday activities of professionals who work in a discipline” (Sawyer, 2006, p. 4)
This hit me like a brick! I totally agree with Sawyer in that the
 “research revealed that outside of formal schooling, almost all learning occurs in a complex social environment, and learning is hard to understand if one thinks of it as a mental process occurring within the head of an isolated learner.” (p. 9)
But in my classroom, we are not engaging in activities that are similar to the everyday activities of professionals who work in a discipline. Instead, the scaffolding that I provide is targeted at ensuring that every student can “get over the bar”, as opposed to promoting the reflection and criticism that characterises both “expert behaviour”, and the work of professionals in the discipline. Even though I don’t teach through chalk and talk…(I pride myself on creating a flexible learning environment, drawing on a range of activities to work with each individual student)…I still emphasise the purpose of the learning through an accreditation frame.
Earlier, I highlighted my emerging belief that this frame inherently shapes students towards more “surface” learning. I’m now re-evaluating my everyday classroom conversations and programming for Semester 2 using the following “key questions” to refine my thinking:
  1. How can I re-frame my class discussions and individual student feedback away from accreditation and towards “expert behaviour”.
  2. How can I incorporate the work of professionals into my learning design.
  3. How can I create an environment that seeks out, and draws students into deeper learning – and meet the accreditation requirements along the way.
As I work to refine my own practice, I also know that there is broader work to be done. I believe that until, as a profession, as a system, and as a site we articulate the purpose for education in the knowledge economy. Until we communicate how it looks, sounds, tastes and feels different to the shared societal norm of instructionism; and that we do that to the point that our stakeholders actually internalise it – we will continue to maintain the status quo – pockets of innovation within a generally intransigent, irrelevant system.

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