The construction of learning and teaching
Reviewing: Students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching in HE, by OU Professor John Richardson, in Educational Psychology vol 25, no 6, 2005
John Richardon’s article describes the findings of a series of qualitative studies carried out mainly in UK and Swedish HE institutions between the late 1970s and the early 2000s, seeking to identify some of the determinants of student and teacher attitudes to the learning process, and their consequent behaviours as learners and teachers. Richardson’s conclusions are roughly as follows:
Different students have very different approaches to study, ranging from a focus on understanding concepts, through a strategy based on memorising material, to a concentration on optimising preparedness for tests. These differences seem to correspond closely to differences in the students’ underlying conceptions of learning – conceptions which can be grouped into:
1 Learning as an increase in knowledge
2 Learning as memorising
3 Learning as acquisition of procedures/facts
4 Learning as abstraction of meaning
5 Learning as an interpretative process aimed at understanding reality, and
6 Learning as personal growth or change
Students who subscribe to conceptions 1, 2 or 3 are more likely to have a ‘shallow’ approach focused on memorising or test preparation, and to see learning as something that happens to them; whereas students who subscribed to conceptions 4, 5 and 6 are much more likely to take a ‘deep’ approach focused on understanding, and to view their learning as something they are actively engaged in. What causes students to have these differing conceptions of learning, it’s suggested, has to do with contextual factors such as teaching style and institutional culture, as well as their previous experience of learning.
Turning to teachers, the studies cited by Richardson suggest a primary distinction in practice between a “teacher-focused approach” aiming at the transmission of information to students, and a “student-focused approach” aimed at bringing about conceptual change in learners. A student-focused approach was more likely to result in students adopting the ‘deep’ approach to study, and reporting a positive experience of their learning.
And as with students and learning, these two contrasting approaches to teaching are seen as reflecting a number of distinct underlying conceptions of what it means to teach. These conceptions can be grouped into:
1 Teaching as imparting information
2 Teaching as transmission of structured knowledge
3 Teaching as interaction between teacher and students
4 Teaching as facilitation of understanding, and
5 Teaching as triggering conceptual change & intellectual development
Teachers subscribing to conceptions 1 and 2 would tend to be teacher-focused in their practice, while those subscribing to conceptions 3, 4 or 5 would tend to be student-focused. Although Richardson acknowledges the importance of other factors such as perceptions of institutional context and culture, and specific features of the subject being taught, it is these underlying conceptions which are seen as the overriding determinants of teachers’ practice. Consequently,
If institutions want their teachers to adopt a more student-focused approach to teaching, they need to ensure that their teachers hold a commensurate conception of teaching – and a brief training course will not be sufficient to achieve this. (Richardson J, 2005)
Most of the above seems to me so obviously true as to hardly need 25 years of exhaustive research to demonstrate it. Did we not already know that some learning is active, deep and concepts-centred – some passive, shallow and test-centred? Or that some teaching is student focused, interactive and explorative, while some is one-way, transmissive and teacher-focused? Or indeed that these differences in practice correspond to some basic demarcations in underlying conceptions of learning and teaching, as well as being affected by the context in which the learning and teaching take place? I think we did!
But amid the truisms there’s a couple of unevidenced assumptions being made here which I want to challenge…
The first is that the ‘transmission of structured knowledge’ is a teacher-focused practice militating against student understanding, which I think does not always or necessarily follow. A brilliantly-delivered lecture, for example – while certainly not being all a learner needs – may well trigger exactly the kind of intellectual thirst and conceptual expansion implied by the phrase ‘deep learning’.
My second quarrel is with an assumption being made about the relationship between underlying conceptions about learning and teaching, and learners’ and teachers’ actual practice. On the basis of one or two ambiguous research references Richardson implies that this is a simple, one-way causation: that the concepts determine the practice. I think the relationship is more complex: that concepts also arise from practice, that practice and concepts are mutually generating and reinforcing.
In fact I think Richardson’s own account instantiates this two-way causation, for example when discussing “students who hold a reproductive conception of learning through exposure to a subject-based curriculum”, or in referring to a survey finding that “conceptions of teaching varied across different disciplines, but that teachers teaching the same disciplines at different institutions had relatively similar conceptions of teaching.”
I think Richardson does ultimately embrace this more complex, two-way view of causation when, discussing learning and teaching contexts, he concludes that “teachers constitute an important part of the learning context for the students, and the students in turn constitute an important part of the teaching environment for the teachers.”
Learners, in other words, construct their teachers just as surely as teachers construct their learners.
Richardson J, 2005. Students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching in HE. In Educational Psychology vol 25, no 6