Learning – ‘curious to’ or ‘have to’?
This weekend has been one of those weekends when everything seems to come at once. It was open day at university, the clocks have gone back an hour and the pump on my water cooled PC appears to be having problems and might need to be replaced. Although most of Saturday was taken up with work, I’m still trying to keep up to date with both my streaming schedule and my blogging. It was, however, at Open Day that the idea for this week’s waffle first started as a seed in the quagmire compost where my waffling ideas sprout. Do we learn because we are curious or because we have to?
I need to clarify the context before I continue this waffle. Some of you might be sat there thinking that we are always learning, developing and improving and that the mere idea of do we have to, is ridiculous. However, the learning which I would like to waffle about here, is the additional learning that we do ourselves when we attend or participate in a degree or similar learning programme. While we were having a slight break at the open day, usually when an ITE talk was talking place, we were discussing how, looking around the hall, we would like to complete some of the courses which were available. Even looking at the twitter hashtag which our programme uses (#ysjprimed) people were saying that they would enjoy some of the activities which were being completed within the sessions. We are at a certain period of our learning journeys and now, the courses and activities appeal to our curiosity and interests. We would be, well at least initially, motivated to learn and progress. But what about at the start of our careers when we needed a degree to qualify to join the profession? Were we motivated and curious about learning then and do we, as practitioners, promote and allow for that curiosity within our teaching and module design.
The Power of Learning Outcomes – About three years ago and while completing my PCAP qualification, I was introduced to constructive alignment. Within primary education the process of learning starts with assessment. Planning then uses this assessment to create activities and then, at the end of the activities, assessments are made and the circle continues. I recognise that this is simplified description of the cycle however it is accurate in allowing me to make a comparison with the planning cycle within higher education. Here, in isolation, the learning outcomes for the module/programme are decided and the actual assessments aligned to ensure that completing the assessments would demonstrate understanding of the learning outcomes. There appears to be no initial assessment involved and I have yet to come across a learning outcome which relates to either curiosity or independent learning. Although academic writing and conventions are discussed, there is little response made to the needs or the requirements of the learners within the initial module design. In my opinion, this could be seen as using a pedagogical model in an area of education/learning where andragogy or even, dare I say it, heutagogy should be the main driving force. With this emphasis on learning outcomes are we not even providing the opportunity for learners to be curious about the subject/topics, encouraging them to jump through the hoops of the learning outcomes?
Independence – This week within the science module, we have been looking at the learning theories which impact on the teaching of science and how there can exist a dichotomy between theory and practice. Among the recognisable theories of constructivism, social constructivism and scaffolding, I like to slide in theories relating to the promotion of independence. Learning can be a collaborative activity but curiosity tends to be more personal and individual. Something which I am curious about, others might not be, although I do recognise that sometimes discussion can initiate that initial ‘white rabbit’ moment. Independent learning can be scary. I’m not referring to learning by yourself here, but more to the decision of what to learn. Often we want to seek reassurance that our focus for learning has value or will meet the approval from colleagues, tutors and modules. When learning, I would consider the actual process of learning more valuable than the actual content. Although I do not disagree that facts and content are important, the skills that are developed as we learn are lifelong skills which allow us to repeat and enhance the process. Linking to the established learning outcomes in the previous section, do we as practitioners actually promote independent learning within sessions and modules? Research does play an important role here, but I feel that this tends to be an third year activity and really, assignments in the first year should be more open ended and allow for independent learning, even if the assignment title is as simple as – “A report about something which interests you within mathematics”.
Motivation and curiosity – I recognised recently, after attending a research seminar by my Dean of Faculty, that one of the reasons I might be finding my research difficult at the moment is that I was not completing the research because I was curious but because I wanted to prove something. Being a mathematical computing scientist (not a real title, just my subjects linked together) I often feel the need to prove something by collecting data and then concluding by saying – ‘there, I told you so!’ I almost know the answer, or the answer I am hoping for, before I even start the research/experiment. Statistics I think, and have heard, can be used to prove anything – (the example from last week’s Wilson Waffling Live Show proved this when considering the drop of teenage pregnancies after the age of twenty – yes I know – check out the graph!) and results can often be manipulated in order to prove your point. Although this desire to prove something is very motivational – curiosity and not knowing what the answer is can be more motivational. I went on a mystery tour once at university, and it was quite exciting that we didn’t know where we would end up and we were all curious and trying to decide the destination while we were travelling. When learning becomes personal, its motivational value also increases. You are not doing the learning because you have to either because you need to pass or need that qualification, you are doing it because you want to do it and you are curious about the answer. When you eventually get to the answer, then the end point can have a very positive impact both emotionally and academically due to the process you have completed. I remember making origami boats with the children at school and remember seeing the curiosity on the children’s faces as we folded the pieces of paper smaller and smaller and their belief that it was a boat slowly diminished only to be rekindled when they saw the finished product. It would be great to be able to recreate that feeling as learners work through a module and eventually complete it. Possible? I’m not sure.
Although I have been working in higher education for five years now, I recognise that the diversity of my understanding and knowledge of different settings and institutions is limited. People might be reading this waffle thinking how ‘backwards’ I am in the module and session design and, if this is so, I look forward to hearing your ideas and examples of good practice in the comment section below. Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of Learning Technologies at Plymouth University, has also written about curiosity and has much more academic prowess than myself and is well worth a read.
I look forward to hearing your comments and ideas, please add them in the comments below or send them to me via Twitter(@iwilsonysj), Facebook, Google+ or email.
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Have fun and I’ll catch you later