As our research on student cheating demonstrated there is a lot of frustration in relation to higher education. Many students are frustrated because they see little point in learning apart from getting credits by sitting exams. Many lecturers are frustrated because students do not seem to appreciate their efforts because they are uninterested in what lecturers try to teach. Instead of trying to find someone to blame, we can say that the very context of teaching and learning has changed in the last decade(s). Knowledge transmission, while undoubtedly necessary, is simply not enough anymore.
Firstly, this is because knowledge itself is decaying at an accelerating rate. What was true yesterday will be quite likely to lose its validity by the day after tomorrow. It can be even dangerous to blindly stick to facts which might become obsolete overnight. Secondly, students who arrive to universities are less prepared today than they were before. It means that traditional ways of teaching have also lost some of their edge.
So, both the nature of knowledge and the potential recipients of knowledge have changed, while the pedagogical model remained mostly intact with a few add-ons.
Besides receiving knowledge, learning how to understand, collect and even how to create knowledge is quite essential for students both in the present and in the future. Teaching as a university mission, thus, needs to be supplemented with a more intensive focus on learning. Nevertheless, we are mainly preoccupied with organising teaching at universities today. We do this by concentrating on what to teach. We try to finetune the structure of the curricula, the subjects in them and their content. However, we need a subtle yet significant shift in perspective.
What if instead of organising teaching, we’d start to organise learning?
In other words, we could attempt to maximise the learning of students, not the amount of content to be taught.
Of course, this is not at all news for most who work in higher education. However, if we consider these issues more carefully, we cannot ignore the facts about how people learn. Academics (including myself) often complain that the results of their findings are largely ignored by policy makers and practitioners. Ironically, the very same academics forget to take into account those practical implications learning sciences could have on their teaching practice. So, what are the key messages of this research field?
That people learn when they find that the material is personally meaningful and significant for them. That learning is deeper and more long-lasting if it is embedded in continuous practice and if it occurs in multiple contexts. That learning is never like writing on a blank page but a dialogue between the new content and what we already know. That it involves forgetting and relearning multiple times. And lastly, that real learning is often hard, frustrating and accompanied with the feeling of being lost.
The question is then, how can we organise higher education if we take these aspects of learning into consideration? (to be continued…)
by Gábor Király