Whose learning is it anyway?

iStock [ConstantinosZ]
iStock [ConstantinosZ]
Questions arise when one thinks about the idea of learning, such as ‘what do we mean by learning?’, ‘where does it happen?’, ‘who does it?’, and ‘what does it have to do with knowledge?’

How one proceeds towards an understanding of what learning is -or what learning could be- does matter. Approaching learning with causality in mind, a taste for abstraction, and an impulse to categorise, can generate a meaningful and useful set of learning objectives to guide teaching design and assessments tasks. This is the essence of ‘constructive alignment’, which depicts learning as a construct by the learner in a ‘teaching system’ whose components (e.g. teaching methods, intended outcomes, assessments, etc.) are ‘aligned’ and ‘tuned’ to ensure that the learner constructs their learning ‘appropriately’.[1]

However, when it comes to the workings of the mind of which learning is one – and arguably the only thing that a mind does – such a reductionist approach might at times undermine rather than enhance learning in favour of maintaining a nexus of a kind, albeit with good intentions. Or as John Quilter recently put it,

 ‘…though it may not be an explicit commitment of proponents of constructive alignment that a unit is reducible to its assessment tasks, the ideology of constructive alignment has a tendency towards this conception.’[2]

Perhaps at the root of the problem to which Quilter points is a kind of ambiguity that leads to mistaking training to do something [and to do it well] for learning. Constructive alignment as a principle was ‘generalised from the context of in-service teacher education’,[3] leaving one to wonder whether Biggs’ argument might have been any different had the title of his 1996 article been ‘Enhancing Learning (instead of teaching) through constructive alignment’?

The role of the teacher in higher education has changed significantly with time, and this is due in no small part to technology. No longer is the lecturer or teacher the only gateway to information, facts, research finding, or even training in skills. Online distance learning programmes have demonstrated that learning is something that happens in the mind of the learner without requiring the synchronous presence of teacher and student in a physical classroom. The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning through the creation of learning opportunities, and this means interrogating the activities we set for our students with the question: how is this a learning opportunity? In addition, if our approach to the idea of learning remains focused on the concept itself as a form of knowledge, different questions might arise leading to different answers whose beauty might be found in their depth rather than in their ability to articulate the abstract.

But what kind of knowledge is learning? Is there a certain quality to the kind of knowing that we associate with learning whether it is learning in general, or in education; a quality that signifies that we have learned something from experience, a lecture, a conversation, an action, a response, an observation, or from a thought even? It is difficult to see how any learning can happen if it did not involve some kind of reflection on what one is doing when engaged in any given activity from which they hope to learn something, be it intellectual or practical. Self-knowledge comes to mind.

[1] John Biggs. Aligning teaching for constructing learning. Accessed 24 October 2017. The Higher Education Academy.

[2]John G. Quilter (2017). ‘Contestation of the ends of higher education and the disciplinary voice’. In Civil Society, Education and Human Formation : Philosophy’s Role in a Renewed Understanding of Education., Milton :, Taylor and Francis

[3] Biggs (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education 32: 347-364.

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To find out more about the scholarship of learning, see these Teaching Matters blogs:

Medhat Khattar

Medhat Khattar is a Teaching Fellow in clinical microbiology and infectious diseases in Biomedical Sciences. When not teaching microbiology, Medhat explores what political theory has to offer. He holds an MA in political philosophy (York), and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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