Becoming More Scholarly about Learning

Becoming More Scholarly about Learning

Ron A. Smith
1988 3M Teaching Fellow

hope that my students have already and could in the future provide testimony to the differences I might have made in their lives and their learning. In this piece I would like to acknowledge some of the people and ideas that have had a significant impact on my own learning and on the way I think about my work as a teacher. While I take pride in the recognition of my achievements as a teacher, I now think of my role as a learning professional; that is, one who is continuing to work at developing his knowledge and skill at promoting learning- my students’ as well as my own.

During a recent four-year appointment in Hong Kong I met John Biggs, a psychologist and educator and the author of Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does. At the beginning of his book, he captures the change in my own thinking about teaching with a wonderful quotation from T. J. Schuell:

If students are to learn desired outcomes in a reasonably effective manner, then the teacher’s fundamental task is to get the students to engage in learning activities that are likely to result in their achieving those outcomes …. It is helpful to remember that what the student does is actually more important in determining what is learned than what the teacher does.

Biggs is not alone in his focus on the student and the need for a more “constructive alignment” of learning goals, teaching methods and assessment. Barr and Tagg in their 1995 article in Change Magazine described the shift from a teaching centered paradigm to a learning-centered paradigm. If our focus is on our students’ learning, we need to change the questions we ask ourselves about the curriculum (What do we want students to learn? What skills, competencies, and attitudes?), teaching (How should we design the learning environment-in class and outside of class-to produce the learning outcomes we desire?) and assessment (Does our assessment support and improve student learning?).

The recent efforts by the Carnegie Foundation, as well as by others, to promote the scholarship of teaching (and learning-which was added later) reflect the growing concern that we don’t pay enough attention to undergraduate teaching (and learning!). One of their strategies to help faculty develop a scholarly project on teaching/learning is asking them to identify a concept or topic in their discipline which their students have particular difficulty learning. Our training as researchers in our discipline has not prepared us to do research on how our students learn our discipline. Even if (when) our institutions recognize the scholarship of teaching and learning, we still have to become more knowledgeable (scholarly) about learning and about how to do research on learning before we are in a position to be able to contribute to that scholarship. Donald Schön in The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action and Educating the Reflective Practitioner provides numerous examples of what and how we can learn from carefully examining our practice. His work with Chris Argyris in Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness provides concepts (espoused theory and theory-in-use, single-loop and double-loop learning, etc.), which have informed my own reflection on my practice and helped me to identify ways in which I have limited both my effectiveness and my ability to become more effective.

Many people have made significant contributions to our understanding of human learning (Bloom’s taxonomies, Kolb’s learning styles, Knowles’ andragogy (the art and science of teaching adults), Myers-Briggs psychological types, etc.), but the most inspiring work for me goes beyond education as information and considers it as transformation. Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist, in his book In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life describes human development and its challenges in our private lives (parenting and partnering) and in public areas such as work, dealing with difference, and healing. In his section on learning he emphasizes the need to understand the learner by a quotation from Kierkegaard:

If real success is to attend the effort to bring a person to a finite position, one must first take pains to find him where he is and begin there. This is the secret of helping others …. In order to help another effectively I must understand what he understands. Ifi do not know that, my greater understanding will be of no help to him …. Instruction begins when you put yours elf in his place so that you may understand what he understands and in the way he understands it. (emphasis added.)

My hope is that more of us will be able to find campus communities that will encourage, support and sustain our transformation into learning professionals.