Restoring the Magic of Learning

Restoring the Magic of Learning

Alastair Summerlee
2003 3M Teaching Fellow

am deeply and profoundly worried that we have lost our way. In response to the tightening noose of fiscal restraint, we have mistakenly bought into the false premise that teaching is a surrogate for learning. As a result, we have cast off our wizards’ robes and replaced the magical pioneering spirits that inspire learning with pedestrian teaching paradigms.

Where has the magic of learning gone and can we really do anything to stop the tide of mediocrity as it washes over our attempts to hold onto the critical tenets of learning?

Since the mid-eighties, there have been two trains heading on a collision course across the Canadian higher-education landscape: one train is the perfectly legitimate drive to increase participation in Canadian universities and it has resulted in massive increases in university enrolment, the other is the juggernaut of fiscal restraint. The resultant collision has caused a decrease in the quality of education, a tendency to increase class size, and an acceptance of the false premise that to manage the numbers in the face of restraint we need to be more directive in our teaching. Of course, this is a generalization and there remain some beach-heads of hope in the creation of novel learning conditions and circumstances.

Universities and the professoriate need to regain the moral high ground of high-quality education and need to re-think our approach to teaching and learning. As we move through the first decade of this millennium, can we not take the lead and adjust the focus on the process of learning for everyone’s benefit? Can we not take the bold step of major curriculum revision and, in the process, restore the concept of the value of the magical journey to learning? First, let me explore the three fundamental tenets which I believe are critical for a high-quality learning experience.

1. There must be a reason to learn. There must be an internal mechanism to drive learning. Like Suzuki, the violin teacher, I would argue that the drive to learn has to be nurtured but it should start from the premise that everyone is capable of being successful: we may be successful in different ways and at different speeds, we may use different approaches-but we can all be successful. Instilling that belief in the learner is the first critical step. Once upon a time, the driver was clearly fear-the fear of failure and the fear of the examination. But such a process is not universally successful. It may be useful to “sort the sheep from the goats” but in a society that purports to celebrate and value diversity and difference, it is reprehensible as a strategy. On the contrary, I would argue that peer pressure, used in the right way, is a most powerful tool to drive learning.

2. Like radioactive elements, the kernels of knowledge embedded somewhere in our brains decay. We have all experienced this phenomenon. Likewise, the persistence of knowledge is determined by the strength of the original experience and the degree to which the material is repeated or rehearsed. This is not a difficult concept for us all to accept when it comes to a practical skill-it takes dedicated and repeated practice to be able to carry out delicate surgery or stitch appliqué onto a garment-but the same tenet applies to learning abstract or concrete information or skills. Repetition should not be boring and turn off the learner.

3. The end-point of university education must surely be creating lively and enquiring minds that are fascinated by problems and issues. Unlike the person who wins an episode of jeopardy or Who Wants to be a Millionaire (although such skills would also be helpful) we need a person who does not just rely on recall. In fact, it is better to have a person who can articulate a passion for learning and be able to say, “I don’t know the answer to that-but I’ll tell you in a minute” and then actually go and find out the answer to the problem in a timely fashion. We all learn in different ways and the professoriate should take the responsibility for encouraging each learner to understand his or her own way of processing effectively and efficiently.

After having success in the formal lecture theatre, in seminars, tutorials and laboratories, I do believe that there is an approach to integrated learning which satisfies the three criteria. It is time for a major change in undergraduate education in Canada, a change as fundamental as the pioneering shift in medical education started by McMaster University in the 1960s. It is time to shift completely the responsibility of learning to the student and to restore the position of the professoriate to that of guide and mentor in the learning journey.


But there are always barriers to change-particularly change on the scale proposed. Probably the most fundamental obstacle to the proposed innovation in . education is the fear of loss of control by the teacher. The professoriate is used not only to control the curriculum but also its mode of delivery.

The status quo is a very powerful counterbalance to change. How many times do you hear “If it ain’t broke-don’t fix it”? My equally glib retort to such trite statements is: “The wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead.”

Faculty members tend to hold strong allegiances with their departments and schools, and fight relentlessly for time to be spent teaching minute aspects of their discipline, rather than focusing on general curricular development and the overall process of learning. Students themselves, socialized into a way of receiving information, are nervous and anxious about being cast adrift in a sea of knowledge.

The last, and perhaps the most relevant challenge to change, is fiscal. Problem-based learning requires students to work in small groups with faculty. How could it be possible in a cash-strapped Canadian university to teach in groups of eight or nine students with one facilitator, and how could we afford such an approach without overloading faculty? If problem-based tutorials were the prime means of students receiving education and faculty were the only people considered as facilitators (for the purpose of this discussion, no help is envisaged from sessional lecturers or graduate students), and assuming a student- faculty ratio of 24:1 and a group size of eight students, then faculty would have to teach three courses per year. Such radical change would therefore be possible. Moreover, every faculty member could be asked to deliver one lecture per year on their area of research which would make for a very exciting lecture series.

If we are going to change undergraduate education, it is important to develop a holistic approach to change as well as a holistic approach to curriculum and curriculum delivery. To be successful, I would suggest that we need to pay attention to seven principles:

1. Develop shared ownership of the change: faculty need to be broadly involved in the design and development of the curriculum. Set the overall framework for the change but include faculty in the process of reviewing the ideas and listen to every piece of advice and comment.

2. Use students to test and modify ideas: work with students as well as faculty to explore ideas and proposed innovations. Students are a boundless source of enthusiasm and can be empowering and inspiring when it comes to considering change but they are also strong critics of both process and ideas.

3. Compromise: the ability to adjust and compromise whilst not sacrificing core values and principles of a proposed innovation is essential for successful innovation. It is important to know which principles to fight for and which to let go.

4. Describe the innovation as an experiment: experimentation is a fundamental value for universities. The sense that the experiment could be short-term, can be modified and will be subject to rigorous analysis and debate, is critical for the success of the proposed innovation. Longitudinal evaluation strategies should be part of the original proposal so there is a sense of comfort for those who have concerns about the impact on students’ learning.

5. Encourage participation to develop understanding: curriculum change is sometimes difficult to explain. The best way to understand the proposed innovation is to experience and participate in it. Such exposure is usually non-threatening and may actually be enjoyable.

6. Share rewards and celebrate successes: it is unlikely that financial incentives for participation can be part of the innovation package, but it is possible to celebrate the successes. It is remarkable how emails of thanks, letters of appreciation and plaques affect the morale of the exercise. Copied to chairs and deans, such congratulatory notes carry an important message for the promotion and tenure process too.

7. Collaborate with other institutions: innovating alone is often difficult and costly. Experts from other programs and from more experienced programs can often inspire faculty, talk about pitfalls to avoid, reminisce about experiences that encourage continued work on the project, provide resources and support, and often help with comparative research in education which, in turn, strengthens the analysis of the outcomes.

Innovative ideas about education cannot bring about change in and of themselves. It is the relationship between these ideas and the political, economic and social environment that will determine whether such ideas take hold and flourish. The pressures to educate more students for less money will continue to rise. It is time to make a serious decision.

Learning should be a magical experience, a journey of epic proportions and, like all good epics, it should be challenging, emotionally draining and fun. It should be mentally and even physically tough, full of unexpected twists and turns interspersed with hints of dramatic vistas, frustrating, demoralizing and captivating (sometimes all at the same time). And journey’s end should be worth celebrating.