What on earth are learners learning?

One of the tentative themes for this edition was supposed to be “learning”, and in putting it together I’ve learned a few things myself. These include things like discovering that the unreliability of contributors is directly proportional to the shortness of time until Christmas; and that giving up smoking is incredibly difficult when people around you seem to want to use it as an opportunity to pay you back for all the sarcasm you’ve shown them in recent years.

But I’ve also learned a few things about learning itself; and the ridiculous assumptions that we hold about it inside higher education. You see, the basic assumptions that we have about learning, and the extent to which we transmit and affirm those assumptions has fundamental effects on the way we speak for students- and so we’d be wise to test a few of them out. A forthcoming paper on Lifelong Learning by Frank Coffield at the Institute of Education asks some tough questions about these assumptions.

Take this first one- that learning is some kind of product, where we put “stuff” into “vessels”. This is what has been called the ‘folk theory’ of learning- where we identify packages of knowledge or skills, and transmit them into the head (or body) of the learner.  The success of the process gets determined by how effectively that “stuff” has been acquired. We should ask ourselves whether we really believe that this is how learning works before we readily accept this as a basis for discussion about it.

The second common assumption is that higher level or higher status learning is concerned with the mind, not the body. For years, especially in the UK, we have assumed a clear split between mind and body, closely linked to the long-standing divide between vocational/practical learning and academic learning. It underlies the curiously English superiority attributed to the more ‘purely’ academic. In most circumstances, our ability to articulate understanding, orally or in written text, is seen as the prime measure of effective learning. And across our culture, we somehow value this academic “mind” learning often as an acceptable proxy for more base obsessions with class and social “fit”.

The third is that learning is something you do when you are young. The consequence is educational programmes, institutions and organisations are all fashioned on the assumption that if young people are given enough opportunities to learn, the job of education has somehow been done. The truth of course lasts much longer, and requires sustained effort and investment as society continues to change at a rapid pace.

Just these three assumptions have a remarkable hold over us- consider the extent to which, as you read them back, you emotionally agree with them but rationally question them.

Coffield goes onto argue that a real focus on “lifelong learning” will eventually require us to focus in different ways on different kinds of assumptions:

  • “It would place much greater emphasis on the learning of adults, at all stages of their lives. It would develop mechanisms for facilitating access to education for older students, especially for supporting those whose earlier learning experiences had been unenjoyable and unsuccessful.
  • “It would focus less narrowly on measured, target-related, outcomes by accepting and celebrating partial successes rather than castigating partial failures; by encouraging richer, more creative, learning environments; and by engaging far more in the encouragement and support of learning than in its control and prescription.
  • “It would reduce the damaging effects of the currently pervasive audit culture by replacing mechanistically utilitarian assessment regimes with inspection frameworks and funding mechanisms which take a more holistic view of learning.
  • “It would provide a career and educational guidance service responsive to people of all ages and social backgrounds
  • “In strategies for improving participation in adult learning, it would look well beyond the current preoccupation with basic skills and NVQ level 2”

From Frank Coffield (editor) “Taking lifelong learning seriously: An alternative vision”, forthcoming, Institute of Education, London

We are often accused of being leisure centres for the young undergraduate in the student movement. With the quantities of the young set to demographically dip, age discrimination legislation on goods and services on its way and an ever increasingly mature cohort in membership, I can’t think of a better time for all of us- me especially included- to think again about what and who we think learning is for and to adjust our organisations accordingly.

What that’s not about is wondering why mature postgraduates don’t join the rugby club or moving union council to another time so that student parents can attend. It is about reshaping our organisations and our obsessions with skills acquisition, youth development and academia into something more rational and progressive.


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