Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A desire to learn

This month’s Scientific American has an interesting piece by Carl Wieman, Stanford University’s Nobel Prize winning physicist and educationalist. There is, apparently, compelling evidence that university science taught actively (ie experiment first and then lecture) leads to higher pass rates than the same subjects taught passively (ie lecture and then lab later).  And yet most teaching continues in the customary, passive way.

Wieman gives three reasons why this might be so (I paraphrase, but not much - I think that this is what the word trenchant was invented for!):

  • Habits – teaching methods haven’t yet adapted to the invention of the printing press;
  • Misunderstanding – faculty think that learning is about listening, not doing;
  • Lack of incentives – advancement in universities come from research funding not teaching quality.

If you’ve won a Nobel Prize you’re allowed to say what you want, although I’d guess that Carl Wieman probably sees research-intensive university activity more than other undergraduate teaching. But, what he says does resonate.

It strikes me that in seeing students as partners in learning, which is good, universities can forget that students need to be motivated as learners. The act of enrolling for a particular degree programme probably proves that there was a moment when the student found that subject interesting, but we all know that our interest waxes and wanes. Do universities always remember to look at students’ motivation to learn?

There’s a counter-argument, of course, which is that students in higher education are independent learners; and that the transformative nature of higher education (pace Ron Barnett) makes it imperative that students manage their own motivations. And there’s something in this.

We also know as managers (and as people who are managed!) that one of the roles a manager has is to motivate and enthuse.  Great managers do this all the time, but every manager should try to do it. Great teachers also enthuse their students about the subject.  Shouldn’t motivation and enthusiasm also, therefore, be part of the everyday brief for university teaching?

Please be clear that I’m not having a go at university teachers. It’s more a point about the institutional environment that universities can create: making enthusiasm for learning an everyday concern, visible to all, rather than an assumption which underpins the delivery of teaching.

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