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Colleges need new style of learning

THERE is a need for more innovative thinking about teaching and learning in further education colleges, the new senior chief inspector of education has declared.

In his first pronouncement since taking over the top job, Graham Donaldson said an inspectorate report published last week had concluded that "relatively little work has been done in the FE sector overall to develop ways of identifying and measuring improvements in learning and teaching".

Mr Donaldson's comments came as the learning process was put firmly on the FE agenda. The annual conference of the Scottish Further Education Unit heard from an American thinker, Mark David Milliron, president of the League for Innovation in the Community College, that colleges on both sides of the Atlantic had to become much more "learning-centred".

HMI's report, Improving Learning and Teaching through Collaboration in Scottish Further Edu-cation Colleges, stated that "only a few colleges evaluated learning and teaching systematically and used their findings as the stimulus for improvement".

But it also noted, ironically, that much of the need for colleges to step up their efforts had stemmed from their success in widening access to learners from an ever broader range of abilities and backgrounds. This had led to low retention and achievement rates, hence HMI's emphasis on changing learning styles to turn the situation around.

Despite this, another report published on the same day stated that teaching and learning are among the most successful things that colleges do. An analysis of 13 colleges inspected in 2001-02 found the process was 100 per cent good or very good, against a norm of 83 per cent in grades given for 85 reviews of subjects during that period.

Learning and teaching emerged as the only one of nine quality elements to receive a perfect score. The next, with 95 per cent very good or good, was staffing. By contrast, student achievement scored significantly poorly with 31 per cent of reviews graded fair or unsatisfactory - quality assurance and improvement was the least well done, rated as fair or unsatisfactory in 45 per cent of cases.

The inspectorate's analysis says it is "reassuring" that learning and teaching is the strongest feature of all. But it also notes that a score of good means simply that "strengths outweigh weaknesses", so there will still be areas requiring to be improved.

These findings are clearly behind Mr Donaldson's call on colleges to raise their game. The single most common weakness, cited in 58 per cent of the subject reviews, was the need to do more to scrutinise courses, look at performance indicators more systematically, use data to boost quality, improve action plans and monitor progress. The second main shortcoming was in assessment, but it came way behind in 36 per cent of reviews.

The report on Improving Learning and Teaching acknowledged the many collaborative efforts among college staffs, praising examples in the work of 11 colleges or groups of colleges. Inspectors accepted that "making changes to improve learning and teaching put significant demands on staff and learners.

Teachers required to change their practice and give greater attention to individual learning needs. Learners in some of the initiatives had to develop more independent and active ways of learning."

College managements are urged to provide strong leadership "both in communicating the importance of using learning and teaching approaches that best met varied learning needs and in valuing, resourcing and encouraging staff efforts to promote innovation and change".

The overall message is that colleges are "too little engaged in research-based and innovative thinking on the best ways of providing learning".

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