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The dawn of a new learning paradigm

The big bang of new technology has sparked a tidal wave of student centred learning, says Graham Hills

The word paradigm is still evolving. Once upon a time it meant just a recognised pattern, an exemplar. Now it has taken on a bigger meaning, encompassing a wider range of issues and in a more determined way. Thus earlier, centuries-old, subject-based didactic teaching was an established procedure. It could now be called a learning paradigm.

The paradigm change ushered in by the ICT revolution was a root-and-branch affair. It made possible student-centred learning, an idea often talked about but seldom realised. The new procedure was and is a new paradigm. The shift from one to the other is not an adjustment. It is a tidal wave, an intellectual tsunami no less, in our educational understanding. In more sober terms, it was and is a paradigm shift.

All serious change is of this kind. Pressure to reform builds up, often agonisingly slowly. The establishment, the professions, the status quo meet the challenge, not by giving in but resisting with an opposing pressure.

Thus said Machiavelli in his seminal book, The Prince. All change is impossible because too many practitioners cling to what they know. Since the future is difficult to predict, the cautious join with the timid to murmur - not now, not now. Only catastrophe blows away the status quo and allows the inventors, the innovators, the reformers their chance to change the world.

For most teachers, most schools and most colleges, the ICT revolution was therefore seen as a threat, not an opportunity. New hardware, new software, new learning languages all required new thinking and irksome effort beyond the range of the old establishment and its supporters. "Heaven help us," cried the teacher whose pupils were intellectually better equipped than he was. All change is greeted by the same fear.

The new paradigm was not seen and still is not seen as the opening of an Aladdin's cave of explicit knowledge to be managed and exploited to everyone's pleasure and advantage. Ironically, the old paradigm of passive learning by listening to second-hand knowledge intoned by the teacher was already worn out. Overburdened by new knowledge from all quarters, it had already generated a new Tower of Babel with the new languages of the new subjects understood only by the aficionados of each separate subject.

The riches of the new paradigm are immense. They offer the world of explicit knowledge available at the fingertip, in colour, in moving pictures, with sound. They outgun every teacher that there ever was. In the new paradigm, the teacher has a different role.

That role is primarily to be a model of human behaviour. Since all learning is emotionally charged, then the personality of the teacher will be everything. The good teacher must have an open heart as well as an open mind, and be seen to value these qualities.

The gain for the pupil is limitless. They can learn what they like when they like. What bigger motivation could there be? The gain for the teachers is no less. They can shed the baggage of knowledge, the effort of preparation and the otherwise unavoidable confrontation with their classes.

Dead Poets Society comes into its own. It is not the know-what that matters any more. It is the know-how that we can all share. Thus in the presence of a computer the classroom automatically becomes the seminar room, the learning laboratory and, where appropriate, the junior common room. In the new learning paradigm, the social spaces become as important as the learning spaces. The Greeks thought they were the same.

The ensuing steps for the students are then two new ways of learning, the problem-based learning mode (PBL) and the case study. PBL is best as a team effort and the goals are the articulation of knowledge in speech and in writing. Students learn easily from one another. They more easily gain the confidence of achievement at every level.

The case study is an even better learning tool. Each begins with the words "once upon a time" and all case studies enjoy the power of narrative literature to hold our attention, to engender surprise and to engage our emotions. But, whereas all romantic narratives of human experience begin with certainties of exciting journeys leading to an unknown end, all case studies have known endings but uncertain beginnings. Both narratives require our moral attention. They engage our ethical values.

The teacher is no longer the sage on the stage, the fount of knowledge and truth, but rather the guide and friend. This is student-centred learning par excellence and shaped to fit the non-academic as well as the academic.

En route, both students and staff continue to hone their skills as human beings. There could hardly be a greater paradigm shift.

Sir Graham Hills is former principal of Strathclyde University and a leading proponent of the University of the Highlands and Islands project.

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