Plowden's message is alive and well - in the universities

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Progressive teaching methods are thriving in academe, says David McNamara. We are witnessing a delightful irony within our educational system. British universities are becoming the torchbearers for progressive educational methods.

At the very time when educationists and political commentators line up to condemn progressive teaching methods in primary schools, those self-same methods are being actively encouraged in our universities to foster student learning.

I do not wish to take sides or become embroiled in the interminable and sterile debates about the relative merits of so-called "progressive" and "traditional" teaching philosophies and methods. I simply observe that what is no longer sauce for the primary school is on the menu as nourishing fare in the university.

Under the combined pressures of the national curriculum, HM Inspectorate and the Office for Standards in Education and exhortations and criticism from across the political spectrum, primary schools are returning to formal, whole-class teaching methods and are teaching knowledge organised within traditional subject categories in a didactic manner. For many contemporary critics of primary education their bete noire is the Plowden Report, submitted to the then minister of education 30 years ago. For those who care to look, however, Plowden offers support and justification for current developmentsin university education and teaching methods.

For instance, consider Plowden's strictures concerning the flexible curriculum: "The idea of flexibility has been found in a number of practices, all of them designed to make good use of the interest and curiosity of children, to minimise the notion of subject matter being rigidly compartmental". There can be no better manifesto for the modularised systems that many universities are currently adopting, together with their novel combinations of subjects and multiple options - all devised to attract potential students. Plowden's proposals will resonate with those tutors responsible for advising students as they make their selections within the bewildering array of modules now on offer. When, however, students ask me if they can take my module because it is worth 15 credits and does not cause a timetable clash, or I see the modular smorgasbord acquired during their degree courses by some recent graduates applying for primary teacher training, I cannot help but feel that the subject rigour being advocated for primary schools should apply equally throughout universities.

All educationists, wherever they are in the educational system, should be concerned with their students and how they learn. Plowden is clear where it stands: "We endorse the trend towards individual and active learning and 'learning by acquaintance'." It is good to know, therefore, that this approach is advocated in higher education. For example, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and and Principals universities' staff development and training unit's set of 12 modules on Effective Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, begins with an exposition on active learning and this theme permeates the series. Passive surface learning which leads to the regurgitation of the lecture's instruction for assessment purposes is rejected in favour of a view of the active learner searching for personal and academic meaning and, among other things, being able to relate and apply concepts, principles and procedures in a range of contexts and circumstances. Active learning, it is asserted, will not be promoted by "a bland bread-and-water diet of lectures, tutorials and practicals each taught in uniformly conventional and rather limited ways". This series, in the manner of most of the literature on teaching and learning in higher education, then goes on to demonstrate how more imaginative and innovatory methods can be deployed in universities to promote genuine learning. Meanwhile, back in the primary schools teachers are reverting to well-tried traditional methods and whole-class teaching.

There is a developing realisation in universities that students cannot be treated as the passive recipients of conventional bodies of knowledge taught by traditional methods; that there is considerable variation and difference among student learners; that greater use must be made of individual and distance learning methods; that learning resources, including especially those based upon information technology, must be organised within coherent teaching and learning strategies so as to support individual learners. These are all developments which echo the language and rhetoric of progressive primary education. The Plowden Report opened with the now (in)famous ringing sentence: "At the heart of the educational process lies the child." Universities are now the bearers of this educational injunction; higher education is increasingly learning and "student-centred".

We must ask some awkward questions. If the "Plowden tradition" really has harmed the development of primary education and led to a lowering of standards, will it have the same impact in higher education? If "teacher-centred whole-class teaching" has a positive impact upon learning outcomes in the primary sector why are we questioning the value of lectures in the university system where there is less variation of ability among learners?

Why, at a time when primary schools are being pushed into traditional teaching methods, are we encouraging university students to take responsibility for their own learning and pursue projects - now a suspect activity in the primary lexicon - arising from their interests? Why, when formal systematic testing under controlled conditions is permeating primary education, are universities questioning the traditional unseen examination and innovating with forms of coursework and other assessment methods which test genuine understanding and application? Why, increasingly, are university tutors concerned that force-fed school-leavers appear reluctant to take responsibility for their own learning.

And, as far as teacher training goes, it will not be long before the corny old "why did you not attend my compulsory lecture on discovery learning?" is replaced by "the open learning activity for this week is whole-class teaching methods".

Politicians and their educational advisers may convince parents that they will improve educational standards by imposing formal teaching methods in primary schools. But primary teachers may take some comfort from the thought that eventually the winners in the educational race will finish up in higher education institutions increasingly committed to student-centred active learning and offering an increasingly flexible curriculum.

David McNamara is professor of education at the University of Hull.

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