Turn on the new life support system;Lifelong learning;Briefing;Research focus

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
We must fully understand the learning process if we are to change attitudes to education, says Dr Wynne Harlen

The case for lifelong learning has been well made - now the challenge is how to change the educational culture.

Enormous hurdles lie ahead in the attempt to implement the worthy intentions of the Government's policy to encourage cradle-to-grave education. Fundamental changes in attitudes to learning are required - but how do we go about it? People have to take responsibility for their own learning - but how is this to be fostered and supported?

It is crucial that we include everyone, but how do we ensure that we reduce, rather than extend, the present divide between those who have succeeded in learning in formal education and already pursue learning later in life and those whose compulsory education left them with few qualifications and even less motivation. How do we "switch on" to learning those who have "switched off"?

The strategies proposed in Bob Fryer's report, Learning for the 21st Century, are based on sound current practice and the best advice, but the processes of learning still need to be better understood if these proposals are to be translated into effective action.

It is not that we have no ideas about learning but that these have changed and, as everything else, are changing more rapidly as we near the 21st century. The view of learning as information being received by the learner - pot-filling by the teacher - held sway until challenged by Piaget with evidence that even the youngest children are continually constructing their own understanding of the world around them. Some people came to regard learning as the business of the individual, advancing along a pre-determined path.

Although no longer supported in this extreme form, this view has its legacy in the idea of constructivism in learning which sees the individual as the only one who can do his or her learning.

But learners cannot create all that they need to know and proponents of constructivism are struggling to identify the role of the teacher, and to find the balance for the learner between acquiring and creating knowledge.

Useful distinctions are made between "surface" and "deep" approaches to learning, the former characterised by reception and the latter by active participation of the learner. Deep learning is an important aim of formal education for, it is argued, it leads to the ability to make connections, to apply ideas, to make sense of new experiences; in other words, to the capacity for continued learning we are seeking.

These arguments are, however, largely based on evidence from research in higher education, dealing with those who have succeeded in the formal education system and so fit the existing view of what it is to be intelligent and able to learn. Howard Gardner (in Frames of Mind) has challenged our idea of what counts as "intelligence" so that it acknowledges a range of competences in different fields, rather than a single view which relates to school learning but has little relationship to success in later life.

There is clear need for a thorough study of the learning process. Such a study is proposed by the Scottish Council for Research in Education in collaboration with the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It will be supported by the new Learning Throughout Life Trust, which has the endorsement of the Scottish Secretary.

The Learning Throughout Life study will address the factors which promote learning, examine whether these stay the same or change throughout life and whether they vary according to the subject matter being learned.

Another set of questions relates to how earlier learning experiences affect later ones, and why there are sometimes plateaux and at other times steep gradients in learning curves.

There are other key questions about the conditions under which learning is transferable from one context to another and about how the application of new technologies affects the role of teachers, of teaching materials and texts, and of peers in learning.

These questions interact in a very complex way. A significant way forward is to trace the effect of learning experiences - both within and outwith formal education and training - for a range of people. This requires a longitudinal study to follow the same individuals over an extended period of time. It aims to create a series of "learning histories" from which significant patterns and relationships can be picked out.

An elaboration of the basic longitudinal design, involving the study of several cohorts of different initial ages, will make it possible to report useful information in a much shorter time.

The products of this study will not merely be valuable in terms of theoretical advancement. Some of the outcomes will provide the starting point for developing effective procedures for supporting lifelong learning.

For example, they could suggest ways of using records (records of achievement or the progress file) and "individual learning accounts" effectively.

These proposals could be tried out in pilot studies and evaluated. But we urgently need to make a start on mapping out the ground.

The proposed study is intended to feed into current initiatives in lifelong learning. It is designed to ensure that, as a nation, we develop understanding of the process that we are trying to bring about, and that action taken is evidence-based.

SCRE is an appropriate base for such a longitudinal study since its experience dates back to 1932 and 1947. The data collected in those years is being used in follow-up studies of mental health. The new study will equally provide a legacy for the future.

* Dr Wynne Harlen is director of the Scottish Council for Research in Education. Further information about the appeal fund can be obtained from SCRE, 15 St John Street, Edinburgh EH8 9JR (0131-557 2944).

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