16th October 2015 at 00:00

the theory of everything

A more coherent, discerning approach to educational theory would benefit all practitioners, argues Beatrix Groves

One makes certain assumptions about people who belong to the professions. One assumes that a doctor has a strong grounding in the concepts that make up knowledge of healthcare, for example, or that a solicitor knows the law better than the average person.

But this cannot be said of the teaching profession. Ask any teacher to define what learning is and you’re likely to get dozens of different answers. “Passing on knowledge”, “gaining experience” and “getting them to remember things” are all responses I’ve heard in my time.

I’ve taught new trainees to further education teaching for more than 25 years, and find the lack of any systematic and coherent understanding of what learning is somewhat alarming. We seem unable to pinpoint the physical, social or psychological changes that take place in our students that can account for what we observe through assessment, and allow us to plan for the most effective (and, indeed, cost-effective) approaches to teaching.

We lack a scientific approach to our underlying knowledge, almost as if this would dissolve the mystique of the teaching and learning process. We are quite happy to educate new teachers within a curriculum that has a “grab-bag” approach to learning theory. Any teacher training course will offer umpteen possible explanations of what learning is and how it is best supported.

The venerable Theory into Practice database, for example (bit.ly/TheoryDatabase), lists more than 50 theories. Familiar approaches, such as situated learning (Lave) and operant conditioning (Skinner), are in there, together with exotic-sounding concepts like “double-loop learning” and “phenomenography”.

It’s not surprising if learning theory seems a messy topic for new teachers. We seem unable to sort out the sheep from the goats in determining which learning theories actually have supporting evidence and stand up well to the dialectic of ongoing research.

Enforced orthodoxy, of course, is the last thing we need here. Teachers need to have an enquiring attitude to the science of their profession. Without this, we lack the power to justify what we do in practice through narratives that make any clear sense. Like all teachers, I need to be able to say that my understanding of what learning is has a good evidence base to support it, and that I’m willing to continually revisit this evidence base as new research becomes available.

Where do we get this evidence? I believe that each of us needs to have a researcher within us, and to evolve a critical approach to what we do that goes beyond the needs of employer or funding. It’s through this sense of critical dialogue that we learn about learning. And surely that’s what our job is all about?

Beatrix Groves is an adult education teacher from the North East of England

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