Knud Illeris and learning theorists… in their own words

Knud Illeris, the Danish educational theorist and professor of lifelong learning, has a reputation that earns him a place in the Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame. I found this link to a wonderful and completely free online publication on contemporary theories of learning, edited by the man himself, so this is more of a link than a blog.

Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning Theorists… in their own words

Illeris’s most noted contributions as an educational thinker have been about how adults learn and continue to do so. He explains what he calls, ‘A comprehensive understanding of human learning’ in Chapter 1 of the book.

Knud Illeris

Knud Illeris

As well as Illeris, the ‘who’s who’ of modern theorists who have contributed articles about their own work includes Peter Jarvis, Robert Egan, Yrjo Engestrom, Benet Elkjaer, Jack Mezirow, Howard Gardner, Peter Alheit, John Heron, Mark Tennant, Jerome Bruner, Robert Usher, Thomas Ziehe, Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, Danny Wildemeersch and Veerle Stroobants.

It’s good to find such a rich range of resources so freely available for those who are interested.

Any thoughts on their writing or links to other similar resources?

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10 quick lessons from educational thinkers

Praxis, the combination of theory, reflection and practice is precious – as in ‘valuable’ – but it’s not something to be precious or pretentious about. Educational theory is of real use when we reflect on it and apply it in practice. The list below features 10 quick lessons drawn from some of the people featured so far in this blog’s ‘Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame’.

Number 10 is specifically about the WEA but has wider application in adult education.

  1. Socrates – Active learning through questioning and discovery leads to deeper understanding of a subject.
  2. Mary Wollstonecraft – Prejudice leads to ill-informed and unfair assumptions about people’s academic potential.
  3. John Dewey – Previous experiences of life and education shape individual students’ personal responses to learning activities.
  4. Benjamin Bloom – Learning can take place at many levels ranging from ‘rote’ learning to active creativity.
  5. Paolo Freire – Education shouldn’t be based on a ‘banking’ system that attempts to deposit knowledge in students’ minds.
  6. Robert Gagne – ‘Teachers have three primary functions: to be a designer, manager and evaluator of learning.’
  7. Jack Mezirow – Transformative education has the potential to set people free from their limitations.
  8. Carol Dweck – The language we use as educators can reinforce the development of ‘fixed mindsets’ or ‘growth mindsets’
  9. John Hattie – Teacher credibility is important in promoting ‘visible learning’ through feedback about students’ progress.
  10. R H Tawney – The purpose of the association [the WEA] is to provide for men and women who want to take their bearings on the world, opportunities of co-operative study, in congenial company, with a leader who knows enough of his (or her) business to be not only a leader but a fellow student.

This blog complements others that I follow, including Pete Caldwell’s at wp.me/p1ynaa-a1 and several others. I’ll list a few in the next blog.

What snippets would you have chosen from any of these or other thinkers to inform practice in adult education?

Praxis

“Thinkers think and doers do. But until the thinkers do and the doers think, progress will be just another word in the already overburdened vocabulary of the talkers who talk.”

Anonymous

This quotation is a reminder that there can sometimes be a gap between theory and practice in adult and community learning. Of course there are theorists who are teachers – and teachers who are theorists – but theory is sometimes remote from practice, where there is a rich experience of tutors intuitively developing creative and successful strategies for teaching, learning and assessment, often working collaboratively. It’s interesting that Twitter and social media are providing means to open up exchanges of ideas and debate, prompting wider professional dialogue on these matters.

Theory and practice come together in the concept of ‘praxis’.

What is praxis in education?

A simple explanation is that praxis is a cycle of theory and purposeful action that incorporates reflection. It helps us to analyse our efforts so that we can develop and improve our thinking, doing and effectiveness as educators.

Praxis2

There are other interpretations and this doesn’t capture the additional elements of informed moral commitment and critical thinking that are commonly associated with praxis. Paulo Freire’s definition of praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed was, “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”  Praxis is reflective, active, creative, contextual and has social purpose.

Centuries ago the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle categorised three disciplines of knowledge: the theoretical, the productive and the practical and some educators see praxis as one of four ways of approaching curriculum theory and practice, based on these three disciplines:

Praxiscurric

  • The syllabus approach can be seen as transmitting a body of knowledge .
  • The product approach assumes an attempt for students to achieve specified outcomes.
  • Learning to learn is the main focus of a process driven approach.
  • Praxis can be seen as an extension of the process approach, where the curriculum is put together through planning, acting and evaluating as in the cycle described above.

Is this model too simplistic? Are the four approaches mutually exclusive?

These are very basic and introductory interpretations of praxis. Although they refer to education as being contextualised, they can imply that the relationship between tutors and students is not shaped or constrained by policy and, in many organisations, by management and governance decisions.

What issues does this raise?

Some organisations are taking imaginative and very distinctive approaches. For example, Louise Mycroft (@TeachNorthern on Twitter) and others have developed a ‘Community of Praxis’ based on Northern College’s teacher education programmes.

As ever, I’d appreciate comments, development of arguments, disagreements, other ideas or links. There is a great deal of expertise on this subject and many people who can add deeper (or different?) perspectives about praxis in education.

What do you think?

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – What about Socrates?

The best education encourages students to ask questions rather than to accept someone else’s answers in a mechanical transfer of assumed ‘knowledge’. Questioning steers intellectual curiosity and active learning. It’s especially effective in adult education in engaging students as partners with their tutors and with other students in shared learning processes. It should be integral to the WEA’s practice as we aim to, ‘challenge and inspire individuals, communities and society’. Do you agree?

medmo-einstein-explain-questioning

Many questions lead to more questions. They develop threads of learning that continue to play out and lead to a more considered understanding of subjects. Learning through discovery is a much deeper process than the simple acquisition of information. The art of critical inquiry is a precious skill in all aspects of life as we try to make sense of the world around us, especially in an ‘information age’ where we are spoon-fed ‘facts’ via mass media. Questioning trains our minds to engage with and to analyse information, to check facts, to consider other viewpoints and to become more inventive and adaptable when we try to deal with new challenges.

Socrates and Socratic questioning
Socrates, the Greek philosopher, was born in Athens around 470 BC and sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning in 399 BC after a trial on charges of ‘corrupting the youth’ and ‘impiety’. His alleged crimes had been the posing of philosophical questions about Athenians’ commonly acknowledged gods.

Socrates

Socrates

He accepted his fate with dignity and was said to have been humble about his own perceived lack of knowledge.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realise how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Socrates

His students, most notably Plato, wrote about his life and work including the concept of Socratic questioning. The Socratic method still forms a sound basis for an inquiry-based approach to teaching, learning and assessment and Socrates’ ideas have influenced many subsequent educational theories, including Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. They support the notion of teachers as intellectuals who continue to learn and of students who are active, critical thinkers.

The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think – rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.

John Dewey

There’s more detail on ‘The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching and Learning’ on the Critical Thinking Community’s website at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/the-role-of-socratic-questioning-in-thinking-teaching-learning/52 and more on Socratic Dialogue at: http://www.socraticdialogue.be/socrates.html.

I can also recommend the Critical Thinking Community’s ‘Begin here” pages at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/critical-thinking-where-to-begin/796

What do you think about integrating Socratic questioning in teaching, learning, assessment and in everyday life? What are the pros and cons?

Any other good resources, examples, ideas or comments to share?

Education, schooling, Gove and Gramsci

‘Education’ is rarely out of the news these days, with a conveyor belt of reviews and reforms. Some recent social media exchanges have highlighted the distinction, made by the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci amongst others, between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’.

While we should acknowledge and welcome the fact that existing funding for adult and community learning was protected in last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review given the current economic climate, it seems that most of the reported policy discussion about ‘education’ is actually about ‘schooling’. The main focus appears to be on ideology and control in primary and secondary education.

Speaking at the recent Sunday Times Festival of Education, Prof. A C Grayling suggested that, “Teaching to the exam has squeezed out education in favour of schooling” (Earlier this year, Grayling placed a bid to open a free secondary school in Camden.)

In this context, it’s interesting to remember that Education Secretary Michael Gove told the Social Market Foundation of his admiration for Gramsci in a speech in February this year.  There’s a profile of Gramsci and his work at http://infed.org/mobi/antonio-gramsci-schooling-and-education/.  Comparing and contrasting Gove and Gramsci’s thinking on education is a thought-provoking exercise.

Gove & Gramsci

The purpose of education continues to provide fertile ground for critical inquiry but adult educators argue that there should be a much greater emphasis on lifelong learning beyond school within policy debate and development.

There are many compelling reasons why education for all stages of life is important – not least so that parents and carers can support their children’s education and improve their attainment. We can’t rely on schools to educate children in a vacuum or assume that we’ve learnt all that we need to know or understand for the remaining 60+ years of our lives after we have left school.

Although it was published in 2009, Tom Schuller and David Watson’s report, “Learning Through Life: Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning” (http://shop.niace.org.uk/ifll-learningthroughlife.html), shows that education is relevant throughout life and should not be defined narrowly as ‘schooling’ for children and young people.

Massive, open, online and incompleted courses?

The University news feature on page 28 of the current Private Eye (No. 1341, 31 May – 13 June 2013) focuses on MOOCs – “massive open online courses”. Several prominent universities are offering these courses free of charge to anyone, anywhere with internet access. Many people are only likely to stumble upon these courses if they’re directed to them, but the options seem very attractive in light of rising fees in higher education and a decline in participation by mature students.

The article includes statistics that are surprising in this context and very disappointing if taken at face value.

  • Only 10% of people who start short courses with Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/) ever finish them. (Source: New York Times)
  • There was an average completion rate of just 6.8% for students on 29 MOOCs run by prestigious universities in various countries (Source: Katy Jordan, PhD student at the Open University)
  • A mere 2.2% of people who enrolled on a 5-week artificial intelligence planning course run by Edinburgh University in January received a statement of accomplishment for finishing and only 4% finished an e-learning and digital cultures course.

It would be interesting to delve further into reasons for the reported non-completion. What was the demographic make-up of students and what were their incentives for joining courses? What role did information, advice and guidance play in assessing how suitable courses were for each student? Were the learning processes meaningful and motivating? What pedagogical principles were applied? Do we commit as deeply to courses that are relatively anonymous and free of charge?

In comparison, the WEA’s Self-Assessment Report for the last academic year shows average success rates for all our adult education courses (accredited and non-accredited) as 93%.

Figures show that tailored support plays an important role.

  • 96% of WEA students receiving Additional Learning Support stayed to the end of their courses.
  • 95% of WEA students receiving Discretionary Learner Support stayed to the end of their courses.

As well as completing courses, WEA statistics for 2011-12 from our student survey show that:

  • 25% of students progressed onto another taught course
  • 66% of these progressed onto a course with the WEA while 33% progressed on to a course with another provider.
  • 33% of our students who went on to do further learning progressed onto a course with a qualification.

The WEA student body is from a very diverse range of groups and circumstances:

  • one third were aged over 65
  • 24% were from minority ethnic groups
  • 27% had a physical disability
  • 13% had a learning difficulty or disability
  • 40% were in receipt of income related benefit
  • 37% lived in a ward with a disadvantaged postcode
  • 41% did not have previous qualifications above Level 2.

Most WEA courses are part-time and involve face-to-face teaching, learning and assessment with active group participation but we’re keen to make access to learning more flexible by increasing the range and availability of our online resources. Clearly we will have to learn some lessons from MOOCs and their effectiveness if their outcomes and impact aren’t yet meeting the high expectations and promise.

The Open University has a very successful tradition of distance learning and blended learning so it will be interesting to see the development of Futurelearn MOOCs http://futurelearn.com/about/, which could offer progression for some WEA students.

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

It’s hard to imagine what life was like when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her ground-breaking book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 – and to understand the leaps of thought that she made as a self-taught woman of her time. Her book has become a landmark document in the development of women’s rights and education. She suggested that culture rather than nature determines many perceptions about gender difference and her work provided a basis for later feminist theory. Her writing was truly remarkable for a woman born in 1759 as the first daughter of an abusive handkerchief weaver from Spitalfields in London.

Showing a strongly independent mind, she refused to accept the inequalities that she experienced between men and women, reasoning that they began with a ‘false system of education’ that valued ‘delicacy’ above all in girls’ development. Women were expected to focus all their attention on being attractive objects for men. She argued that society’s expectations denied women the opportunities available for men to develop their talents and interests. She thought that a tendency to, ‘consider females as women rather than human creatures’, led to inequality and challenged this discrimination throughout her life, writing non-fiction and novels to set out her case.

Her first book was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters but she is best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which called for equal education of women and included a radical proposal for a national schools system to be based on the premise that women are rational beings who are as capable as men in intellectual matters.

She proposed that educated women should have opportunities to take up independent positions and responsibilities in society and that if they failed to make the most of their education then society would have proof of their inadequacies rather than just assuming that they were less intellectually capable than men. Her writing was a challenge to test the hypothesis.

Her two novels, Mary and the unfinished Maria, focused on the self-education of their female characters and aimed to inspire female readers to learn for themselves. Wollstonecraft also wrote a children’s book, ‘Original Stories’ and commented regularly on children’s books as well as contributing educational treatises to the Analytical Review, which she helped to set up with the publisher, Joseph Johnson.

Wollstonecraft opened a school in Newington Green near Hackney in 1784, with her sister Eliza and a friend, Fanny Blood. It was here that she met Richard Price, a minister at the local Dissenting Chapel and his friend, Joseph Priestley, who led a group of men known as Rational Dissenters. She went on to be engaged in radical politics in England and France, where she lived for a time. Influenced by the political upheaval of the French Revolution, she argued that social equality meant removal of the monarchy as well as the church and military hierarchies. Wollstonecraft wrote that, ‘It may then fairly be inferred, that, till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education.’ Her educational and political ideas were hugely controversial with one critic famously describing her as a ‘hyena in petticoats’.

For many years Wollstonecraft’s unconventional personal life overshadowed her writing which gained renewed attention towards the end of the last century. She had two affairs that ended badly – with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay – before marrying the philosopher William Godwin. She died aged thirty-eight, ten days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

From Mary Wollstonecraft to Malala Yousafzai, how far have we come since 1792?