Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning
by Stewart Hase
A recent exchange with a colleague raised the rather intriguing nature of the merry dance that is played out between student and teacher. This dance is most obvious in higher education but is restricted to just that that Palais de Dance. In fact the basic steps are probably learned in kindergarten and then refined through the various levels of the educational system until the two can glide effortlessly around the ballroom floor as one. A good deal of schooling involves learning how to be a good student and unlearning how to be a learner. Most five year olds are very efficient learners until they go to school.
In our (Chris Kenyon and I) forthcoming (Sept this year) book on heutagogy, Barbara Brandt writes about her experience with self-determined learning. More tellingly, for the purpose of this piece, she describes how she had learnt to ‘do’ student. How she had become a master of how to survive the system and to get good grades. Many students over the years have told me the same thing, of the complicity between the student and teacher. And my colleague related how he also knew what he needed to do in order to get good grades. The answer is to be a good student.
The dance is relatively simple, as long as you allow yourself to listen to the music and not to think about much else, to stick to the steps and the rhythm. What it requires is for the student to find out, often by trial and error, exactly what it is that the teacher does and does not expect. This usually involves regurgitation of content, no deviation from established dogma, reading the required texts and tomes only, adherence to word length and referencing style, using the required format and font, using an academic writing style, and providing an extensive reference list. Different teachers will have their own idiosyncratic expectations and it is up to the student to learn what these might be. Just like dancing you have to stumble a little to get the muscles to learn their part. A higher grade is usually awarded for a higher degree of conformity. It is important for the student not to express new ideas or opinions, not to discuss observations that are contrary to established theory, and not to get into areas that might be interesting but that are peripheral to the assignment. It is best if everyone pretty well does the same thing, although this is tricky if the institution happens to use the bell shaped distribution in its marking system. In this case the student is even more a victim to the subjective judgement of the teacher.
In higher education, the main aim is to teach people how to be academic writers since, obviously, this is an important skill for work and life! Examining the assessment is relatively easy for the teacher if everyone conforms, as there is no need to actually read controversial ideas or new content, feedback can be minimal. No need to spend hours wielding the red pen.
In acknowledgement for conformity, the teacher will assign a good grade. Everyone is happy.
As an academic for over 25 years I saw this dance played out time and time again. It is even more evident in fee-paying courses where the student is a consumer and customer. The dance is slightly more complex, a fox trot perhaps, because in this relationship the customer has expectations too that may not immediately align with that of the teacher. So the dance becomes more of a compromise, not the gentle waltz nor the more frenetic quick step, but something in between. Sadly, this is experienced in postgraduate courses and even doctoral programs, where you would have hoped to be more creativity. I know academics, admittedly in the social sciences, who still judge a thesis as much by its weight as its content.
Having been a bit hard on academics I need to say that I give them the benefit of any doubt about their motives. Most academics know nothing about teaching or learning. Knowing about learning is not a requirement of the job. And for academics and other teachers, who might know something about learning, it is the educational system as much as anything else that lets them down. The educational system rewards conformity not creativity.
This dance becomes a problem when a teacher comes along who is actually interested or well versed in learning. As Barbara Brandt describes it in her chapter, she felt completely lost when the teacher was dancing to a completely different set of steps. The rules were different. Suddenly she was expected to lead rather than follow, that there were all sorts of potential dances, that she was an equal partner, she could improvise and be creative, and that the dance floor was all her own. She found that she could have control over how and what she learned, that the assessment was negotiated, that the curriculum was broad rather than narrow, that the experience was all about learning rather than teaching, and that she had the opportunity to grow. Barbara, like my colleague, was able to adapt to this heutagogical approach.
But many find it difficult to shift from being a student to being a learner. It can be hard to unlearn the dance they have become so adept. Many rebel, and want to go back to their known dance rather than have to learn new dances, to experience freedom, to actually learn. It can just feel too hard. Teachers can find it difficult to experiment with new ideas faced with reluctant learners, especially with the ubiquitous popularity poll that doubles as student feedback in a doubtful quality system.
The unlearning of this student-teacher dance may be the major obstacle confronting heutagogy and other educational innovations. It probably needs to never be learned in our kindergartens and junior schools in the first place since unlearning is exceedingly difficult, as psychologists will tell you.