Teaching and Learning – Time for a reappraisal?


Two of the recurring themes in the history of technical education and training were the continuing negative perception of scientific and technological subjects and the quality of the teaching of these and related subjects. These critical factors have contributed to the low participation in these subjects in education and training institutions and thwarted attempts to address, resolve and raise the low esteem of scientific and technological disciplines. In addition the continuing low level of skills in the population and the imbalance in the skills equilibrium over the past few decades have created skills gaps and shortages. As part of the solution to these problems there needs to be an urgent and fundamental reappraisal of teaching and learning of practical, scientific, technical and vocational subjects and indeed other subjects. Finally there are the continuing concerns over the population’s capability in numeracy, mathematics, scientific literacy and statistics that are so essential in developing confidence and competence in technical and vocational subjects. The history highlighted a number of the ongoing weaknesses in the learning and teaching of the subjects at all levels in education and training. Below are a few of the more important elements that need urgently addressing and include:
·         A fundamental review and reform of teaching and learning methods/techniques and environments
·         Greater use of work experience programmes and use of realistic working environments (RWEs) and the greater use of apprenticeships, internships and sandwich programmes across the education and training system
·         Greater equality of involvement by employers in determining the nature, delivery and monitoring of the curriculum
·         The development of a more coherent, effective, relevant and up to date system of labour market intelligence (LMI)
·         Parity of esteem between general/academic and technical/vocational qualifications and awards
The list is by no means complete but in this article I will focus on the teaching and learning element and will write separate articles on each of the others although it must be stressed that all are interrelated and cannot be divorced from each other as they interact in complex ways with each other.
 For too long the emphasis and focus has been on teaching and the teacher, resulting in little attention being paid to the process of learning and recognition that learners possess different learning styles and expectations. Also different topics and subjects require differing emphases, styles and techniques in the way they are taught to maximise the learning. Learning must become the most important factor in the teaching and learning equation. Too often the wider aspects of pedagogy have been marginalised especially in regard to the learners. Teaching and learning have become in a sense an inverted process in the current system. A transformation is urgently required that puts less emphasis on pedantic teaching and a move away from the ‘sage on the stage’ to more of a ‘guide on the side’. The teacher should been seen more of a resource rather than the fountain of all knowledge and a transmitter of information. The teacher as a resource could assume the roles of a constructor, demonstrator, facilitator, mentor, and observer depending on the context of the learning situation. This is not easy as the situation currently is made worse by constant government interventions and short term fixes, an over prescriptive and over loaded curriculum with its obsession with testing, and the damaging consequences of leagues tables and meaningless and highly questionably targets. Teachers are as a result compelled and pressured to teach to rigid and inflexible syllabuses whilst assessment regimes dominate for much of the time and as a result a great deal of teaching is largely focussed on the tests and assessments i.e. ‘the teaching to test syndrome’. Sadly the essential link between professional and work practice and the subject has been lost and has become significantly weakened. The subject takes precedence over the ultimate practice and utilisation.  This is the part work experience/placement programmes can play during the formal teaching and the point at which the most effective way of learning by doing and gaining experience can be realised. One of the real deficiencies in technical and vocational education and training is the demise of apprenticeships and internships over the past few decades. These programmes allowed the learners to gain experience and practise in real work based situations. Research and various surveys have shown that only 10 to 20% of what one sees or hears as a learner in a formal teaching situation is retained whilst 95% of what a person experiences and learns on job is remembered and retained. In addition any form of learning must develop a sense of the importance of making the connections between the various elements within the given subjects but equally important the need to make connections with other disciplines. 
One of the essential outcomes of effective learning is to develop critical, reflective and lateral thinking skills along with the wider and transferable skills that prepare people for life and employment. Sadly today these key elements are too often neglected as teachers are required to cover an over prescriptive and often time constrained curriculum.  Information appears to be more important than the underpinning data, detail and knowledge that is relevant in actual work situations. The conveying of information is the over riding consideration together with the need to achieve success in examinations so that schools and colleges can figure well in the league tables and achieve misplaced targets set by the government. The real function and purpose of effective and sustained learning is marginalised and the students are as a result ill prepared for employment, further and higher study or indeed to possess these important skills in general life. The ability to be work ready is crucial especially at this time of rapidly changing work practices, rapidly updated and new technologies and global competition. Equally importantly these narrow approaches to learning stifle the motivation of the learner and can create a resistance and reluctance to engage in lifelong learning. As already mentioned what seems to have happened is the subject has become detached from the practice. A number of commentators have argued that this began with the Renaissance which placed the mind as the vehicle for intellectual pursuit over its use in the crafts and trades and this has continued since. I partly agree with this analysis based on the evidence in more recent times of the concept of academic drift, the lack of parity of esteem between technical/vocational and general/vocational qualifications and the general perception of the value of manual skills. This transformation in many ways was inevitable but the consequences were damaging as the crafts and trades i.e. the manual skills were relegated when compared with solely cerebral pursuits. The perception was created that practical skills were inferior to intellectual ones and the latter attracted greater esteem in the minds of people and it sadly became a social norm. This does not mean that intellectual skills are not required in the demonstration of practical skills. One only has to analyse the enrolments at colleges and universities to see the differences in numbers studying subjects that do not require practical skills as evidenced by the closures of many technical departments in colleges and the low numbers of learners who opt for technical subjects.
Also at university level the demise of work placement on degree programmes often called sandwich courses has weakened many technical, vocational and other professional programmes. Work placement programmes either operated as a small segment throughout the duration of the degree programme (often referred to as thin sandwiches) or on a full one year release basis (called thick sandwich). Sadly many universities stopped these on a number of grounds although some, mainly the former Polytechnics have continued them. Evidence has shown that the graduates of sandwich programmes gain employment more quickly than their peers who did not undertake such a programme and also gain a better class of degree, in some cases by a whole classification. Also many are offered employment by the company that offered the work experience opportunity in the first place. Sadly many students at university now want to complete their degrees as quickly as possible partly because of the financial burden of student grants and loans even though companies pay placement students a very good salary whilst on placement. If the government and universities are committed to the so called employability agenda then the reintroduction of more sandwich programmes is urgently required. A recent survey showed that a number of so-called blue chip companies in banking and financial services actually charged students to undertake work experience – not exactly a way of encouraging the development of work placement programmes!
Technical and practically orientated subjects are not the only ones that suffer from an undue emphasis on teaching rather than learning. Subjects such as management, law, financial services suffer also. Colleges and universities around the world turn out tens of thousands of MBAs each year who then enter into senior positions based on the assumption that the degree gives them the background to manage and lead organisations! Many of these degrees do not include direct experience of the way organisations operate holistically but rather whilst at college or university students are taught about just some of the parts of an organisation. Also they are not shown the complex ways in which the parts of the organisation interact with each other. Information is compartmentalised and the learners graduate imprinted with information, limited underlying detail and simplistic models that are partial and inflexible without meaningful questions ‘about what if’.  Most prospective managers or practicing managers are discouraged from recognising and rectifying mistakes whether made by be omission (actually the more important of the mistakes one can make) or on the operational/managerial side. Examples of failure to recognise mistakes by omission include traditional photographic companies that did not anticipate and recognise the advent and subsequent revolution in digital technologies and that IBM did not develop personal and laptop computers. Unrectified mistakes by omission inevitably lead to company liquidation and/or mergers and takeovers.  One learns more by mistakes than by doing the tasks correctly – this being a crucial element of learning on job. Learning by one’s mistakes is surely a fact of life and to paraphrase Karl Popper a negative is more positive than a positive! But the existing culture in organisations is predominately one of not admitting mistakes and this is most certainly true of politicians where it is easier and safer to blame someone else.  The recent global financial crisis has shown the dangers of this over reliance on the existing organisational and management approaches particularly with banks and insurance enterprises.
A number of professions e.g. surgery and other parts of the medical profession have to undertake an internship/junior doctors etc whilst training and this is integrated and an essential part of the programmes and yet studies in law and management seldom include such approaches. Perhaps the entry to degrees such as MBAs should only be allowed after several years in work. The students have become workers and gained valuable experience and can bring that to the programme. The possible sequence could be represented as: initial formal education/training > several years of employment > further formal education. Interestingly before law schools became the norm prospective lawyers and the like learnt their profession in actual practice. Surely it is just a case of achieving a balance between theory and practice through formal learning and direct work experience via internships and apprenticeships.
Another fundamental fault is that many learners/graduates are given a specialised vocabulary/jargon that they do not really understand when applied in the workplace and a set of operating principles/models that are equally inappropriate when having to deal with real-time crises and unfamiliar situations. The models given to students are often dated, inflexible and unable to react quickly enough to rapid changes in the work context and again this is evidenced in the current financial and global turbulence within corporations and international markets.
Future articles on the site will pick up the other issues mentioned in the list above. Little of what I have said is new but on current evidence radical reform is still awaited.
There needs to be an urgent and fundamental review and reform of how teaching and learning occurs at all stages of the education and training system. This time not a think tank BUT a do tank!
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