NZIM Teaching and Learning – They are not the same thing

Ideology is one of the greatest inhibitors of good learning. The ideology that has most impacted New Zealand is reflected in official definitions of ‘learning’ in terms of gaining qualifications. It is reflected in rigid assessment and moderation regimes that leave little room for measurement of student learning and is more concerned with whether learners have complied with external requirements. It is also reflected in the evaluation of qualifications, not for their effectiveness in enabling students to learn, but in terms of completions and passes.
Courses are defined in ‘levels’. Learning therefore involves ‘going up the levels’. ‘Standards-based education’ relates not to genuine standards but to ‘unit standards’. Assessment no longer samples student work but requires every ‘outcome’ and ‘performance criterion’ to be ticked off. External monitoring, moderation and audit processes create dependency in everyone engaged in teaching and learning from students to the highest reaches of institutions.
Consequently, teachers and students generally approach the relationship in terms of efficiently meeting external requirements. The learner’s genuine needs are considered only in the light of this primary relationship.
NZIM’s Small Business Entrepreneurs Programme provides stark example of how ideologies and external requirements inhibit good teaching practice. The programme engages groups of small businesses in mentored action research processes over 12 to 18 months. It uses processes that demonstrably engage this group of people, group that seldom commits to formal learning processes.
But to get funding, the programme must be an approved qualification. It needs to be undertaken through registered and accredited provider, have set start and finish dates, be subject to minimum completion and pass requirements and be moderated and reported on. The result is course so burdened down with requirements that the original self-help model is lost.
A centre promoting good teaching and learning must open debate about what constitutes learning and teaching, what the responsibilities and obligations are between learners and teachers, the purposes, processes and results of assessment practices and the relationship of course design to learning. This debate is vital if teachers are to return to their major role as facilitators and motivators of good learning.

Teaching and learning
Learning is private and idiosyncratic process. It is closely related to the individual’s past experiences and processes for making sense of the world. Learning occurs all the time through serendipitous connections between present and past experiences. It consists of the learner’s interpretation of the real world and actions based on those interpretations.
There is no direct relationship between teaching and learning. Teachers do not create or determine learning, despite common assumptions to the contrary. Formal education leads the learner’s learning into areas not normally covered serendipitously or requiring levels of expertise or complexity that could best be learnt through directed experiences. The teacher’s role is to direct, encourage, promote and resource experiences that enable learning to take place and ensure that the learning fulfils external standards and conditions.
The relationship is indirect. The learner’s experience of the learning event will always be unique and interpreted through filter of personal history. The learning depends on the significance of the event and the extent to which it reinforces or changes the student’s worldview.
If the learning is unique to the learner, so the only real assessment of learning must be done by the learner. External assessments are assessments not of learning but of whether the learner’s learning has met external requirements. They are, in other words, assessments of compliance. Teachers spend much of their time assessing students. The time might be better spent helping students to accurately assess what they have really learned from an event. Teachers should develop reflective capacity in their students.
And so to qualifications. Most measures of successful ‘learning’ relate to the gaining of qualifications. NZIM thinks qualifications are only vehicles for teaching and learning experiences. Gaining qualifications does not necessarily indicate that any worthwhile learning has taken place. Students might already know everything that is required for qualification, so the qualification is little more than an acknowledgment of that fact.
Similarly, qualifications do not give credit for any learning, however profound, that does not meet the requirements of the qualification. The more prescriptive the qualification syllabus and assessment requirements, the less they will capture what students actually learn. Qualifications can stifle creativity, new thinking, and even limit learning.

The need for change
Prescriptive courses and assessment practices lead to increasingly prescriptive and teacher-centred teaching processes. There is often great reliance on teacher-centred pedagogy in the tertiary sector. Even where teachers try to move to student-centred processes they remain the arbiters of course grades and passes. Students rarely have options as to what they do or how they do it, and almost never contribute to decisions relating to the relevance of the course material or what they want to learn.
Despite these barriers current teaching practice is often very good. Students get inspired, motivated and challenged. They end up with new skills and ideas, become self-reflective, find their experiences worthwhile, value the qualifications they obtain, engage in further study and become independent learners.
The proposed centre has legacy of good practice to draw upon. One of the more effective matters it could undertake would be to draw up sets of guidelines for the evaluation of good teaching practice, based around student feedback and observation. These guidelines could be used in staff appraisals and staff development.
The international literature on the best approaches to teaching adult and tertiary students is relatively consistent. stream of models, examples and case studies over the past 40 years has developed consensus of sorts about the most effective teaching processes for promoting different types of learning. In management education, for instance, that consensus of debate comes back to the use of mentoring, coaching and supervision, pre-and post assessments, supervised workplace projects, and focus on key competencies rather than technical expertise.
Any organisation promoting good teaching practice would not, therefore, need to start from scratch. Nor should it be neutral in its approach. It should follow the best practice models, while at the same time developing good local research.
NZIM wants to see centre that is effective, not so much in the promulgation of good ideas about teaching and learning, but in the actual improvement of teaching practice, and not only in enhancing existing practices, but in promulgating more effective practices. It must be committed to certain basic teaching and learning principles, the development of student-centred and student-led learning, reflective practice, and engagement with learning communities. It needs to be clear about its own values, philosophies and definitions of good practice. NZIM supports this government initiative. It has motivated us to reflect on and enhance our own teaching practices.

Batch Hales is NZIM policy manager.

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