THOUGHT LEADERS: Teaching and Learning Are Not The Same

There is an assumption, which is built into our education system, that teachers create learning and that what the learner learns is directly related to what is being taught. Sorry, but research everywhere shows that this is simply not the case. Teachers do not create learning, at least not in the direct way suggested above.
Learners learn by interpreting current events in the light of their existing personal knowledge and experience. Two individuals in class will get two different sets of understanding from the same teaching. Teachers can, and do, influence learning, but not in very predictable ways. The relationship between teaching and learning is indirect.
Another part of the official definition of learning is that it relates to outcomes set even before teaching takes place. We’ve had ‘objectives-based’, which critics say curbs creativity as it relies on interpretations of reality that are set independently of the learner and cannot be challenged, as the assessments are based on those interpretations.
And, as it has evolved ‘outcomes-based learning’ has lost the flexibility that permitted alternatives to become ‘you meet the outcomes or you don’t’ approach. This doesn’t so much measure what people have learnt, but whether they have learnt ‘the right things’. It is system that rewards compliance.
Now we have ‘standards-based learning’ which, in my view, is an even more extreme form of outcomes-based learning. The underpinning premise is that all knowledge, understanding and skills can be externally determined and that there is an acceptable and clearly defined ‘standard’ for it. The premise is patently absurd.
There are, of course, many ways of skinning cat.
I accept there are standards of hygiene, woodworking, or even for making business presentations. But how can you have standard of appreciation of novel, or of understanding an economic concept? And standards of leadership can’t be defined with any great agreement as to what constitutes leader.
So, while the NZQA has designed system of ‘standards-based’ education, teaching institutions that wish to develop processes of thinking, analysis, creativity or reflection find the process of pre-defining outcomes totally inappropriate. They, understandably, do the only thing possible and stick with traditional ways of designing courses.
Consider this. If learning is determined through interpretation of what is taught according to the learner’s previous knowledge, understanding and application, when you devise system in which everyone must reach the same ‘standard’, the ability of people to meet it will be different because of their previous experience. People who have different experiences and interpretations of life from those who set the standards will have hard time meeting those standards.
Because the NZQA system expects everyone to meet the same standard no matter their background, it is automatically prejudiced against people with very different economic or cultural backgrounds. Programmes that are designed for specific learners are simply better at meeting the learning needs of those learners, no matter who they are or at what level they participate in learning. Programmes that recognise what people actually learn, rather than define what they ought to learn, can lead to high levels of engagement, motivation and creativity.
It is ironic that NZQA states that the National Qualifications Framework is system that meets the learning needs of all. With its emphasis on ‘equality’ of outcomes it misses the vital needs of ‘equity’ when it comes to meeting learner needs.
The effectiveness of courses that deliver learning is related to the development and purpose for which the course is designed. Courses start with an idea of what purpose they must serve, which then determines course content that is coherent and internally consistent. The best courses deliver an understanding of processes and how they work together and interact at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the project.
Courses on the NZQA National Qualifications Framework are very different matter. They are defined not so much by the purposes of the courses but on the mixture of unit standards that comprise them. Many are quite specific about the unit standards required, but in the business area they are very broad, with students being able to build up range of disparate unit standards tossed together to make qualification. The qualifications are not coherently planned. The learner and the employer are worse off for it.
I suggest that instead of spending many years adapting current unit standards and developing new ones in the business and management area, NZQA simply adopts the Australian Business Services Packages. These consist of coherent sets of qualifications, carefully planned and regularly revised, flexible and practical. They have clear sets of outcomes, but these can be interpreted to meet the learning needs of different participants. They are very popular in Australia, and, in the experience of NZIM, meet the needs of New Zealanders as well.

Batch Hales is policy manager for the New Zealand Institute of Management.

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