Improving university teaching, learning theory, and curriculum design

(Update: This post I wrote two years ago when studying instructional (curriculum) design.  It seems quite relevant to my current study of CCK11, so I thought I would add this reference so that it may be included in the 2011 MOOC offering.)

I read this article by David Jones some time ago, and have been thinking it over.  As an early career curriculum designer, I am trying to find my place in the world of education, and how I can be an effective learning designer.

My understanding is that David in his article argues in order to improve university teaching, we should focus on teacher reflection, rather than learning theories.  Reflection is the lowest common denominator in any improvement of learning and teaching practices.  Without it, the teacher is destined to make the same mistakes over and over.  This is highlighted by Biggs and Tang in their book Teaching for Quality Learning at University 3rd edition, which I am currently (trying to) read, and reflect upon, and is drawn upon in part by David (I believe – it is getting late and I have an assessment due tomorrow :)).  Biggs and Tang state:

Wise and effective teaching is not, however, simply a matter of applying general principles of teaching according to rule; they need adapting to each teacher’s own personal strengths and teaching context… Expert teachers continually reflect on how they might teach even better.

Let us imagine that Susan and Robert graduated 20 years ago [as teachers].  Susan now is a teacher with 20 years’ experience; Robert is a teacher with one year’s experience repeated 19 times.  Susan is a reflective teacher:  each significant experience, particularly of failure, has been a learning experience, so she gets better and better.  Robert is a reactive teacher.  He goes through the same motions year after year …  The kind of thinking displayed by Susan, but not by Robert, is known as ‘reflective practice’.”

It occurs to me that prescribing any particular learning theory (such as constructive alignment) is not the answer, after reading a blog post by Stephen Downes.  Stephen critiques a paper by Dicks and Ives that conducted a study into how instructional designers design.  In particular, Stephen highlights the following quote from Dicks, and Ives:

Our interviews appear to confirm the findings of Kenny, Zhang, Schwier, and Campbell (2004) that instructional designers do not do their work by following established models, nor by basing actions on theory. Instead, our designers’ tactics suggest they view design as an ‘ill-structured problem’ (Jonassen, 2002; Schon, 1987) or ‘wicked problem’ (Becker, 2007) with many possible solutions, which they pursue with a large repertoire of social and cognitive skills.

Stephen had the following to say about this quote:  “Which really forces the question of whether our discipline should continue its ill-founded focus on (this person or that’s) theory. “

I’ve had the opportunity to talk to quite a few different seasoned instructional designers over the past couple of weeks, and I have seen a common theme emerge that is aligned with the findings of Dicks and Ives above:  there is no one ultimate learning theory.  All have stated that while they may have a preferred theory, it is rarely implemented solely to a learning design.  Choice of theory is informed greatly by the context in which the learning is to occur.  No less is the actual teacher of the course a critical factor in deciding which theories are appropriate.  If the teacher has been teaching for many years and has a traditional behaviourist approach to their teaching; trying to model their course design around constructivism or connectivism is not going to prove to be an effective learning design.  This is unless the teacher was motivated to reflect on their practice and consider alternate ways of doing things.

I have been investigating various learning theories over the past week – hardly a deep analysis, but I always considered religion as an appropriate analogy for learning theories.  Everyone has their own view, and they can’t all be right.  However, what I am discovering is that learning theories tend to support one another more so than contradict, which was my former view.  So its probably not so much about which one is right, but which one is right for the given context.

I am finding learning theory absolutely fascinating, yet I do not have sufficient time to study as deep as I would like.  I have decided to remain completely open minded in terms of what tools (theories) I choose to inform my learning designs.  Studying many different theories arms me with many tools, and I hope this will mean I am a more rounded designer.  The skill will be to use these tools in the right combinations to maximise effectiveness.

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5 Responses to “Improving university teaching, learning theory, and curriculum design”

  1. Hi, Damien.

    I enjoyed reading your post after I had read the Dicks and Ives article. I agree with your approach to instructional design; i.e., avoiding adopting a particular theoretical approach. And I think that Cheryl’s course has been instructive here, in combining both cognitive and constructivist approaches into the course.

    I also agree that the learning theories are fascinating. But I also recall being fascinated by contemporary literary theories a few years back and losing my way somewhat when it came time to write my thesis . . . ;>)

    Ethel

  2. damoclarky Says:

    Hi Ethel,

    Thanks for your feedback. I understand what you are saying regarding losing your way. :)

    Damien.

  3. [...] post by Damien Clark that attempts to integrate some of my ramblings into his own [...]

  4. [...] teaching and learning has some strong connections with visual design. It involves subjective and contextual decisions, it’s messy, unpredictable and hard to [...]

  5. [...] found an article I wrote two years ago regarding improving university teaching, learning theories and instructional (curriculum) design while studying instructional design through UManitoba.  I thought it was relevant to my current [...]

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