Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

Is life-long learning a joke?

Bill Scott
Environmental Science
Murdoch University
This paper points out contradictions between life-long learning, the historical basis of the university, student exposure at university and the general need for broad, creative learning. Student-critical learning is far from the traditional view and, to some degree, against the channelling of minds into disciplines.

The dilemma our universities are facing is a conflict between teaching and learning. We teach doctrine or precepts; this means a deal of directing toward or into standard thinking patterns. The learning is narrow to keep the student on track; the teacher often repeats to gain an acceptance in the student's memory. Criticism and original thought are secondary and often not wanted. Little consideration is given for the individual or innovative thought. This is the ordinary teaching of dogma of the middle ages - and earlier. It serves a purpose - it keeps the status-quo and society, generally, intact. It is easy on staff and students and it promotes mediocrity.

Now we are advocating student-centred learning and want the students to think for themselves. See the table of major hopes for our children.

What are your major hopes of schooling for your own children?

I want my child to become:
Able to think for him/herself431Good at maths35
Self-confident376A good speller32
Happy274Curious32
Well-balanced267Adaptable31
Self-disciplined230Respectful to adults22
Able to solve problems187Easy to get on with15
Caring and sensitive162A good writer15
Creative and imaginative132Competitive6
Enthusiastic58Good at sport5
A good reader46Smartest kid in class1
Obedient36

(The number after each characteristic indicates the number of parents surveyed who placed this among their top three priorities.) From Dwyer (1991)

Universities have taken this on because it is believed that the student takes information on more broadly if allowed to be part of the linkages. In essence, a development from what is known to what is unknown.

This seems all right and complementary. The structures for learning come from the student; the content knowledge from the teacher. Criticism and questioning augment the learning process and allow extension to all aspects of life, to life-long learning.

The dilemma is that there are many and varied outcomes that are not controllable. For example, would we allow a student to gain 100% in a mathematics exercise for less than the 'exact' answer? It is OK in engineering and science - and real life. In biology, will we allow a student who rejects evolution to gain first class honours? Clearly, we can not allow all avenues of thought to continue unrestrained within the university. We reject unrestrained thinking patterns; indeed we want all the students to be like ourselves!

I like to think of this dilemma as opening a door. If the door is closed, there is no entry, no problem, no result. You will have noticed that most of the doors at Murdoch don't open properly. If, also, they didn't close, the door problem, at least, might disappear.

We give lectures in a special environment - a stage and the lecture might as well be a play. In fact, if it were, at least the audience might enjoy it. The students leave and promptly forget it - as they do when watching "Spellbinder". Here the door seems open but I believe, figuratively, it is closed. There traditionally is no input to lectures, by students and the material must be 'drummed' into them. Student-centred learning, as described by Brandes and Ginnis (1986) has no place at a traditional university. And we are - or have become - a traditional university. Indeed, I believe Murdoch has lost nearly every vestige of what was the 'Murdoch Ethos'.

This, I believe, contained three elements of importance:

  1. A student should not be required to take any particular subject, or in any order.

  2. Study should be at the student's pace. The Keller Plan allowed any time or any number of errors during study.

  3. All subjects should be relevant to the current community and job environment.
It is hard to plan anything with (1) and (2) and, with time, both have nearly disappeared; (3) persists, though perhaps only in name. I believe these principles could have been considered as a basis of student-centred learning at Murdoch.

Now that they are gone, we have lost much of the philosophy in which the student takes on a subject as his/her own and doggedly gets through, perhaps even under great stress. Requirements beget disdain and students do something only under stress and minimise the effort. Almost nothing is taken beyond the classroom and nothing is taken home or along, after university, into a life. Some remnant of order? structure? - perhaps. But this is not broad-learning and doesn't lead to life-long learning. The qualification process has devolved to an obstacle course which students try to negotiate with the least possible effort. Marks and passing have become the main goal rather than learning.

We have tutorials, perhaps in computers, with special packages. But the student doesn't have the packages on his computer at home, doesn't have the right computer or doesn't want to know yet another system. The scene at university is played to impress the academics; the students have to cope with both the university and the home environment. The university is not an environment for learning, but a hindrance to learning.

Our laboratories are full - with perhaps 60 students. The cacophony drives some students from the course. With 4 demonstrators, there are 4 answers to every question. At the end, they write up the materials, much of which is experiments that look good and work for reasons unknown. The lab is improved by singing songs half-way through. Is this broad-learning? Do we even know if any material is remembered? We do, however, laugh at exam papers that show ignorance.

There is no broad-learning unless the student takes the effort on board - and this may simply mean the material is used at home, in the same way as it is at university. I suggest that the university stop 'throwing money at teaching' and 'gain some understanding of learning'. In the case of computing it would be better if every student was required to have a computer and was tutored, individually if necessary, so that the home environment is at least similar to that at university. Then, when a student goes home, the opportunity for learning exists and is not so restricted. That doesn't mean things will be different - there is now a chance.

I have just looked at a Chemical Engineering Design article, regarding teaching of design; here, creativity is considered foremost and knowledge is number 4 of 6 items. If we know this, and it is relevant to all of our situations, why do we pontificate at the student all the knowledge of the centuries? The student receives little, goes home with less, and takes nothing into life-long learning.

References

Branders, D. and Ginnis, P. (1966). A guide to Student-Centred Learning. Simon and Schuster Education, Hampstead, 275 pp.

Dwyer, B. (1991). The Bulletin, July 30.

Please cite as: Scott, B. (1996). Is life-long learning a joke? In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p153-155. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/scott.html


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