Western Australian School of Visual Arts
To begin at the beginning, we can safely assume that new students are skilled in answering other people's questions. This process will have been the main focus of their previous experience of learning, especially if they are school leavers or TAFE graduates. Success in the TEE relies not only on students having the ability to answer other people's questions, but also on the ability to answer them in ways which are (to examiners) recognisably answers. Studies of the learning process in schools, particularly in primary and early high school years, confirm the assumption that teachers' questions are central to the learning process in classrooms, and that the questions come in a variety of forms; they might be 'live', present in the teacher's talk; they might be on worksheets or in textbooks; in tests or in examinations.
In school, teachers' questions serve many functions, not only checking and extending knowledge, but also establishing and reinforcing social control. Because of this latter function, the distinction between the 'control' and 'learning' functions of questions becomes blurred, leading to dependence on the authority of the teacher to determine the content and process of learning. Encouraging school students to ask their own questions, whereby they might take some control in decisions about learning, happens rarely. Students' questions can be seen as threatening to the teacher's authority and run the risk of being actively discouraged. Instead, interaction between teachers and students becomes rigid and predictable, with students only willing to provide an answer if they're sure it's the one which the teacher wants, and developing an awareness that only 'right' answers count.
When students arrive at university, they are confronted with new assumptions about learning. One is that at university you are supposed to develop the capacity to think critically; to work independently; to analyse and reflect; to form judgements and make reasoned evaluations; in other words, to develop the ability to be an independent learner and be able to ask your own questions. For example, Entwhistle (1996) describes research which indicates that lecturers in all disciplines in higher education value certain 'attitudes and habits of mind' in their students, among which are 'adopting a distinctive way of thinking ....... taking a distanced, critical stance ..... examining the adequacy of evidence .... being able to set and solve problems..' (our emphasis) (Entwhistle, 1996: 99). This new assumption, clearly requiring the ability to ask questions independently, presents a range of problems for students, some of which are easier to solve than others. When we as university teachers make assumptions that students' experience as learners will automatically enable them to become independent learners, how aware are we of our students' embedded orthodoxy: that teachers' questions are more important than students', and that the main function of a learner is to get the right answer? To what extent do we take this orthodoxy into account when planning learning?
Given that visual art practice is assumed to be a process calling for creativity and the expression of individuality, it might be expected that visual arts students would be particularly well placed for dealing effectively with the move to independence, given that the need for autonomy is considered pre-eminent in this discipline. However, research conducted into the ways these students dealt with the demands of independent learning, their views about the problems and opportunities it presented to them, reveals different levels of confidence and expertise in managing aspects of the learning. In particular, students seem more adept at asking their own questions in some contexts than in others; the more pragmatic, environmental elements of this process (to do with planning and organisation, identifying goals, choosing learning strategies, group interaction) appear to be less problematic, whereas questions about higher order processes (such as reflection, interpretation, evaluation) appear much more difficult. The former are practical questions, little different generically from any number of questions applied routinely by adults learning and solving problems in their daily lives. They are markedly different from the latter questions, which are process specific to higher education. (See Laurillard (1993) for a discussion of the distinctions between academic and everyday learning.)
Firstly, students were concerned with a number of instrumental issues. How to work efficiently? What information, out of all that is available to them, do they actually need ? How do they determine this? The added dimension of collaborative learning makes this particularly hard, since a variety of needs will have to be addressed in finding answers for these questions. Furthermore, the possible damaging impact of a predominantly uncommitted group on a conscientious student cannot be overlooked. It is difficult for an individual to resist a group consensus that efficient working is achievable by meeting in the pub each Thursday and exchanging photocopied summaries of the texts. In a culture in which learning is tutor-led, these problems (not just of efficiency but also of selection of information) are less likely to arise. Yet students cannot begin to become autonomous unless they can begin to answer these kinds of questions.
Problems to do with the selection of information are not just instrumental. Aspects of this first question lead onto the second broad area, which touches on values and equity. A number of students referred to the limitations (described by one as a 'danger') of relying on a lecturer with a single point of view. This issue goes beyond that of an individual with particular biases or pet theories, and confronts the prescriptive nature of the written word. Syndicate groups can go some way to solving the problem of bias, by providing a number of alternative interpretations and perspectives, and by providing a 'safe' environment in which to challenge a tutor's orthodoxy. But there are more subtle dangers. For example when students have a deadline for reading and interpreting a complex, multi-layered text, problematic undertones (such as implicit ideological viewpoints) can be undetected. Further than this, the written word itself (on which academic culture bases its existence) can threaten to swamp students by its all-pervasive authority. The question raised is challenging: to what extent can (should?) students be allowed to become autonomous learners? Part of an answer, for us, is that at least in collaborative groups students have the freedom from tutor authority to raise individual questions and develop individual voices. But as long as the learning revolves round discussion of a given text then boundaries remain. We need to be clear about the inherent contradiction which exists when we say we want students to be autonomous learners within an academic ecology.
The third area of concern dealt with the contextualisation of knowledge. Students had problems with understanding and interpreting ideas, recognising different perspectives, identifying and clarifying their own interpretations. How does the student learn to frame questions that enable them to understand key concepts? Learn to distinguish that which is valuable from that which is not? It was in these ares that students found most difficulty, and here that students felt the most need for tutor involvement. Given the students' previous experience of learning, described earlier, this should not be surprising. Morgan & Saxton (1991:16), when writing about the kinds of questions which teachers ask, indicate that teachers have problems asking the "higher order" questions which give rise to conceptual understanding (those about analysing/reasoning; synthesising/creating; evaluating/judging, according to Bloom's Taxonomy). If students are unused not only to asking their own questions but also inexperienced in the right kind of questions, then it would seem that their pleas for help should be heard. How can a tutor provide this guidance without compromising the students' growing autonomy?
First, it will be important to allow students to have space to find things difficult, and reassess and reconfigure their relationships with one another as fellow group members. There is also a clear need to maintain an explicit focus on group process, and enable students to question the nature of their group's working rather than accept it as it stands. Secondly, providing students with fewer texts will give them space to focus on developing critical skills rather than accumulating information and risk becoming swamped. The requirement might be to collect a list of key words and a set of questions relating to a reading, rather than to produce a summary. Next, it will be important to validate processes as well as products by distinguishing between formative and summative assessment and giving each a role in determining the overall grade which a student gains for the unit. Fourth, it will be essential to openly acknowledge the presence of an authoritative voice which is not just the tutor's but is also there in any written text. Finally, changes in the tutor's behaviour will be encouraged. If the temptation to always be the voice of authority can be resisted, and instead students can be allowed to witness the tutor actually engaged in the process of interpreting ideas, recognising different perspectives, identifying and clarifying interpretations, this might be a first step towards demystifying the process by which understanding grows. A further evaluation of syndicate learning will be conducted at the end of 1997.
We will conclude with three further thoughts. First, it seems clear that there are some questions which students will always find problematic, not because of a lack of ability but because of the nature of the academic ecology in which they find themselves. Second, it is clear that facilitating an awareness of process and thinking is applicable to other fields, and is trans-disciplinary. For example in Visual Arts, the thinking encouraged in theory has a direct influence upon studio practice. Third, while as members of an academic ecology we need to be realistic about the urgency of instrumental considerations, we shouldn't let these prevent us from having more wide-ranging, truly educational goals.
Grow, G. (1991). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly, 41(3), 125-129.
Hiemstra, R. (1994). Helping learners take responsibility for self-directed activities. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 65, 81-87.
Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching: A framework for the effective use of educational technology. London: Routledge.
Morgan, N. & Saxton, J. (1991). Teaching, Questioning and Learning. London: Routledge
|Please cite as: Pearce, J. and Crouch, C. (1997). How can students become people who ask questions (instead of people who answer questions)? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p247-251. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/pearce-j.html|