The teaching and learning disconnect

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Signs of learning?

The words teaching and learning are used interchangeably. They convey the idea of going to school, or some kind of educational institution and, getting an education. Being taught. Learning something. But in order to critique the education system effectively it is necessary to see that, despite the appearance of the words teaching and learning conveying the same meaning, the reality can be quite different.

It’s possible that while teaching is taking place, learning may or not be happening as intended. It is possible that a correlation between the two does not actually exist despite the expectation or intention that it should. This reality has been previously referred to on this site in a variety of different ways. Phrases such as “evidence-based teaching”, “learning growth” and “know your impact” come to mind. It is the desire to determine and measure this correlation that drives the possibility of improvement in learning outcomes for students.

For me, evidence of the disconnection between teaching and learning became more pronounced during the Covid-19 lockdown. All learning institutions, including schools and universities were required to be closed for an extended period. Education was forced to go online. Technology became the medium. Of course, for online learning to be successful all students need to have access to a device, an internet connection, the school may need a suitable system in place and the users need to be familiar with how it works. Those financial and technical barriers automatically exclude many from even participating.

But even for those who were able to connect online, it was a tough sell getting those students to engage. The teaching and learning disconnect that I describe above is a hidden barrier. To learn, you need to be prepared to engage with the teaching that is on offer. What is on offer needs to be relevant and engaging. And it’s fair to say that if a student is not engaged in the teaching on offer while in the classroom, it is unlikely that said student will be jumping out of bed in the morning to complete the day’s online teaching. No amount of cajoling will be sufficient.

Students voted with their feet during the lockdown, in a way they can’t do when they are face to face with a teacher in the classroom. Only the curious, the most capable, the motivated, the ones aspiring to enter tertiary study or with specific career aspirations will make a successful transition to online learning. When lessons moved online, teachers no longer had the “stick” with which to motivate students. This reveals the problem with the system we have. It relies on threats and punishment to motivate. That is contradictory to what the science tells us about motivation.

This would suggest that universities fared the best during the lockdown. Universities have been offering access to lectures via online means for some time already. University students are used to not attending lectures face to face. And, university students typically fit the student profiles listed above. The engagement factor is not so critical for university students. Study is optional. University students want to be there. If they don’t, they drop out. These students have aced the school system. They are smart and motivated. To those students, their chosen course of study will be relevant and engaging for them or they have sufficient academic capacity to pass the course regardless.

The problem is that this teaching model, the one that works at tertiary level, is generally the same model being applied in all education settings. Achieving effective learning is about more than delivery of content regardless of whether it is taking place online or face to face. As well as having sufficient content knowledge, teachers need to be able to design learning that promotes engagement and motivation. Teachers need to understand that providing content to students is not a guarantee that learning is taking place. They need to be adept at capturing and measuring the impact their teaching is having on student learning. They need to be invited to experiment with this process and share their findings. For effective learning to be happening, there needs to be more dialogue than monologue. A dialogue that is responsive and in which the student is fully engaged with.

The failure of the prevailing education model falls most heavily on those on the outside; the poor and the non-compliant. It is a model that lacks responsiveness to the actual needs of the bulk of students and fails to engage with them effectively to promote learning. This model may not be perfect for university students either but at least the consequences of failure for those at that end of the education spectrum has less impact.

Can the Covid-19 crisis be an opportunity for reimagining and remaking of the education system? It is through observing the impact of this pandemic on education and how schools and institutions have responded that we can get a real sense of where the faults lie within the system. The lessons are there for us to learn, but will we? Systems are entrenched and are difficult to budge.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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