The Society for Research into Higher Education

Beware of slogans

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by Alex Buckley

Slogans, over time, become part of the furniture. They start life as radical attempts to change how we think, and can end up victims of their own success. Higher education is littered with ex-slogans: ‘student engagement’, ‘graduate attributes’, ‘technology enhanced learning’, ‘student voice’, ‘quality enhancement’, to name just a few. Hiding in particularly plain sight is ‘teaching and learning’ (and ‘learning and teaching’). We may use the phrase on a daily basis without thinking much about it, but what is the point of constantly talking about teaching and learning in the same breath?

The basic history is pretty straightforward. In the second half of the 20th century a number of ideas took hold in higher education based around the pre-eminence of learning: constructivism, approaches to study, student involvement/quality of effort, student-centred learning etc. These kinds of ideas contributed to what Robert Barr and John Tagg termed the ‘learning paradigm’: teaching is a means to the end of learning. The spread of the phrase ‘teaching and learning’ coincided with the desire to give greater attention to learning, but decades on, what impact does the constant conjunction of teaching and learning have on how we think about higher education?

I think that constantly referring to learning whenever we talk about teaching suggests one or both of two ideas: (a) whenever teaching is happening, learning is happening; and (b) teaching and learning are equally important. If these ideas are implied by the way we talk about higher education, it is worth asking whether they are helpful.

One complicating factor is that the term ‘learning’ is ambiguous. It can refer to an activity – ‘I spent three months learning to play the clarinet but I can’t play a single tune’ – or to the result of that activity – ‘I’ve finally learnt how to tie a bowtie’. That means that there are actually two versions of each of the ideas (a) and (b); and in each case, the version in which ‘learning’ is understood as an achievement is unhelpful. Firstly, it is deeply implausible to think that teaching is only happening if someone is successfully achieving learning; what would happen to the commonsense idea of unsuccessful teaching? Secondly, the idea that teaching is of equal importance to the successful achievement of learning directly contradicts the ideas that motivated the shift in terminology in the first place, that explicitly subordinated the value of teaching to the achievement of learning.

So the constant conjunction of ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ implies two ideas. Each of those ideas comes in two versions (using the task and achievement senses of ‘learning’) and for both ideas the version where learning is understood with its achievement sense is deeply unhelpful.

If we want to avoid the unhelpful implications – that teaching requires the achievement of learning, and that teaching is of equal importance to the achievement of learning – then we really need to use a less ambiguous word, one that just has the activity sense of ‘learn’.

Candidates have been suggested. In 1960 B.O. Smith proposed the neologism ‘pupilling’, to capture the activity that pupils engage in as opposed to the successful outcome of that activity. Gary Fenstermacher used the more HE-friendly ‘studenting’ in 1986, and in 2003 Pertti Kansanen used the more familiar word ‘studying’: “If we describe the activities of the teacher as teaching, we would prefer to call the activities of the students as studying”.1

The term ‘studying’ does seem to capture the activity sense of ‘learning’ but without the achievement sense: there is nothing jarring about the sentence ‘I am studying Russian but so far I haven’t learnt anything’.

So a way of avoiding the problematic implications of ‘teaching and learning’ would be to use something like ‘teaching and studying’ instead. The ideas that phrase suggests are more helpful. Firstly, it would imply that whenever teaching is happening, studying is happening. This seems fair; it would be hard to claim that you were teaching if there was no-one engaged in any kind of reciprocal act of studying. Secondly, it would imply that teaching and studying are of equal importance, which is certainly more compatible with the ideas behind the shift away from teaching and towards learning. Some may feel that one of the lessons of the late 20th century ideas is that the activity of students is more important than the activity of teachers for the achievement of learning, and that therefore the implication is still a problem. Nevertheless, the key message of the ‘learning paradigm’ is that the value both of what teachers do and what students do lie in their joint contribution to the achievement of learning. ‘Teaching and studying’ communicates that much more clearly and unambiguously than ‘teaching and learning’.

I believe the constant conjunction of ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’, allied to the two meanings of ‘learn’, reinforces the idea that teaching necessarily implies the achievement of learning, and the idea they are of equal importance. Neither of those ideas are helpful. If we want to reinforce ideas that are more plausible, and more compatible with the contemporary pre-eminence of the achievement of learning, we should talk instead about ‘teaching and studying’. How we talk affects how we think, and the most common phrase for the most fundamental elements of what we do is a slogan that has become a burden.

Dr Alex Buckley is a Learning Enhancement Advisor at the University of Strathclyde and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. This article is based on a paper he gave at the SRHE Research Conference in December 2017.

1 Kansanen, P. (2003) ‘Studying – the realistic bridge between instruction and learning. An attempt to a conceptual whole of the teaching-studying-learning process’, Educational Studies, 29(2-3): 221-232

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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