Tag Archives: Learning

Contexts for Learning, and Positive Changes

Context: Library or Classroom-based, but not formally assessed

Looking at my own practice, I am trying to think about the context in which ‘my’ students are learning.  This has always been slightly problematical in library teaching, because attendance is not mandatory.  Until a couple of years ago, new students had a tour of the library and a hands-on demonstration of how to use the catalogue.  A lecture was also provided for music students, to introduce them to key e-resources, such as Oxford Music Online (the world’s most prestigious music encyclopedia) and the streamed music services. (There are also a number of leaflets offering guidance to different aspects of the library service.)

Realising that for most students, this was too much, too soon, the library induction package was un-packed, so that new students got a basic library tour in the first week, and then we liaised with course-leaders to provide more detailed, tailored instruction later.  The theory behind this was that students would be better able to take in what they were being shown, if it wasn’t all thrown at them at once; and when they were beginning to need more resources, they’d be more motivated to come and listen.

Some course-leaders were admirably pro-active, whilst others didn’t take up the offer, or provided informal tours of their own, quietly ignoring the e-resources offer.  Moreover, we have no control over whether individual students attend or not.  The context, then, is basically on-site provision of training (we’ve no way of knowing whether students found their way to the Moodle podcast that Gordon made for us a couple of years ago), but without the formality of a fully academically endorsed (or assessed) course component.  We get the impression that library induction and training is viewed by the students as “not really part of the course”, and “not really necessary”.

With the seminars I provide for research students, it’s a smaller group.  Students are encouraged to attend, but are not always available to attend on the day/time allotted by Research Dept staff.  However, those that do attend are always keen to participate and share their opinion, so although it’s still not mandatory, there’s more enthusiasm and appreciation!  By this stage, students have realised that proper academic discourse requires them to read widely and cite correctly, so there’s an awareness that the instruction I provide may be useful to them as they write their dissertation.  (Also, strangely, there’s respect for me amongst researchers who know I’ve ‘been there’ and am now engaged on postdoctoral work, whereas I guess undergraduates perceive me as ‘just a librarian’, and not to be taken as seriously as their tutors.   Librarians universally hate their fuddy-duddy stereotype!)

So, what positive changes could I make?  For new students, I still think the library tour is worthwhile. It’s quick and cheerful, and just tries to convey the most basic information about the library, but more importantly, it introduces students to the subject librarians.  For the more detailed e-resource instruction,  I still think these resources need to be demonstrated, much as an experiment might be demonstrated in a science lab.   By way of a parallel, you don’t say, “here’s a bunsen burner and few chemicals, do try them out!”, but after demonstrating them, pupils might then try them out under supervision.  Similarly, our new undergraduates need to be shown WHAT is available and how they work, and then invited to try them.  Unless each entire class of new students is allocated time in the IT suite, though, we have to content ourselves with telling them about the resources, giving the handouts, and hoping that some of the information will be remembered.

I’m beginning to wonder if there might be any mileage in emailing student groups later, to follow up the session and get some kind of feed-back. I am uncertain about mounting quizzes etc, because not many students will do a quiz that is not part of their assessed work.  (Backwash, as Biggs says.)  How does one constructively align teaching that is not assessed, but regarded as supplementary and optional?   One is informing the students about what is on offer, and directly pointing out resources that are likely to be useful.  Tasks can’t be set for later submission – it is all rather frustrating!

With the research students, there are fewer individuals, and the direct email follow-up might be even more effective.  I could also use social media, though I’d first have to persuade students to “follow” the library on Twitter, or subscribe to the Whittaker Live blog. Only two people have ever bothered to subscribe (though the blog has plenty of drop-in traffic) – this doesn’t look a very effective way of getting targeted information to them.  I would need more advice before I ventured to start discussion on Moodle or Mahara.  It seems a sensible idea, but if research students don’t “hang out” there, then it wouldn’t have much practical effect.  our Teaching Artist collaborative space works so well that it would be great if all the research students had a space like this of their own.  Maybe Marius could advise me if they do?

Tonight’s Reading: Contexts for Learning

Mary has just blogged about this abstract, so it can be my reading for this evening:-

Edwards, Richard; Biesta, Gert and Thorpe, Mary eds. (2009). Rethinking contexts for learning and teaching: Communities, activities and networks. London, UK: Routledge. http://oro.open.ac.uk/17118/  – Mary’s the link is just to the abstract.   However, a preview of the book – the Introduction – can be read in Google Books, here:- http://tinyurl.com/phm7gqb.

Richard Edwards’ Introduction begins by defining contexts for learning and teaching, explaining that we can imagine “context” as soup in a bowl – where the text (the soup) is confined within the bowl.  Thus, we extrapolate that learning takes place in different formal and informal contexts, particularly in the present emphasis on lifelong learning.  We can imagine the learning context as being various strata, or levels, and it follows that learning can be formal or informal (along a continuum), personal or in an educational system, and perhaps situated in communities of practice.  The boundaries can be fuzzy, of course.  When my mother hosts a gardening club or attends a patchwork club, it’s not a strictly educational setting, but learning (and teaching) certainly take place – the passing on of information between individuals or small groups.  Members of such groups may also learn at home, whether by books and magazines, broadcasts or internet searching.   If one of these individuals then chooses to attend evening classes or a college course, then obviously the context will have changed again, as indeed will the homework or self-directed learning taking place between formal classes.

Reading on, I am introduced to the notion of purification (separating out practices), translation (‘relating together’) and naturalization (both purification and translation:-

Purification, Translation, Naturalizing Contexts

I have to confess that this is getting a little complicated!  For my practice, I’m inclined to think that I don’t really need to know about the metaphors of purification, translation and naturalization.

Let’s think about Mary’s questions to us, then:-

  1. What constitutes a context for learning?  Very many different situations can be perceived as a context for learning, as I’ve suggested above.  It follows that our learners will probably be learning in many of these contexts, and as lifelong learners in particular may be learning in a variety of less formal situations in addition to, or in place of, the classroom environment.
  2. How do we engage the full resources of learners for learning? This is dealt with in Part 2 of the book (as we find on p.10 – still the Introduction).  Google books doesn’t allow me to find Part 2, so I am left asking myself whether by ‘resources’, we mean learning resources, or mental capacities and learned educational skills.  Amazon also offers previews, so I move across to Amazon at this point:- http://tinyurl.com/oedmf8s.  I deduce that the resources alluded to are texts in all their variety and differing presentations, whether a book, article, web-based resource or whatever.  My instinct tells me that we need to engage learners with a variety of different resources, since we know that different learners prefer different learning resources.
  3. What are the relationships between different learning contexts?  I wasn’t able to find the part of the book dealing with this area.  I imagine the relationships between them can be many and varied, and that boundaries are perforce blurred.  If I am studying at home for a course like this, then the relationship between my “home, internet” context and the classroom physical context is fairly clear-cut.  However, if I were studying at home but with no formal learning structure, then this would be a different context.
  4. What forms of teaching can most effectively mobilise learning across contexts?  A multimodal approach involving different kinds of texts and activities would, I imagine, offer the widest opportunities for the learner to make the connections between different resources, but it behoves the teacher to ensure that texts and resources are chosen specifically to allow these connections to be discerned.  (Eg, it would make no sense to offer a music student a book about Wagner, and a CD of music by Debussy, expecting them to make the comparisons between these composers, if no comparisons were made by the author of the book, and the CD was of Debussy’s piano music – a genre not generally favoured by Wagner.  Conversely, a selection of books and audiovisual resources about orchestral music by both composers would afford the learner opportunities to detect or make connections for themselves.)
  5. How do we methodologically and theoretically conceptualise contexts for learning?  I cannot read the initial chapters which seem to cover this topic, but I have glanced at the contents pages in Part 1 of the book, and the answers to these questions would appear to lie in ‘theorizing learning by looking at genre and activity’ (David R. Russell); ‘taking an actor-network view of the classroom’ (Steve Fox); ‘looking at learning and context from the perspective of complexity theory’ (Tamsin Haggis); whilst Gert Biesta writes about the value of pragmatism in understanding ‘learning in context’.    However, I feel handicapped here by my lack of knowledge of the psychological and philosphical vocabulary employed in educational theory.  Perhaps, in a course of this length, it suffices to get an overview; clearly I can’t absorb and assimilate this theory to the same depth as I have studied within my own subject speciality.

‘One of your best ever learning experiences’

Strange to say, I am struggling with this.  Perhaps it’s because so much of my learning has been self-directed as an independent researcher, and I haven’t been in a classroom situation for a while.  I’ve twice attempted to learn Gaelic in a class setting, once joining in BA Scottish Music students, and once at local authority evening classes at the Gaelic School – but neither of those experiences would make it into my “top ten” of learning experiences.  The first was, unfortunately, just a more conversational approach than I have been used to for learning languages – that, combined with the fact that it meant studying through my lunchbreak once a week, which wasn’t ideal.  The second attempt would have been okay if there hadn’t been a succession of teachers, and some very icy weather at night.  And in both instances, although I really did want to learn, I think my timing was bad.  I should have known that my learning goes in waves, and after I’d just finished the PhD, perhaps it wasn’t the best time to start learning a language.  Maybe I’ve learned several lessons from all this, but more about how I don’t learn, than how I do.

Christine Lagarde official portrait, from Wikipedia

On the other hand, a few weeks ago we watched Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, give a televised speech.  Despite the fact that I have no interest in the IMF and had never heard of Christine Lagarde before, her public speaking was electrifying.  It was her delivery that so impressed me – to be so fluent, and so able to command attention, is a great gift, and I would love to watch some more of her presentations for that alone, quite apart from talking about the IMF!  Her timing was incredible. She looked all round her audience.  There was no hesitation, and if she had notes, you would never have known.  So, it was unintended learning for me, and if I was to think about the learning context, it was probably this: I had the time to listen and pay attention.  The speaker was excellent.  And probably most importantly, from an educational point of view, she was doing something that I was motivated to learn – I’m very interested in public speaking.  Clearly, the best learning is going to take place when the learner has a need to learn. As Phil Race says, two of the five factors underpinning successful learning are wanting and needing to learn.

However, I have to concede that this was probably not the kind of learning experience that I have been asked to reflect upon, and I would need to study her delivery in more detail to learn more from it.  Also, Race’s other points of ‘learning from feedback’, and ‘learning by doing’ were not present, though the fifth one, ‘making sense’ was arguably there, because I have attended seminars about public speaking before, and Lagarde did demonstrate many of the best practice principles that I already knew about.


Reflections on the 21st Century Learner (2014.03.02)

When I and my siblings were at school, exercise books and loose-leaf folders were the primary medium in which active learning took place.  You attended lessons; you did required reading; or for an extended piece of work, you did further reading on your own.  Exercises, whether maths, a language, social sciences or creative writing – or, in my case, music – were written down and handed in.  Once marked, they came back to you with comments and a grade.

No pictures – or very seldom.  No attachments of other text documents or media.   And above all, no weblinks, because the internet hadn’t yet been invented.

Indeed, only grown-ups had typewriters.  When, as an undergraduate, I acquired a manual typewriter, I was avant-garde, and if you think that was advanced, then my attendance at typing classes as a postgraduate was way ahead of my time.   I went to the local FE college for night-classes to do that, entirely on my own initiative.

However, the approach to learning was different, too.  I don’t recall ever having to write a reflective journal, for a start!  What happened between the teacher, the lesson and the finished assignment was pretty much up to the learner.  Sure, I was a frequent library user, but I don’t remember ever logging my own progress, let alone reflecting upon it.

Let’s go back to the ‘no internet’ aspect.   I started a PhD in 1981.  For perfectly valid reasons, I didn’t complete it – it took another quarter of a century before I started again on a different subject.  But it’s the comparison that is interesting.  I am in the fairly unusual position of being able to compare pre-internet doctoral studies with doctoral studies today.

  • No email
  • No drafting and redrafting
  • No saving different versions of a document electronically
  • No digital files, whether audio, audiovisual, image, pdf
  • No internet searching, no full-text databases
  • No online bibliography, whether commercial software,  social bookmarking or even a simple online list.
  • No online journals, books – no online anything!

Characteristics of the 21st Century Learner

Today’s learner has a huge range of electronic resources, requiring them to make critical choices.  Is this website good? Who’s the author, what authority do they have?  (What else have they published?)

They have the potential to produce work which is visually and technically much more proficient, though the content itself will of course reflect the level of their understanding.  However, they can store vast quantities of data, edit and re-edit their own work, use spell-check, and incorporate a whole range of media not available in the pre-internet age.

Moving away from the written (or multi-media) work, today’s learner in the performing arts can record and share their performances, and can participate in peer-review of each others’ practice.  Their portfolio can include not only a digital CV, but also performances and perhaps links to online reviews.

21st Century Learners’ Aspirations

No matter what learning takes place, or when it takes/took place, the prime motivation of learning is surely to gain in proficiency at the chosen subject or skill.  However, today’s digital world makes it possible, and indeed likely, that the learner will have their work mediated in the public sphere at a much earlier stage.  Learning can be purely for enjoyment, of course, but ambitious performers will want their best practice to be visible to others, not only to share amongst their peers, but also to assist employability by demonstrating their skills.

My Aspirations for my Learners

I am not in the position where I require written or recorded work from the people I teach, and my sessions with students are generally one-off occasions, whether in large or small groups, or one-to-one.   If I’m giving a musicology lecture or presentation, then my aspiration is to share my enthusiasm for the subject; to pass on knowledge; and to enthuse my listeners to go and find out more  for themselves.

I also give talks on aspects of research methodology, bibliography, or career paths; in these instances my aim is to encourage and pass on helpful advice without patronising my audience.  The same can be said in my role as a subject librarian, because I hope to encourage students to become proficient in using library resources, whether the catalogue, printed or online bibliographies, or more complex databases.  These are all key skills that will stand our students in good stead in their future careers, when they will have to spend time searching both for performing materials or background information, to help them in interpreting their repertoire, or in writing programme notes.

I want to go beyond finding materials for our students, and to help them learn to do this themselves, encouraging them to have a critical eye and learn to identify good authoritative editions of the music they perform; and furthermore to encourage them in good practice as regards keeping records of useful resources for future reference.  You could call this future-proofing their careers.  I can’t tell them how to play their instrument, but I can teach the essential background skills to keep organised records; save weblinks; interrogate databases or download an e-book, for example.

When I’m taking choir-practices, on the other hand, then my aim is to teach first the notes, and then the interpretation of the notes, so that my singers will know their parts and how they interact with one another; and will feel confident enough to perform in public.

As I explained, I do not have the opportunity to set assignments of any kind, and am often not in a position to assess understanding afterwards, except when I’m working with my choir!  However, I’m hoping that this course will give me some pointers as to how to maintain the attention of a class; and how to make a lecture/seminar/training session  more interactive without losing control of the class.