The Principles of Learning shall be applied to my reflections upon teaching Sociology to BA Psychology students and teaching Research Methods to BA Business Studies and BA Tourism and Marketing students preparing for research dissertations in their next year.
These subject areas are in the Cognitive Domain in Bloom's Taxonomy, relating to both knowledge and understanding. There is some overlap into the "feelings-for" Affective Domain (where the individual research topics came from an enthusiasm or hobby, developing the ethics of research, and the ethical and moral bias of Sociology) and a little of the "skills-in-doing" Psychomotor Domain (in the task of writing itself, which I found to be an important side issue in my work, and possibly research students considering neutral behaviour in structured interviewing and questionnaires later on).
The use of terms like "taxonomy" and creating "domains" is in order to relate forms of learning to curriculum planning and objectives and therefore intends to make learning more effective (Curzon, 1997, 172, 179). The fact that academic work is in this Cognitive Domain does also have implications for regarding learning cycles which do incorporate the different domains into their experience based learning.
A learning circle attempts to show Learning in a more fundamental manner, where we learn all the time. So it is a good starting point before coming on to effects on certain Principles of Learning. In Kolb's Learning Circle some sort of concrete experience in life, worthy of note and adaptation, is followed by a retrospective observation and reflection upon it and then moving on to formalising abstract concepts and generalisations. This leads to a considered change to be tested, which takes place in a concrete situation, and so the cycle carries on. This adaptive system is indeed the learning process, and takes into account different kinds of learning: where there is pragmatism in experience, reflection on the experience, theorising about it (and what might be testable) and activism in testing.
The Learning Cycle also can be related to those like Paul Freire (the educationalist who relates to liberation theology) and Jurgen Habermas (the sociologist who relates to knowledge and communication). They consider that learning should relate to testing and action (and therefore liberation) (see Rogers, 1996, 102). The Learning Cycle is goal orientated (Marshall, Rowland, 1998, 11)
In the academic classroom situation, learning is more formalised, and so such a circle cannot operate in such an even handed way. Alan Rogers, on complicating the Learning Cycle in terms of more points of decision making, adds:
The importance of new knowledge cannot be exaggerated.... Without new knowledge there can be no critical reflection. (Rogers, 1996, 110)
Depending on the subject, experience may not readily be to hand as a check on the learning, although in teaching preparation for Research Methods it was intended that actually doing research in the field for a dissertation would be just that check. I made a point of saying how research alters in both method and interest in the light of circumstances. In general, however, the emphasis in academic subjects is on new knowledge and critical reflection. Theorising is often provided by the teacher, and experience can seem remote. For Sociology, one may call upon the "Sociological Imagination" (after Wright-Mills), and students check what they learn against news reports and current affairs on the television, and see how relevant concepts and theories may be (1). This must have been what was meant when a Sociology professor claimed to a meeting of colleagues and research students that, "I get all my sociology from television."
This clearly affects the relevance and application of the Principles of Learning. The task of teaching is to relate directly to effective forms of learning, which is what the Principles of Learning attempt to describe, although the Principles may be in conflict with each other.
Principle 3 was applied quite actively to BA Psychology students learning about Sociology in a short course as part of the requirement for a broad introductory education before specialising in their own Psychology areas. This Principle relates to teaching progressively in a manner that relates to previous knowledge and individual needs. The assumption was that many of these students knew little or no Sociology, which meant that the course had to be an elementary version of an elementary course. In order to be progressive the course was sequential (relating to Principle 8 too) and rigidly laid out week by week (not by me, but it was good revision for me! (2)), beginning with definitions, incorporating the "greats" and leading to a little discussion on contemporary issues - but only after the basics were introduced. My task was to carry out seminars and these were around one large table with different groups. The task of the tutorial was lecture reinforcement and feedback. Sometimes this was reiterating (repeating, but a variable slant on it) the lecture, other times it was a discussion, but often with the emphasis on what was understood rather than focussed on the Sociology itself (a subtle but necessary difference). This monitoring stage by stage reached a critical point approaching the exam when hopefully a rounded picture was built up; however the policy of giving as much away as possible regarding the questions and of getting them through an exam in a subject they would leave behind (except those who thought they would prefer this to Psychology!) meant that the sequence rested at individual topics and not an understanding of the subject as a whole.
This was not enough regarding Research Methods. In this students really did have to grasp an overview and understand the comparative methods at a level appropriate to a degree dissertation and practicality. It was in this course that individual needs became most important. Some research projects were eagerly anticipated (such as the young woman going to Canada to study whales) whereas others lacked motivation (the mass of young men who would do "football"). So, starting with an overview for motivation sake, the lectures set out to give clear principles of research methods and comparative advantages and disadvantages, reinforced in seminars, with work to do themselves, but in not too long the importance of dealing with students individually grew. Here the appropriate individual application of research methods and their comparative nature was the focus of conversations, once they had got the basics. I also praised those who disagreed with me and fitted this in with my lectures on postmodern views of knowledge (3), which also put a different slant on doing research.
There was no doubt (and understood in conversations with staff) that this method favoured the interested and the eager, because there were several conversations with the same individuals, and I encouraged individuals to come to me, email me and use my website. Written work provided a more across the board feedback of understanding. Whilst those who did some work were able to meet the minimum standard, other individuals shone.
Principle 5 applies to students preparing for research projects to a limited degree. The Principle is perhaps most operative in voluntary and/ or unexamined education (eg leisure classes, University of the Third Age) and in conflict with examined and structured courses. It is also applied somewhat where students have otherwise busy lives, or have to manage their children's time and be available for them, and who slot their learning in and around all other activities. But this is a management issue, such as in modulation, whereas my interest is in it as a principle of education. This is because temperamentally I regard the emphasis on setting and meeting of objectives for a lesson - that the student can repeat back what the teacher has issued forth - as empiricist "jug and mug" education (see Curzon, 1997, 179-180, on the criticisms and arguments regarding this reflection). It is strange that objectivism (to which I have philosophical objections) is combined with the emphasis on modern methods. It actually takes time to absorb and understand, and both research methods and Sociology are analytical, reflective and appreciative. I put some emphasis that research findings are often disguised opinion presented as facts by interested parties for highly contentious and arguable points. Students may repeat this back to me (as they did) but it would be only when coming at findings themselves that they would encounter the creativity of research. All this takes time, mainly their time, and perhaps only if they went on to do research beyond degree level.
Furthermore, whilst research has its hand in date, much has to be carried out at its own pace as seems appropriate at the time. And I approached the teaching, therefore, in sometimes a deliberately ambiguous manner forcing them to go and take time to find out themselves, what I might have taught, as part of "training" to do research (4). I was contrasted with the previous lecturer who, they said, "told us everything" so I argued my case to students and received the approval of staff (this relates to Principle 6).
Of course this was different from the Sociology students, who were effectively being pushed through an examination. Sociology normally is also about building an understanding, and essay hand in dates are usually set at term's end so that there is some autonomy in student work, but my experience was of "factory system Sociology", for a bureaucratic motive of satisfying University and external requirements (although there is the educational justification behind this apparent breadth). The Principle of own pace was thus abandoned.
Principle 8 somewhat follows on from Principle 3 and is in conflict with Principle 5. This is where the student masters each unit of material before proceeding with the next. This is serialist education, whereas I was, in Research Methods at least, trying an holistic approach. The tutor, according to the implications of this Principle, should organise time to make chunks long enough for students to absorb material and gain feedback before moving on, and building slack into the overall timetable so that some points could be repeated, either to individuals (Principle 3) or as a whole.
Nevertheless the whole process is assisted by giving students the motive to learn so that they become more active in absorbing the knowledge. This is done within Sociology when starting the subject by calling it a "humanistic discipline" and relating its application to real life (it also helps with the awkward definition of the subject). For the Psychology students I made an early play at the overlap between the two subjects (which centred around a discussion of how "scientific" either of them are, the questioning of which was rather more subversive to the illusions of Psychology).
In Research Methods one also begins with reference to their use and abuse in the media. This shows the importance of the subject, properly understood. Principle 8 is relevant in that in all abstract academic areas and their application, one needs to start with the importance of the subject in the world because often its detail seems narrow and technical.
Principle 6, where the student must be involved in the learning process, applies most easily and readily to researching students. They will not get far if they do not do the work themselves. This also applies to Sociology students but the pressure was on to give these the easiest workload possible. The argument was simple - they were there to pass and the staff were there to teach but the students weren't necessarily there to learn in the deepest sense. So the sixth Principle of Learning perhaps did not apply! They did the work necessary to retain the facts and do the job of passing, with some qualitative enthusiasm offered in order to help in the process.
So the Principles of Learning are applied according to the cognitive nature of academic learning, although some academic learning is more factory-like than others and so compromises are made. The importance of new knowledge in a classroom situation perhaps overrides Kolb's Cycles of Learning which aims to show that we learn all the time through life, although this and the other models of analysis are goal orientated, and empiricist in implication because they all relate to objectives based teaching and feedback.
(1) There is a discussion on the codification of ordinary life into Sociology in Barnes, 1976, 150.
(2) Learn and think with others: a reciprocal process (see Reece, Walker, 2000, 11)
(3) Can create knowledge: not all knowledge comes from comparative sources (see Reece, Walker, 2000, 12)
(4) Become autonomous: from dependency to interdependency and autonomy (see Reece, Walker, 2000, 11)
Barnes, D. (1976), From Communication to Curriculum, Penguin.
Curzon, L. B. (1997), Teaching in Further Education: an outline of principles and practice, fifth edition, Cassell.
Marshall, L., Rowland, F. (1998), A Guide to Learning Independently, 3rd edition, Buckingham: Open University Press.
Reece, I., Walker, S. (2000), Teaching, Training and Learning: a practical guide, Sunderland: Business Education Publishers.
Rogers, A. (1996), Teaching Adults, second edition, Buckingham: Open University Press.