Monthly Archives: November 2018

Thoughts on student-centred learning

There’s this idea in modern education and it’s referred to as “student-centred learning”. Now, most reasonable people would think that education is, and always has been, a student-centred activity. I mean, what else could it be? Unfortunately, though, the world of education seems to be been taken over by academics, curriculum designers, consultants and thought leaders who have decided to rewrite the history of education, claiming that the education methods of the 20th century were fundamentally flawed – being teacher-centred I presume – and unfit for purpose in the brave new world of the 21st century. And they have decided to give old words new meanings.

Take this definition of student-centred learning (taken off a slide at a recent QQI conference) by Marese Bermingham who is Head of Student Engagement and Head of Teaching and Learning Unit at Cork Institute of Technology:

Student-centred learning represents both a mindset and a culture within a given higher education institution which is broadly related to and supported by constructivist theories of learning. It is characterised by innovative methods of teaching which aim to promote learning in communication with teachers and other learners and which take students seriously as active participants in their own learning, fostering transferable skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and reflective thinking.”

So in the new world of education, student-centred learning does not carry a similar meaning to, say, patient-centred medicine where the needs of the patient are prioritised ahead of the systems and work practices employed in a hospital. No, student-centred learning is really about employing certain teaching methods, ones that are inspired by constructivism. Constructivism is a rather nebulous philosophy: its key idea is that learning is an active, constructive process. The learner takes in new information that, when combined with existing knowledge in their brain, enables them to construct their own personal mental representation of the world. Constructivism is not a particularly controversial idea. It fact it seems pretty trivial to me. However, it can lead one down the postmodern black hole of believing that there is no objective reality.

But in modern education, constructivism has become not so much a theory of how we represent the world in our brains but more a theory of how we should teach. And so, constructivists like to adopt teaching methods, such as inquiry based learning and problem-based learning, where the teacher is no longer the “sage on the stage” but, rather, the “guide on the side”, the guide who allows students to “construct” knowledge for themselves rather than being instructed in the traditional sense. In extreme cases constructivists see the teacher as a co-learner. Constructivists tend to believe that learning is, or should be, a social process and they believe strongly in collaborative learning. Many believe, as shown above, in the idea of generic or transferrable skills, skills like problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking that a person can deploy regardless of the context.

Given that 20th century education was largely teacher-led (not teacher-centred) it is unsurprising that constructivists would decide that education needs to be transformed. To get around the fact that the 20th century was the most extraordinary in the history of mankind, many modern educators have decided that the 21st century is fundamentally ‘different’, a century that requires students to be educated in new ways – their ways – in order to develop the “21st century skills” to thrive as active and productive citizens – or something.

The result is that the world of higher education has become something of a battleground in which one tribe is committed to teacher-led learning and the other, increasingly dominant tribe is committed to student-centred learning – as defined above. The former tend to be portrayed as old-fashioned and unwilling to change while the latter are generally seen as more caring and compassionate. In the background higher education has become a market where institutions compete for income in the form of students. This creates a constant pressure to make education more  “engaging” (and constructivist would claim that their methods are more engaging) not only to attract new students but also to retain existing ones. Throw in the fact that academic promotion procedures often require that the candidate shows evidence of teaching innovation, plus the fact that teacher-led approaches are becoming increasingly demanding (because of phones and because so many students come to lectures knackered from their  part-time jobs), it is starting to look very likely that constructivist approaches are set to dominate higher education in the not too distant future.  Given that constructivists have already won the battle at Junior Cycle level and given that it is likely that the Leaving Cert will receive a constructivist makeover, the best that can be said is that the Irish education system of the future will be nothing if not joined-up. But I fear for it.

PS Just to point out, I rarely give traditional lectures – I’m unsure of their value anymore. Many of my lecture slots involve problem-solving. But I explain stuff first. I don’t let the student flounder around trying to discover concepts and methods that experts in the field have discovered. So I’m very much in the teacher-led tribe.


Are lectures dying out?

There’s a small lecture theatre beside my office that holds about 40 students. I regularly pass it and peep in to see what’s going on. Originally I did it out of nosiness but these days I’m interested in attendance rates.

Most of the time when I look in there is a handful of students looking bored or knackered, with quite a few looking at their phones. In fairness, the lectures seem a bit dull and often involve a scientist or mathematician writing on the blackboard with his/her back to the students.

I’ve also noticed that it’s much easier this year to find a car parking space. I’m usually in before 8am but even on days when I’m not in until 10am or so, I rarely have trouble finding a place. This was not true just a few years ago.

And now, when I have a 9am lecture, I tell the students I won’t start until 9.15am and the reason is that I’m fed up of students wandering in late.

What’s going on? I think a number of things have happened at the same time: (i) the current generation of students finds lectures pretty unengaging and given that lecture notes tend to be available online, they don’t see any added value in attending lectures; (ii) students are commuting large distances and genuinely can’t make it in in time for early-morning lectures; (iii) timetables are often sub-optimal with large gaps between lectures, gaps that encourage students to just head home rather than stick around for a few hours.

In the past I have been very pro-lectures because I liked lectures myself when I was a student. But I don’t particularly enjoy lecturing myself so most of my ‘lectures’ are interactive and involve students solving problems for at least some of the time. I can ‘lecture’ this way because it suits the engineering subjects that I teach but also because my class sizes are relatively small – 30 students or so. I tend to get very good attendance.

But it strikes me that the days of going into a lecture hall and giving a Powerpoint presentation (or just chalking and talking) are nearing their end.

Those damn populists

Tom Boland, former CEO of the HEA, wrote this in the Irish Times the other day:

Academics you can be sure are in the crosshairs of the populists. The undermining of public trust in higher education and in its mission to promote knowledge is a clear tactic of populism which feeds on prejudice and evidence-free assertion.”

He then goes on to suggest that academics of all kinds need to get out there and “engage” in order to cut the populists off at the pass.

This made me think of Ben Goldacre’s famous quip “you can’t reason someone out of a position they haven’t reasoned themselves into”. Those who have battled anti-vaxxers, quack nutritionists, climate change deniers and even Brexiteers will understand where Goldacre is coming from. Going out to battle is unlikely to change minds.

The way to avoid becoming a target of “populists” is to run our institutions in an open and transparent way, to be humble, to avoid spin and to ensure that everything we do brings some tangible benefit to society.

Women-only professorships

There has been a lot of commentary on the women-only professorships proposed by Mary Mitchell O’Connor.  On balance, it seems that both men and women are in favour of the idea.

There seems to be two arguments made in favour of the proposal:

The first is that women are subjected to out-and-out discrimination by promotion assessment panels who, as a consequence of implicit or explicit bias, favour men over women. Women-only professorships will go some way to counteracting these biases is the argument.

The second seems to be that the entire academic promotion system is biased against those (mainly women) who cannot compete because they are unable to commit to the 60-hour week that is required if one is to build up the CV required to reach the professor grade.

The second argument seems more credible to me. The fact is that to reach a professor grade in academia, you need to be able to work insane hours. No matter how clever you are, or how talented you are or how much of an original and creative thinker you are, or no matter how inspirational and pastoral you are as a teacher, you will never reach the grade of professor unless you can put in the ridiculous hours you need to build up your metrics. That’s the fundamental problem.

To make professor you need to be bright, ambitious, physically and mentally healthy, single-minded, able to get by with very little sleep, utterly focused and willing to make very large personal sacrifices.

That’s the problem. Academia is not normal. It requires people to be obsessed by their work, to let it intrude on their personal lives and, in some cases, to put their physical and mental health at risk. Academia is crying out for a rethink, a rethink in which we look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are rewarding those attributes that contribute to our most important mission which is, after all, to educate.

Our differing views on health and education

As of 2016 the Irish Government’s spending on higher education amounted to 1.9% of its total expenditure. That’s compared to a Eurozone average of 1.5%. Our total education spend was at 12.1% compared to a Eurozone average of 9.7%. At the same time we spent 19.2% of our budget on health compared to a Eurozone average of 15%.

It’s interesting to observe how these ‘overspends’ are perceived. The health service is routinely lambasted and portrayed as grossly inefficient, run by hordes of incompetent administrators and kept going by selfless, almost heroic frontline staff. Administrators and to a lesser extent, consultants, are the bad guys.

In the case of education, there isn’t as much consensus as to who the bad guys are. Teachers do get a bashing from time to time over their long holidays even though the evidence is that extending the school year has no positive benefits. Third level lecturers are often portrayed as doing five or six hours of work per week because many people (including families of lecturers!) still presume that all lecturers do is lecture. Universities are seen as little more than advanced secondary schools, not the complex multi-mission organisations that they have become. So there is a perception that there is plenty of scope for us all to work harder within the education sphere and this makes everyone, including politicians sceptical about our appeals for more funding. They can, for example, point to our frequent statements that although funding per student has been halved, we have managed to maintain quality.

The solutions to the health service’s problems are almost universally seen as involving some sort of fundamental restructuring of the system: far more emphasis on primary care, for example. Most people recognise, based on experience, that maintaining the status quo will just lead to more and more of the state’s funds being gobbled up by health without an improvement in quality.

In education, especially our third level system, the solutions to our ill-defined problems are nearly always portrayed (by us) as involving some mechanism for increasing the amount of money poured into the institutions. As mentioned above, campaigners frequently point out that the funding per student has halved over the last decade but it’s worth noting that if spending were to be restored to peak levels our spend on higher education would jump to 2.5 times the Eurozone average. That would be hard to justify even with our demographics. But the key point is that fundamental restructuring of our higher education system is never on the agenda. There are token efforts made from time to time but these inevitably amount to little more than exercises in merger mania.

I find our differing perspectives on health education very interesting. I think a key point is that the deficiencies of our health service are very visible and affect every family in the country while the higher education system remains shrouded in mystery. No one really knows what the core issues are. No one knows if we’re doing a good job or not. No one really knows if we are spending our money wisely. No one is quite sure if we are, in fact, prioritizing education at all. No one knows how much, or how little, our academic staff teach. So the conversation is controlled by the institutions but when people are in the dark they can become cynical and suspicious and just turn a deaf ear.

Reviewing the Leaving Cert

Plans are under way to revise the Leaving Cert. There’s no harm in that – it does need to be looked at. Reform and renewal is good in many walks of life.

But the LC needs to be looked at in the context of the fact it is, and is likely to remain, the de facto entrance exam for college. Whatever the LC looks like in a few years’ time, it has to be fair and it must not disadvantage (any further) those from less affluent backgrounds. It also needs to be robust and not involve assessments that are marked with excessive subjectivity. (Creativity anyone?)

There is no doubt that whatever is proposed it will call for the introduction of a lot more continuous assessment. CA will be presented as fairer, as testing a wider range of skills, as reducing the levels of stress among students. However, it would seem logical to me that before introducing more CA at second level it would be wise to do a comprehensive study on the use of CA at third level because we’ve been adopting this approach for years. But the news about CA in the third level system is not all good. It has its problems and second level curriculum designers need to be familiar with those problems and not simply fall into the continuous-assessment-is-good trap.

No doubt the review will recommend the introduction of short courses, just like the Junior Cycle. So I hope the curriculum designers will undertake some sort of study on the experience of other countries who have gone down this route. My reading of cognitive science (and my own experience of learning) is that knowledge and skills acquired over a short period are quickly lost – it’s why I have doubts about the wisdom of semesterisation. “Use it or lose it” is true not only in rugby but in learning as well. Short courses might well be a complete waste of time if they are not integrated into the core curriculum and the content of those courses revisited regularly.

No doubt there will be calls to reduce the amount of “rote learning” and to focus more on “critical thinking”. I could argue all day about how the ability to think critically is intimately tied to the amount of knowledge you have in your head, but I won’t bother going there because as the fella says in Cool Hand Luke, “some people you just can’t reach”, especially those educationalists who believe in the idea of generic skills that exist as a ‘thing’ independent of context. The fear for me would be that the leaving cert will become infested with inquiry learning (as the Junior Cycle has, despite the evidence that IBL doesn’t lead to good outcomes at this level) and activities like making Lego robots and structures out of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti – the kind of things you see on #stem on Twitter. So let’s just say this: those people who are arguing for more of an emphasis on “critical thinking” are arguing the case for making the Leaving Cert more difficult. They’re talking about throwing curveballs at students during timed assessments. They’re talking about a fundamental shift in our perception of fairness.

And it is very likely that all sorts of stakeholders will be calling for more emphasis on “life skills”. This is something that really puzzles me and this is why: we live in a time when many seemingly intelligent people believe that knowledge is fleeting, doomed to be replaced with new knowledge in a handful of years. And they also believe that Google has changed everything – if you can Google it, why learn it at all? But the same people seem to believe that skills are permanent. And that is just mad. In my own field of chemical engineering, core knowledge has changed little since I was a student but approaches to problem-solving have changed utterly because of the availability of easy-to-use computational tools. Nearly all of the problem-solving techniques I learned are obsolete now. But the knowledge is he same. Likewise in life, the skills we need to live are constantly changing and often very rapidly. Whether it’s shopping, booking a holiday, driving, getting a credit card, finding somewhere to live, doing some further education or getting medical care, how we go about these things changes year on year. The whole app industry is built on the fact that the skills we need to navigate through life are constantly changing and people are willing and able to adapt.

The reality is that knowledge of science, of history, of languages, of literature,  of geography is far more permanent than so-called life skills. And formal education should be about teaching that which will endure not that which will help you to get through the first few years of your college or working

Why I blog

As of now my last two blogs are at number 1 and number 2 on the wonderful

In the first blog I suggested that quality reviews had a fundamental weakness in that many of the proposals made by review panels were based on ideology or opinion rather than evidence. In the second I suggested that universities needed to be a lot more transparent about how they spend their money before running to the government for more funding. And I suggested that there was a lot of cynicism among ‘ordinary’ academics about priorities in the modern university.

Both of these blogs posts are likely to have been received badly by senior and middle management in many of the universities. But here’s the thing: I don’t care.

Education is important to me, more important that advancing up the academic ladder. Anyway, I think there is little chance of that at this stage – my research track record isn’t good enough. I’m a journeyman in that regard.

Without wishing to get too personal, education saved my life – literally. Education is more than training. It’s about more than gaining “skills” despite the fact that curriculum designers and educationalists at all levels of the system seem to think so.

Education is about gaining the knowledge and the wisdom to live an enlightened and informed life – and a happy one; and of course it’s about laying the foundations for a rewarding career. That cannot be denied.

Education represents the very purpose of our universities. Even the person in the street believes and knows this. Of course the more a university can do for society the better but not if it’s at the expense of its education mission. It is through education that higher level institutions can best serve society.

If universities prioritize other activities, including research, over education, then they are betraying their students – especially their undergraduates may of whose parents will have made huge financial sacrifices to be able to provide for the education of their sons and daughters. It’s that simple.

As places of learning and research, universities should adopt policies that are evidenced-based. So quality reviewers and extern examiners should be challenged rigorously even if to do so might be somewhat controversial. And teaching innovations, even if they have to potential to increase the profile of an institution, and to gain funding from major corporations, should always be informed by evidence. If they are not, they should be rigorously challenged even from within. I can think of a few such innovations but I have my limits; I’m not inclined to commit career suicide.

Anyway, its for reasons like these that I blog.

This blog post was inspired by UCD’s decision to spend €14m on aUniversity Club”.

Saving Our Spark

The Save our Spark campaign will fail and it will do so because the institutions have never been transparent enough about how they spend their money.  People, including academics in the institutions themselves, see new buildings being constructed, grounds being landscaped, the student ‘experience’ being improved, and new initiatives of all kinds been rolled out, and they wonder where all the money is coming from. They wonder because they are teaching on a shoe string budget and they can’t help but feel that teaching is well down the order of priorities. If anyone in senior management of the institutions doubt that, they should talk to their colleague down the pecking order.

Of course, a lot of the money for new initiative is borrowed or funded through philanthropy but there remains an opaqueness about how the institutions are spending their money that leaves many even cynical. So Save our Spark is a waste of time – it’s the same campaign that has been going on for over a decade but with a few nice videos thrown into the mix.

The trouble with quality reviews

DCU has just undergone an institutional quality review and that’s fine. I’m all in favour of accountability. But I do have a serious problem with the whole issue of quality and it has caused me to have a disagreement or two over the years with external examiners.

The thing is this: many of the judgements that are made around quality in education are based on opinion or ideology, not evidence. I have had numerous disagreements over the years with externs who have made recommendations that were based on…well nothing. One extern wanted me and my fellow engineers to reduce our contact hours because ours were higher than our biology colleagues. Another extern was troubled by the fact that the continuous assessment component of our modules was not given a uniform weighing. He was especially troubled by the fact that some modules had no CA component at all. Another extern was unhappy about the fact that some lecturers had very comprehensive notes on Moodle whereas others had no notes at all.

It seems that the default position of quality reviewers is to presume that uniformity is good. My own view is that diversity is good.