Aug 2010

Elements to add to University

Het universitaire onderwijs kan zo veel beter

Article at
www.scienceguide.nl


25 augustus 2010 - “Dit is het doel van ons rapport”, zo sprak Cees Veerman over het Learning Lab, een vernieuwend honourstraject van UvA en VU. Tim-Patrick Limmer, één van de deelnemende studenten, trekt lessen voor het HO. “It is about the empowerment of a student in an academic environment.”

Universities all over Holland claim teaching excellence. Is that claim justified? Having studied for two years in Holland, I have my doubts. Most of the courses I attend in lecture halls along with 100-200 fellow students. Eight weeks you watch teachers flipping through their PowerPoint-slides. At the end of each period you sit a multiple-choice exam. Even if you get 39 out of 40 correct answers, you ask yourself, 'Did I learn anything at all?'

This superficial learning is widespread, but not a must. I needed one learning lab and one book to see why.
The Learning Lab 'Pioneering in Leadership Learning' was one of the courses I choose in addition to my regular program; the book was The Meaning of Learning and Knowing a recent Ph.D.-thesis by Erik Jan van Rossum and Rebecca Hamer. The course was taught in a small group of 20 students from all disciplines (from Neurobiology to Economics) and nationalities (from Serbia to Brazil) and approached the term 'leadership' in a way that no other university course ever did before.

My
experiences with this course were intense and meaningful, however only later having read The Meaning of Learning and Knowing I was able to put its features into context. In this book, Van Rossum and Hamer elaborate their six-stage developmental model describing at which levels learning and teaching can occur.

6-Stage Model

Stages 1 till 3 entail reproductive learning. Information is simply memorized, e.g. for examination purposes later on. Most university education is based on those first three stages. Higher education, however, should entail more than superficially memorizing information. Van Rossum and Hamer see a watershed between stage 3 and 4 where students shift their concept of learning from reproducing knowledge to constructing meaning. In stage 4, students develop the capability to think within a scientific theory and gain a critical awareness of its assumptions.

But only at stage 5, students start to expand their thinking beyond disciplinary borders and apply their knowledge to give meaning to their reality. This involves teachers functioning predominantly as guides who are specialists in their respective fields. The topic is explored in group discussions where professor and student represent equal partners. Such teaching techniques lose their relevance once teaching proceeds to stage 6. Van Rossum and Hamer state that here the focus shifts from 'learning-to-know' to 'learning-to-be'. Students develop an increased self-awareness and see learning as key element of answering the question 'Who am I?' In order to achieve this stage, professors have to truly find their 'inner voice' and create an atmosphere of mutual trust and sharing in their class.

Reaching for Deeper Understanding

Studying The Meaning of Learning and Knowing gave me a clearer picture of what happened during 'Pioneering in Leadership Learning'. While most teachers like to resort to classical teaching techniques involving PowerPoint-slides, standard literature and multiple-choice-examinations, our professor, Thieu Besselink, broke with this teaching consensus.

The course was spread over four months with the first half being shaped by Besselink and the 2
nd half being organized by the students themselves. We started off with a series of sessions meeting with society shapers. They proved to be people who truly connect to what they do ultimately finding their inner voice corresponding to stage 6.

Being taught by such pioneers is inspiring, but only by reflecting what they said and how it applied to us in our everyday decisions made us learn in a deeper way. For this purpose, we were granted time and space in group discussions as well as in our blogs online where we analysed decisions we made and why we made them reaching a higher level of self-awareness. To make this happen, it was crucial to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and openness referring to stage 6 in Van Rossum and Hamer's model. Sharing and opening up to the group meant exposing a weakness which was only possible in a safe environment.

Together we explored concepts like using inspiration and courage to unveil value with zero resources. Input was given by leading pioneers we met as well as by Otto Scharmer's 'Theory U'. What made these lessons stick was the fact that at some point in the course we took charge of our own learning progress and put these ideas into practice.

From Hierarchical to Natural Leading

One memorable experience for me was the day the harmony in our group came to a halt. During the session before, we had the idea to create joint initiatives, one of which being Geeds - a platform for good deeds worth spreading. Being part of the team that came up with the idea, I felt responsible, but lacked time to do something about it.

When we met again it became clear that Geeds had not made any progress at all since nobody took the lead. A tense discussion started with our whole group of which a few did not want to join Geeds in the first place. Some of these people stood up and left the group. Amongst this chaos I made an attempt to lead the discussion back on track. Finally, I was even physically standing up while my classmates remained in their seats. However, this type of leading did not do the trick and I finally sat down again.

What had happened? I decided I wanted to talk with somebody about this experience. Part of the course was to find an inspiring mentor to reflect on leadership. So I gave it a shot and contacted Herman Wijffels, former CEO of Rabobank. He told me that especially in an environment where group members are equal, one cannot simply lead by claiming leadership artificially. This corresponds to a leader in a hierarchy that I was going for by physically standing up. Instead, members of a group would only follow if a person comes up with the best concepts directing the path the group would take in a natural way.

Over time, I encountered more situations where my view on leadership was challenged. Sometimes these lessons were painful but then even more rewarding. Besselink managed to create an environment in which he would not simply make us memorize knowledge, but empower us to build the very capabilities we need to lead. I became more self-reflective and also aware of others. I realized how crucial for success it is to be courageous to seize opportunities and keep group members connected to an idea.

In other words, I encountered true learning which is exactly what 'excellence' in  universities aims for. It is not about the mere reproduction of given knowledge. Far more it is about the empowerment of a student in an academic environment such as the one created in the Learning Lab.

So coming back to the question, 'Did I learn anything at all?' 'Oh yes, sir, more than ever before!'

---------- "To the sleeper, the teacher is the wake-up call of birds at sunrise. To clay, the teacher is the potter, sculptor, and trainer in self-shaping. To the wanderer, the teacher is a knowing guide. To the developed mind, the teacher is colleague, listener, friend." - Gerald Grow, 1977

Read an earlier article at Scienceguide
here...

The unbearable lightness of education

De ondraaglijke lichtheid van het onderwijs

In Scienceguide 18 augustus 2010 - Terwijl universiteiten en hogescholen pretenderen op hoog niveau les te geven, lijkt de didactiek vaak op die van een ouderwetse middelbare school. Eric Jan van Rossum en Rebecca Hamer analyseren in hun UU-proefschrift het verschil tussen gewenste niveau en bereikte niveau van het hoger onderwijs.

Met de uitkomst kan iedere docent zijn voordeel doen, zo schrijft Tim-Patrick Limmer (UvA-student). Does university teach for mediocrity? In their recent Ph.D.-thesis The Meaning of Learning and Knowing, Erik Jan van Rossum and Rebecca Hamer put forward arguments that support this assertion. By using their 6-stage model, the authors reveal how higher education is geared towards superficial learning. 

Van Rossum and Hamer conducted research to investigate how each of these stages is represented in Dutch higher education finding that 75 % of their sample understands learning as a means for simple reproduction of knowledge. The education system itself leaves little room for students to develop a deeper understanding reaching for stages 4 till 6. Even more, some research gives evidence that "students may become less likely to employ a deep approach" starting their tertiary study after high school.
Instead of teaching for excellence, higher education teaches for mediocrity. Especially on bachelor level, students are being assessed superficially with standardized multiple choice tests. The teaching style itself is mostly didactic with the teacher standing in front of 100-200 students and flipping through PowerPoint-slides. Since no deeper understanding is required to pass courses, students do not even have to read in depth the material that is given out by the professor.

6-Stage Model
So what do these stages entail? On stage 1, learning is understood as the mere transmission of knowledge. Teachers teach without interacting with students who then simply memorize information 'sentence by sentence'. Learning on stage 2 involves the first quantitative reflection of the knowledge taught. Students memorize specific parts that are considered important for examinations later on and have certain possibilities to ask clarifying questions during classes. Like the first two stages, stage 3 also only involves reproductive learning. Here, students reflect even further what knowledge might be useful for practical applications later on in their life.

Most university education is based on those first three stages. Higher education, however, should entail more than superficially memorizing information. Van Rossum and Hamer see a watershed between stage 3 and 4 where students shift their concept of learning from reproducing knowledge to constructing meaning. In stage 4, students develop the capability to think within a scientific theory and gain a critical awareness of its assumptions.

But only at stage 5, students start to expand their thinking beyond disciplinary borders and apply their knowledge to give meaning to their reality. This involves teachers functioning predominantly as guides who are specialists in their respective fields. The topic is explored in group discussions where professor and student represent equal partners. Such teaching techniques lose their relevance once teaching proceeds to stage 6. Van Rossum and Hamer state that here the focus shifts from 'learning-to-know' to 'learning-to-be'. Students develop an increased self-awareness and see learning as key element of answering the question 'Who am I?' In order to achieve this stage, professors have to truly find their 'inner voice' and create an atmosphere of mutual trust and sharing in their class. 

Teaching for Mediocrity
This mindset of "just studying what is necessary" contributes to another phenomenon widespread in Dutch universities: the 'zesjescultuur'. In an environment where you are not challenged to learn in a deeper fashion you may also lack the ambition to do much for your studies in the first place. Dutch universities have responded to this trend by implementing more study components such as Honours programs. Students that reach a certain average are able to take additional courses resulting in an extra qualification for your degree. However, what course designers should keep in mind is that reaching excellence does not mean to simply teach more. Instead, it is about the way students are taught and the environment that is created to create true learning.

Tim-Patrick Limmer studies Economics at the University of Amsterdam and worked as an editorial intern for ScienceGuide.  He was one of the first students at The Leaning Lab
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