At the Manifesto symposium held in London on June 10th, we did some rethinking of aspects of media education. As I came away, I thought that pedagogy needed a stronger presence in the discussions so I have put together some thoughts.
In the discussion, I thought that there was some danger of taking for granted the language of pedagogy. Nothing unusual about that – taking pedagogical words for granted is the norm. Our language for teaching and learning dates from the time when, in formal education it was considered that what was taught was learnt so we only needed to talk about teaching (not learning) and the emphasis was on instruction and training methods, on aims for teaching, on describing the curriculum and on the skills and intentions of the teacher and so on. More recently we have changed our focus to learning – and since the learning of the learner is what is central to education, that seems appropriate. With that change of emphasis, we can, to some extent recognise that in a taught lesson there are students who will learn most of what is intended by the teacher, some will pick up some bits, some will misunderstand and get wrong ideas and some will be thinking about what they are planning to wear for the weekend party. However much of the language of pedagogy has lagged behind the change of focus. In particular I think we muddle ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ as words. They refer to different processes and we trust that they have some meeting in the middle. The teacher teaches and we hope that the learner learns, though she may not, or she may learn the same thing from a source other than the lesson. We cannot make a learner learn through teaching – we can only hope and pray….and do our best to be clear, engaging and interesting and so on. Learning happens everywhere and enriches that done formally, as well, one assumes, as vice versa. What is important is that we recognise that when something has been taught, learning of that thing is not automatic. It is common for teachers to say ‘I covered this or that’ and in some way imply that learning has therefore taken place.
Another problem arises in our incorrect use of words. Since the fashion changed and we now talk of learning instead of teaching (excuse my scepticism) educational activities have now become described as learning this and learning that. An example is ‘learning technology’. When students learn something via the medium of a computer screen, their brains are probably undergoing just the same processes as when they sit in a classroom with a teacher teaching. The role of the computer is as an element of presentation – of teaching. If we talk of teaching technologies there are many other ideas that start to apply and a rethink is really in order.
I also want to look at the word ‘theory’ which we tend to use glibly. It means so many things. I spent a lot of my undergraduate days wondering what this thing called theory was (in a zoology degree). As a student I never did find out and it was only with a more sophisticated manner of thinking, that I could much later understand my difficulties. One meaning of theory is ‘what is taught in the classroom’. Most of the time, that is the meaning to which we refer but because of the other meanings, it has mystique and grandeur about it. Another more precise meaning is that ‘a theory’ is an attempt to explain an observed phenomenon. There might be several theories that attempt to account for a particular phenomenon and we may know that no one of them is ‘right’ – whatever ‘right’ might mean, but they all add something to our understanding or they represent a particular approach (which might be a discipline). For example, psychologists and sociologists may have different interpretations of audience behaviour. ‘Theory’ might also be what you need to know before you perform some practical operation. You would want to know elementary ideas about the functioning of a camera and the physics of light before, for example, making a film. When we talk of theory we need to know what sort of theory we talk of. Or, on the other hand, maybe we should not use the grand and convenient generalisation of ‘theory’, but instead try to be more explicit. I wonder how many of us as teachers would know what to say if a student asked us to define what ‘theory’ is! We use it too easily as shorthand for vagueness.
However there is another issue relevant to the idea of ‘theory’ and also to thinking and learning processes. I consider this to be important and though I only know the ideas in their application to higher education levels. When we talk of knowledge and of learning, there is a tendency to think of the existence of a body of ideas that are to be absorbed by the brains of learners and described in a curriculum. In the process of education, it is assumed that students learn more and more of this body of knowledge and in effect, they fill their heads with ideas – their heads ‘swell’ with knowledge that is accumulated. However, research on learning shows that education is not about learning more and more, but about changing ideas. As a learner’s ideas change so what she knows is known in a more sophisticated manner. Learners develop at different rates – so – as William Perry entitled an article, there are ‘Different Worlds in the Same Classroom’. In other words, students at different levels of development understand the same material in different ways – and these variations between learners are likely to be manifested in the same class group. In general terms, it seems that learners arriving for undergraduate programmes tend to see knowledge in the way I have described above, to be accumulated. Their teachers are the experts with the knowledge to ‘give’ them (as clearly and concisely as possible please!). In the course of education, students come to see that knowledge is often not like that – some is uncertain. There is not a right or wrong answer – and no one theory is ‘right’. They realise that to make a decision they need to look at evidence and evaluate the quality of the evidence. They can understand how knowledge may be constructed and they are beginning to see that teachers are not the founts of knowledge that they once thought, but are also in a process of learning, developing knowledge and managing uncertainty. It is only at this stage that they can begin also to appreciate what theory is….and that is why I, on my undergraduate zoology programme, could not understand this word ‘theory’. The ideas to which I refer here are called epistemological development or the development of epistemological beliefs.
If anyone is interested in any of these ideas, I am happy to point the way to references and I will be doing a session on epistemological development at the Media Summit in September. Jenny@cemp.ac.uk