education learning

Comment: The game of school.

Schools are about learning, but it’s mostly learning how to play the game. At some level, even though we like to talk about schools as though they are about learning in some pure, liberal-arts sense, on a pragmatic level we know that what we’re really teaching students is to get done the things that they are asked to do, to get them done on time, and to get them done with as few mistakes as possible.

I think the danger comes from believing that those who by chance, genetics, temperament, family support, or cultural background find the game easier to play are actually somehow inherently betteror have more human value than the other students.

The students who aren’t succeeding usually don’t have any idea that school is a game. Since we tell them it’s about learning, when they fail they then internalize the belief that they themselves are actual failures–that they are not good learners. And we tell ourselves some things to feel OK about this taking place: that some kids are smart and some are not, that the top students will always rise to the top, that their behavior is not the result of the system but that is their own fault.

Hargadon, S. (2019). The game of school. Steve Hargadon blog: The learning revoluation has begun.

I thought that this was an interesting post with a few ideas that helped me to think more carefully about my own teaching. I’ve pulled out a few of the sentences from the post that really resonated with me but there are plenty more. Once you accept the idea that school (and university) is a game, it all makes a lot more sense; ranking students in leaderboards, passing and failing (as in quests or missions), levelling up, etc.

The author also then goes on to present 4 hierarchical “levels” of learning that really describe frameworks or paradigms rather than any real description of learning (i.e. the categores and names of the levels in the hierarchy are to some extent, arbitrary; it’s the descriptions in each level that count).

If I think about our own physiotherapy programme, we use all 4 “levels” interchangeably and have varying degrees of each of them scattered throughout the curriculum. However, I’d say that the bulk of our approach happens at the lowest level of Schooling, some at Training, a little at Education, and almost none at Self-regulated learning. While we pay lip service to the fact that we “offer opportunities for self-regulated learning”, what it really boils down to is that we give students reading to do outside of class time.

education learning physiotherapy teaching

Ranking students, or developing understanding?

We have a collection of courses at my institution that have become known as “killer courses”. These are the courses with a history of poor student performance in terms of throughput and retention, and which we’re trying to provide extra support for. Two of these killer courses are outside courses (i.e. outside of our department) but which are nonetheless requirements for our students to pass. Traditionally, it’s a struggle for many students to get through these modules and we’re still not sure why. The institution is investigating the issue and one of the suggestions has been to provide tutorials, for which additional funding has been provided. The problem is that students don’t attend the tutorials. Either they don’t see the value or don’t believe that they need the extra assistance. Whatever the reason is, our students (and students from other departments who are required to pass the courses) don’t attend the tutorials.

I believe that the reason the students don’t attend is because the tutorials aren’t graded, and I believe that that is part of the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that I think the tutorials should be graded. On the contrary, I think we need a system with fewer graded modules. The problem is that students assign value to material that is assessed through being marked, with us as the all-knowing teachers with all the right answers. As clinical educators, we have developed (or are at least part of) a system in which assigning grades is the one way that we tell students what we think is important. From the students’ perspective, if it’s not for marks, then it can’t be important.

I spoke to our 3rd year class a few months ago and suggested that they work towards a deeper understanding of material, rather than working towards getting an increase in marks. This was greeted with confusion by the students. At the end of the day they pass or fail based on their ability to accumulate marks (by the way, the 50% pass mark, or cut score, is largely arbitrary and irrelevant). They told me that we rank them by grade, rather than capability, so how can I say that understanding is important, when we place all the value on marks. I tried to argue that an emphasis on understanding will lead to higher marks, but then I realised that we don’t evaluate for understanding (there are many reasons why teaching and evaluating understanding is Hard). Many of the assessments of these students are about their ability to memorise content and patterns of movement, which is easier for them to do than to really understand the concepts. In order for us to push the understanding agenda, we will need to change how we teach and how we assess.

Once these students graduate they will never again be assessed on their professional competency with marks. This is one of the great disconnects between physiotherapy education and real-world physiotherapy practice. In the educational context, we rank students by grades based on their ability to reproduce the things that we say are important. In the real-world, there’s no-one telling them what is important, no ranking, no grades, no tests, etc. The only indicator that has value in your profession is whether or not your patients’ quality of life goes up as a result of your intervention.

I don’t think that the solution to getting students to attend tutorials is in making them mandatory, or to grade them. I think we need to help students shift the emphasis of their studies from scoring higher marks,  towards actually understanding the concepts and ideas we’re working on. We really need to emphasise that higher marks doesn’t necessarily mean better understanding. But, in order to do that, we need to shift our teaching culture from placing such a high value on marks, and move towards emphasising the importance of deeper understanding. And not making the mistake of thinking that one is the same as the other.

education research

Research at South African universities

I just read an interesting short article discussing the research priorities of certain South African higher education institutions.  While some institutions rank highly and excel in specific areas of research, government does not seem to adequately support these institutions in terms of pushing those research agendas.

With the move towards a more scholarly approach to teaching and learning in higher education, and the concept of research-based learning gaining a foothold in academia, it’s difficult to deny that teaching and research are becoming two sides of the same coin.  While there’s still tension between finding time to participate in “pure” research and what is sometimes seen as the tedious task of undergraduate education, it seems that there may be a solution in the form of integrating research and teaching.

Here’s the link: