14 October 2009

Of teaching, learning and frameworks: Does the frame fit?

By Associate Professor Dr Wang Su Chen

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

A recent topic in the news was the rumour that there were people with false PhDs in Malaysian universities. Happily, the rumour is largely being scotched by investigations. Of course, false qualifications need to be weeded out, but even genuine certificates need to be judged on how well a certificate reflects expertise and a readiness for work and life.

Nowadays, Malaysians get at a minimum of five or six years of schooling. Most have at least 11 or 12 years and those that go on to universities and colleges have a further three to four years of formal learning. Statisticians report figures about rising literacy and numeracy. The question is this: do the figures tell the whole story? What is happening in the classroom and lecture hall throughout the country? What kind of learning is going on? What learning processes are the thousands of young people experiencing?

Among educators today, there is a real awareness about important matters such as how best to structure programmes, how best to teach, and for the student, how best to learn; and there is a real concern about whether learners, at school or university, are developing clear thinking, reasoning and communication skills.

Take learning mathematics at university for example. Shlomo Vinner, a mathematics professor of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, has investigated the undergraduate’s problem solving behaviour and proposed a framework that makes a distinction between pseudo-conceptual behaviour and conceptual behaviour, and pseudo-analytical and analytical behaviour.

Vinner writes: “Conceptual behaviour is based on meaningful learning and conceptual understanding. It is the result of thought processes in which concepts were considered, as well as relations between concepts, ideas in which the concepts are involved, logical connections, and so on.”

Of pseudo-conceptual behaviour, Vinner says it is “a behaviour which might look like conceptual behaviour, but which in fact is produced by mental processes which do not characterize conceptual behaviour.”

Now, depending on how programs are taught and tested, it may be possible for a student to pass his or her degree course without achieving real understanding of his or her discipline; the student may not have truly acquired the kind of thinking that is typical and necessary of that discipline.

As for Vinner’s notion of pseudo-analytical behaviour, this term refers to a student’s inadequate problem-solving behaviour arising, for example, from imitation while not understanding the context of the problem.

Pseudo-learning is not the outcome that educators want. Vinner’s framework is very similar to what educationists refer to as ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ learning. Surface learning refers to superficial learning, i.e. learning that is disconnected, leads to nowhere and is without true understanding, unlike deep learning, which results in true understanding that makes meaningful connections with other parts of knowledge.

Deep learning means in-depth understanding, which is of course a highly valued outcome. Is deep learning taking place in our schools and universities? Can deep learning take place at kindergarten and school levels? Are deep learning and surface learning age-related? When an infant infers the connection between the act of pointing and the idea of nominal reference, is that deep learning or surface learning? What kind of learning is it when it learns to distinguish between pointing as naming and pointing as direction?

In seeking to characterise different levels of learning, John Biggs proposed the SOLO Taxonomy. SOLO or ‘Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes’, postulates that observed learning outcomes may be categorised into five levels: pre-structural, uni-structural, multi-structural, relational and extended abstract.

At the pre-structural level, the learner only has isolated bits of knowledge. At the uni-structural level, the learner is able to make a few simple connections between some bits of knowledge. At the multi-structural level, the learner sees connections between most of the bits and is able to classify or combine them. When the learner reaches the relational level, he or she now understands the significance of the different parts of knowledge in relation to the whole concept. At the highest level, the extended abstract, the learner is able to make links across domains of knowledge.

While the SOLO Taxonomy has been very successful in describing and simplifying much of the jungle of the teaching-learning landscape, its very success might make one forget that there are other educational models (such as deep and surface learning), some of which may be more appropriate to the type of knowledge and expertise pursued. I hope that I have not misunderstood his Taxonomy, but I am not sure that John Biggs would think that it applies to all teaching-learning situations and contexts.

Many theories come and go, with some staying longer than others. Biggs’ SOLO, while robust and longer-lasting because of its applicability, practicality and usefulness, needs to be seen in context. To put it into some kind of context, the SOLO Taxonomy is listed as one among 43 in Frameworks for Thinking: A Handbook for Teaching and Learning by David Mosely et al (Cambridge University Press, 2005); going back to the classical times would generate many, many more descriptions of learning, as learning must have preoccupied people from ancient times. How then should we use learning frameworks? As an analogy, one might perhaps think of them as shoes: the better the fit, the better.

Associate Professor Dr Wang Su Chen is Head of the School of Language and Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be contacted at swang@swinburne.edu.my.