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July 14, 2010

The reflective teacher

I have been refreshing my memory of John Bigg's book, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (2003, 2nd edition). I always find it helpful to copy out some of the content which I find most useful, thought-provoking, stimulating, etc. Below are some of the aspects I have picked out in relation to reflective practice.

Biggs, John, Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 2nd edition, Maidenhead: SRHE and Open University Press, 2003.

P20. The 3P model draws attention to three sources that might affect the learning outcome: a direct effect from the student-based factors, another direct effect from the teaching-based factors, and an interactive effect from the system as a whole. Each of these ways of determining learning forms a theory of how teaching works.

  1. Learning is a function of individual differences between students.

  2. Learning is a function of teaching.

  3. Learning is the result of students’ learning-focused activities which are engaged by students as a result both of their own perceptions and inputs, and of the total teaching context.

These different ‘theories’ of teaching are in order of complexity and sophistication, and so we refer to them as ‘levels’. They include what others call intentions or conceptions (Trigwell and Prosser 1996).

Teachers tend to hold these theories at different points in their teaching career, some progressing to level 3, others staying at levels 1 or 2. They describe a sequence in the development of teaching skill: a route map towards reflective teaching, if you like, where the level at which you operate depends on what you focus on as most important.


Level 1. Focus: what the student is

At level 1, teaching is held constant—it is transmitting information, usually by lecturing—so differences in learning are due to differences between students in ability, motivation, what sort of school they went to. Ability is usually seen as the most important factor.

Level 2. Focus: what the teacher does

This view of teaching is still based on transmission, but of concepts and understandings not jus of information. The responsibility for ‘getting it across’ now rests to a significant extent on what the teacher does. The possibility is entertained that there may be more effective ways of teaching than what one is currently doing. Learning is seen as more a function of what the teacher is doing than of what sort of student one has to deal with.

Level 3. Focus: what the student does.

Teachers at level 3 focus on all the components in the systems, in particular on what the student does at process and product, and how that relates to teaching. Level 3 sees teaching as supporting learning. No longer is it possible to say: ‘I taught them, but they didn’t learn.’ Expert teaching includes mastery over a variety of teaching techniques, but unless learning takes place, they are irrelevant: the focus is on what the student does, on what learning is or is not going on.


A reflective teacher starts with three important components:

  1. Experience. You cannot reflect on a blank slate.

  2. Deep content knowledge. You cannot teach effectively if you don’t know your subject content very well indeed.

  3. A level 3 theory of teaching. As a level 3 teacher you say: ‘Why aren’t they learning? How can I get them to be relevantly active? That is the sort of theory we want here, one that focuses on what the student does. This is a cyclical process; you keep looking at what they do, what they achieve, and link that with what you are doing. You get to know your students as learners very well.

There are several outcomes:

  1. Teaching is enhanced, eventually. You may need several goes at the problem.

  2. Experience is enriched. Each go at the problem adds to your store of experiences

  3. The teaching theory is enriched. Using the theory in action makes you realize which aspects of the theory work and which do not.


There are three questions that the teacher, to be reflective, needs to ask:

  1. What is my espoused theory of teaching?

  2. Is my current practice in keeping with my theory? How can my theory help me teach more effectively?

  3. What, within myself or in my context, is preventing me from teaching the way I should be teaching?


We are back at the two faces of good teaching:

  1. Promoting those factors that support the deep approach, which we now know to be about getting students to be relevantly active, and constructive alignment is a good way of doing that.

  2. Eliminating those factors that support the surface approach, which were discussed in Chapter 4.


Further steps. We will use an action learning structure to define and then attack your problem.

  1. Defining the problem. … The issue is what the students are doing: are they doing what you don’t want them to do, or not doing what you do want them to do?
    So the first step is to reflect on the problem, using the constructive alignment theory in Chapter 2, which addresses both students’ learning behaviour, and the design of your teaching. Examine your problem in these terms, hypothesize as to the possible reasons for it, and possible solutions. The process can be made much easier with the help of a ‘critical friend; (see below).

  2. Implementing a change

  3. Monitoring the change
    Before putting the change into effect, you need to decide how you are going to make sure that what you are proposing to do will be effective. It is necessary to observe systematically what is going on, to know where you and/or the student behaviour started from, and where it ends up after the change has been implemented.

  4. Fine tuning.
    Action learning recycles: you try something, see if it works, then try again with a slight variation. You will be unlikely to get something as complex as teaching right first time, so it is a matter of looking back over your observations, after you have implemented the change you had decided to make, and see how things are going. Did matters improve? If not, or if not enough, what might have been the problem?

  5. The role of critical friend
    Reflection is often not best carried out alone. You have been living with the problem possibly for some time and may be the last person to find out about it.

I like Biggs' general approach, although sometimes I find him a little sweeping and over enthusiastic in the presentation of his position and views. He bases a lot of his argument on Marton and Saljo's notion of Deep and Surface level learning, which again I have a lot of respect for and, indeed, have turned to and used in my own publications (see elsewhere in this blog). However, I am surprised that Biggs appears to dismiss surface level learning altogether. It seems to me that both are important, and that Deep learning on its own, while almost certainly of a greater 'quality', however one would like to define that, is inadequate. We need to have a grasp of content, to be able to remember facts and figures, to store information and knowledge, and be able to reproduce it. The risk with a Deep approach to teaching and learning that Biggs advocates is that we sacrifice this dimension, or at least downplay it to the point of it no longer playing the role it should. I would favour an approach which emphasises both dimensions. (As I write this, I am reminded of a paper I think Biggs himself wrote about the 'Brainy Asian'. In it, he reported on a research project he and others had conducted which investigated why it was that a small group of Chinese learners appeared to do much better academically and intellectually than both their peers and most Westerners. His interest was spurred by the fact that Chinese education was principally by rote learning (and therefore tended to foster a surface approach to learning) while Western education systems valued and practised learning from experience and reflection (fostering a deep 'meaningful' approach). The 'Brainy Asians' somehow managed to bring both approaches together with the result that they were far better learners and developed in an exceptional manner. How ironic that this message doesn't come through in his book, even though he does explore aspects of it in his chapter on Teaching International Students! Unless, of course, I've got it wrong somewhere...)

Secondly, although I think I concur with Biggs' statement that experience is indispensible to the process of reflection, it does beg the question of what that means for new and inexperienced teachers and lecturers. I suppose everyone has the experience of being at the 'learning' end of the teacher-learner relationship and so has that experience to draw on, but I really can't agree with the implication of his assertion for 'beginners'.

I guess I would place myself as a Level 3 teacher, in Biggs' hierarchy. I am very much a facilitator, someone who does focus on what the student does, yet I am aware too of weaknesses that I want to strengthen. Maybe my comments about surface learning relate to these, since I don't have a good memory, can find it hard to recall facts and content, and can be unconfident about my 'deep knowledge' of the subject matter (although in reality that is not the case). For me, the biggest challenge to come out of this reading is Biggs' assertion that teachers need to be:

...clear about:

1. What it means to 'understand' content in the way we want it to be understood';

2. What kind of teaching/learning activities are required to reach those kinds of understandings.

Now I have a lot to go and reflect on!

December 17, 2009

ALeC to ES Dec 17th 09

Follow-up to ES to ALeC Dec 17th 09 from Alison's blog

Dear Eric,

I am delighted, once again, to hear from you. Please don’t worry about offending or upsetting me. You won’t, because I too can sense that you too are genuinely concerned to reflect and dialogue candidly and openly. Thank you.

I will need time to digest what you express, so won’t try to engage too much with the content of your email here and now. I am off on holiday tomorrow evening for the Christmas period and will appreciate the space to return to what you say and think it through. If I remember rightly, you were also articulating something of the same in the THES discussion. Instinctively I think you have an excellent point, although I equally instinctively want to respond by suggesting that reflection on teaching and one’s own role as an educator is equally as appropriate as reflecting on the learning that is taking place. Teaching and learning are partners in dialogue (that word again!) and I suppose I have exposed my reflection on my role in my blog and paid less attention to the learners’ learning primarily because I think I have a responsibility to self-examine, have experienced success in changing my practice resulting in better learning taking place, and in a public forum such as a blog I don’t want to second guess, perhaps erroneously, what is going on with my learners. That’s why I am so keen that they speak for themselves.

Your comments remind me of the position taken by Marton and Booth in their 1997 volume ‘Learning and Awareness’ where they argue very much for a study of the process of learning that begins with and focuses on the learners themselves, rather than on the internal/external interaction of teaching and learning. In a previous email you ask whether I am familiar with Rogers. Yes, of course, and Dewey, and many others to whom a student-centred approach to teaching and learning owes much. I agree that Rogers probably over eggs his pudding; Dewey too, undoubtedly, and many would consider that the thinking of these great educationalists had an adverse effect on British schools and schooling during the 60s and 70s. I come from a strong background in distance- and e-learning, together with 5 years of teaching English as a Foreign Language in Spain and France (with commensurate training and qualifications) and eventually did my PhD in Adult Education. I focused on how a particular subject discipline (theology) influences the way in which students learn.

I have taken the liberty of copying and pasting all our emails into my blog. Please do let me know if you are uncomfortable with that. I can easily edit every post.

I would be interested to hear more about you. Where are you based, and what is your background?

Best wishes


ES to ALeC Dec 17th 09

Follow-up to ALeC to ES Dec 15th 09 from Alison's blog

Dear Alison,

Many thanks for your recent e-mail. It was nice to hear from you.

First, and in reply to your question, I confirm that you are welcome to quote me in your blog. That comment also holds for this email if you so wish.

Second, your e-mail puts me into a dilemma. On the one hand, I warm to your candid and open manner. But, on the other hand, your manner tends to encourage a more than usually honest response, and I fear that you might find my response annoying, condescending, offensive, upsetting or absurd. On reflection - or perhaps it is something else - I think I will choose the latter option, because I sense that you may well find my response absurd.

I have read your email several times, and it strengthens my impression that you are deeply and honestly concerned with your teaching, and its effects on your students. But I believe that there is also a fundamental and very common error in the position that you take. Perhaps I might be permitted to try to convey what I have in mind with an analogy. I believe that the approach that you - and, in my experience, most educationalists - take, is like a person who wishes to understand the movement of tides and does so by measuring the salinity of the water.

I write like this because it appears from almost everything you have written that your focus is on teaching, and I believe that such a focus is at best on a secondary matter, and more often than not deeply misleading. I believe that the latter is the case because only a moment of reflection indicates that teaching has the aim of fostering learning; and, if that is the case, teaching is merely a tool towards encouraging a far larger aim, namely, learning. And if that is the case, it follows that a teacher’s focus should be on learning. It then further follows that a focus on teaching - understandable in egocentric terms - tends to blind a teacher to implications of the foregoing simple facts.

I have also found that when teachers begin to focus on learning, many of their concerns about their teaching diminish. It is as if, when one focuses on learning, teaching takes care of itself. Or I could say that I have found that, when teachers focus on learning, their concerns tend to change almost radically.

For example, as there is no serious difference between studying learning and studying physiology - or any other mental process, and indeed any other subject - concerns about not being condescending tend to be no stronger in the teaching of teaching that in the teaching of any other discipline. In the same way, the problem of imparting knowledge in a non-didactic manner becomes a problem in the teaching of all disciplines, especially factual ones. And perhaps most important of all, one's focus shifts from what one is doing, to what one's students are doing; and when that happens, one begins to see that much of the talk about being a reflective practitioner is generated by what happens to be fashionable, - as is so often the case in education.

At risk of sounding fanciful, I'll add that I believe that a preoccupation with being ‘a reflective practitioner’ is also, to a considerable extent, one more manifestation of the cult of the individual that is endemic in the West. From such a perspective, one might also see that a concern with being a reflective practitioner can slide very easily and very often into self-indulgence.

I've done my best to express my position as briefly and simply as I can, and past experience suggests that I am very unlikely to have been persuasive. And it is of course also the case that I may well be wrong.

Lastly, I very much hope that you sense that I do not write in order to criticise you. That is not remotely my intention. On the contrary. As I've noted, I much admire your candour, and I have largely written as I have in response to this.

   With very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,


ALeC to ES Dec 15th 09

Follow-up to Dialogue with Sotto from Alison's blog

I replied:

Dear Eric,

I am delighted to hear from you and very honoured to receive feedback. Thank you. My first inclination was to copy and paste some, if not all of your comments, into my blog, and if you choose not to do that yourself, may I ask your permission to do so? Your points are entirely pertinent, although I would like clarification about point (2). I also hope you noticed that while I 'accused' you (respectfully, in intention, if not conveyed adequately in tone) of having been 'verbose', I also recognised and affirmed your correct, perceptive and valid comments on the THES blog. Your contribution was vital and significant.

You are entirely correct about the role of teaching and communicating content (point 1). It is something I reflect on vigorously and am hugely aware of my discomfort in this area. I am constantly wrestling to find what I consider an adequate balance as well as appropriate means of informing the people who attend my workshops and courses about the scholarship of teaching and learning; it is something which I was working on this very afternoon as I led a workshop on Assessment Practice and Strategies and I came away dissatisfied with the approach I had taken. I have committed myself to writing a pre-workshop blogpost and then a post-workshop blogpost, so will be writing on that within the next day or two.

Thank you too for the encouragement to keep on posting. My aim is to model reflective practice, despite the fact that I may not model it perfectly. It is the prime way that I have chosen to handle the lived-out behaviour that was articulated in writing in the THES paper. I hope that participants will read my pre- and post-session reflections and understand so much more not only about how I decide to impart content, but also about classroom management, and hence how my pedagogy is consciously designed to meet a whole variety of needs. It's early days, but so far so good; behaviour in my sessions has improved enormously and feedback is excellent. The next step is to get participants themselves to contribute to the blog. The first did so today! So I hope to construct a bigger community of reflective practitioners...

Here am I being verbose in my turn: your point exactly! Ah well...

With very best wishes


Dialogue with Sotto

This blog has attracted the attention of Eric Sotto, a respected and experienced educational developer and author. I feel privileged to engage in dialogue with him. He has given permission for me to copy our email correspondence into the blog.

He first wrote me with the following email:

Dear Alison,

I've just come across your blog, and thought you might like to have a few general responses.

1) Much of what you write is on how to avoid a conventional teacher/student situation, and the allied question of how to encourage a collaborative atmosphere in a classroom in which everyone feels inclined to participate. I warm to such wishes, but believe that you omit a consideration of something essential. This is that learning is not only a matter of debating, but also a matter of taking in factual information. Although I did not read all the earlier entries in your blog, I did not find any consideration of this essential matter. In short, how are factual matters, and especially the matter of scholarly evidence, to be brought to the attention of students in a non-didactic manner?

2) Your entries strongly convey that you not only believe in but also practice honest reflection. It also so happens that I am personally strongly attracted to such a quality. However, it seems to me that your focus on honest reflection eventually results in the neglect of an attempt also to view the matter under consideration in as objective a manner as is possible. Indeed, I note with respect and affection that your focus on honest reflection sometimes leads to what a critical person might consider self-indulgence.

3) You often mention student centred learning, but I have the impression - it can be no more - that you are not closely acquainted with the originator, Carl Rogers, of this notion. Among other things, the position that Rogers advocates is at odds with the requirement for knowledge to be assessed by objective criteria; and his focus is so completely on the individual, that he tends to ignore the needs of a community.

4) I thought your comments on what I sought to do in that debate posted in the THE plain unkind. My first responses were, I believe, succinct, but I had so much flak and rubbish thrown at me by the great majority of participants that I thought I must respond as best as I can. I also believe that in your blog you are often guilty of that of which you accuse me. But this item is of course not very important.

5) Lastly, I do hope you will continue to express your concerns on this matter of teaching and learning! The topic is of course very important.

Kind regards, Eric Sotto

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