Achieving the impossible

Increasingly austere times are upon us, and despite a degree of ring-fencing of the education budget after the 2010 election, the future for education in the UK looks increasingly grim. Today we see further confirmation of a rumour in HE circles, that there looks likely to be a large cut in Higher Education funding in the near future. Yet to rebuild the wealth of the nation, we need to radically improve the quality of our workforce. This depends on the education, not only of the current workforce, but also of future recruits.

Not only do we have to deal with future fiscal constraints, but we also have to deal with a future in a world that is characterised by ever-increasing change and consequent levels of uncertainty. We need the ability to both learn in changing environments, and to apply the results of that learning in those changing environments.

UK learning practice suffers from systemic problems in the school education system that are centered around teachers being forced to produce students who can pass tests and exams. While doing well is not wrong, the by product of this kind of education is that children loose their natural curiosity and instead become set in a pattern of doing the minimum that they think is needed to achieve a desired grade, most often by simply reactively doing what they are told to do by a teacher. By the time learners enter HE they are fully habituated to this pattern, and most often HE only further institutionalises the problem.

Instead, we should be interested in the construction of a personally relevant learning experience for each and every learner, such that learners gain characteristics that are useful in, and lead to, social, cultural and economic development.

And while we value the existing utility provided by learning support systems, we note that they fall far short of the mark in supporting this kind of education particularly on the level of the national massification that we need. In fact, learning support systems are themselves incapable (for the forseeable future, at least) incapable of supplying this kind of education.

Could teachers and lecturers instead supply these personally relevant and meaningful learning experiences? Diana Laurillard, in her inaugural professorial lecture at the Institute of Education, points to the impossibility of teachers on their own supplying a personalised learning experience.[1] Indeed, the impossibility of supplying learners with personalised learning experiences is, in general, a self-evident truth to those of us who work in the education sector.

The only course that remains, then, is for learners to construct these learning experiences for themselves. In fact, self-directed learning is the only economically feasible means of providing a personalised and meaningful learning experience on any kind of massified scale.

What does it mean to be a self-directed learner? Essentially a self-directed (or ‘self-regulated’) learner takes control of his or her own learning, and in the process performs various metacognitive activities that involve thinking about their learning. For example, a learner might set learning goals, and then perform, monitor, replan, etc their learning activities, possibly changing their overall or intermediate learning goals in the light of ongoing learning performance and newly gained knowledge. It is hard to divorce this view of learning from learning together with other learners: Learners will learn best when applying self-directed learning as part of a group of learners who are assisting each other in learning together.

While this sounds radical in terms of the staus quo, it is important to note that the central aspects of institutional education – syllabi, assessment and formally appointed teachers – are all eminently possible within the approach. We do however recommend that the nature of assessment changes to formatively support the processes of learning and learning to be a self-directed learner.

Where is the support for socio-economic change mentioned in the first paragraph?

“Self-management of thinking, effort, and affect promotes flexible approaches to problem-solving that are adaptive, persistent, self-controlled, strategic, and goal-oriented.” [2]

These are precisely the skills that we need to deal with a changing world: Experience gained in learning within changing knowledge landscapes will create persistent transferrable skills that underpin life long learning, and life long learning skills are essential to enact the kind of change we need.

So specifically there is a proposal here, that we have to transform the learning practices of learners in higher education. This is a vast pedagogic shift that is bound to hit innumerable barriers, but one that, I posit, is inevitable if we are to successfully deal with real-world constraints on education and at the same time transform our longer-term socio-economic prospects.

So how do Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) fit into this? Whatever the brouhaha about what a PLE is, the thing that underpins and unifies the PLE movement is that it is about learners doing it for themselves; learners taking control of, directing and managing their own learning. A PLE provides the infrastructure for that kind of learning. Of course, infrastructure is only part of the solution; the other part is achieving the pedagogic revolution. This relies on students unlearning their current learning practices and adopting new practices in a guided and supported fashion.  Sometimes I privately refer to this as “achieving the impossible” when considered across the HE sector, or even within a unit as small as a three-year degree programme. There are profound impediments to achieving this that are rooted in institutional culture and practice.

But despite the barriers and my sometimes thoughts “impossibility”  I remain an optimist; there seem to be two approaches that may pay dividends. Firstly a grass roots  approach of individual university  departments committedly adopting an approach to self-directed learning and working towards this goal over several years, concentrating initially on key steps to change student learning culture. Secondly, there is a more formal funded cross-institutional approach where one could imagine a programme that plans and delivers roll-outs of materials, methods and pedagogy produced by early adopters, feeding back into the programme experience from both adopters and adoption/roll-out processes.  Neither approach provides an easy path, but given that pressures on education seem to increase unabated, the right drivers for these approaches may have arrived. And while these are likely  long-term activities where there would likely be no short-term effect on the current economic climate, I fully believe that such a programme would have profound positive implications for our national future.

[1] Laurillard, D. Digital technologies and their role in achieving our ambitions for education. Institute of Education, ISBN 978-0-85437-797-0, Feb 2008,

[2] Paris, G. and Winograd, T. The Role of Self-Regulated Learning in Contextual Teaching: Principles and Practices for Teacher Preparation,

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  1. JohnH
    Posted September 4, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    An excellent summary of where we are. Currently I’m trying to introduce the concept of the PLE into an ordinary state school and I’m on the front edge of the must pass the tests culture. One can’t easily change the current straightjacket in case it puts you personally in the firing lines if the results fail. So I’m beginning to think that the starting point is actually the staff. If they can begin to understand the PLE they already have and how they can make it work harder, then they may better understand how they could encourage the pupils to do the same.

    To give you an idea of the problem however, at a staff meeting last week only one person used Twitter over the break. Me. Someone even told me it was on its way out. I’ve found my starting point!

  2. Posted September 8, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    It’s a very hard mindset to “unlearn”, or indeed 2unteach!”. I regularly have learners tell me they don’t feel they have the time to spend on the target setting and the reflecting on their learning. They really genuinely do just want to be told “what they have to do to pass the test” It’s demoralising to have an appreication yourself of the value of self directed learning and not be able to get that across to the learners, who in theory are the ones who would benefit!

    How do you tackle getting learners to see the benefits of being more self directed?

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