Tony Gurr

Not all LEARNing is created equal!

In Our Schools, Our Universities, The Paradigm Debate on 23/02/2012 at 1:27 am


Stay out of school (Margaret Mead quote) Ver 03


Maybe it’s because I’m a “Brit” – but I never really got the “Immortal Declaration” and it’s not just because we were not allowed to finish our Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches at a certain “tea party” way back in 1773.

It’s also not about the fact that some of the Founding Fathers wanted to “hang onto” their slaves while penning the phrase “all men are created equal” – and took almost another 75 years to realise that perhaps the declaration should cover women, too…


OK, OK – we Brits didn’t do a great job on the issue of women’s suffrage either and our women had to burn down the Prime Minister’s house and get themselves trampled by the King’s horse before they were allowed to vote on the same terms as men!

Tony…get back to LEARNing! …NOW!


It’s just that the Immortal Declaration ain’t truewe are not created equally.



Just as LEARNing is not created equally in our schools, colleges and universities


OK…he’s back on track!


For many years (and far too many words) I have been asking why it is that our educational institutions cannot evidence the LEARNing they “create”and why most do not even try!

I’m not talking about standardised test scoresthese frequently do little more than evidence the lack of real LEARNing in our schools. And, I’m certainly not talking about the way “top universities” cream off the best high school students and then take credit for “results” they had little to do with.

I’m talking about the real “added LEARNing value” that schools produce. Very few…and I mean VERY few educational institutions can do this.


For me, institutions and teachers can usually produce one of four types of LEARNing:

4 types of LEARNing Ver 03


We know this – we all know teachers who manage (consistently) to get that little extra from the students and groups they LEARN with, teachers who change lives…and we also know teachers who do not!


Now, some of you may look at these and say “Tony, aren’t all these more associated with the learning styles and preferences of students themselves”?

True – but the purpose of an educational institution is to “produce” (or “co-create”) LEARNing. So, I’m guessing it’s pretty fair to ask these institutions to tell us what type of LEARNing they “really” produce. Besides, we all know that what we DO says more about us than what we SAY we DO – and evidencing what we DO is a basic prerequisite of quality assurance, isn’t it?


Most of you will have got your heads around the DEEP and SURFACE varieties by taking a look at (for starters) at the work of Marton and Säljö (1976) and a whole pile of related research papers that you can’t even remember (says a lot, yes?). And, while we all might know that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to LEARN – we recognise that the former is all about “real understanding” and “LEARNing for the future”, while the latter focusses on “acceptance” of established information and facts (and perhaps, shock-horror, “memorisation”).


Research into DEEP LEARNing, for example, tells us that many of its characteristics are:

  • Looking for meaning
  • Focusing on central ideas and arguments
  • Active interaction
  • The ability to distinguish between evidence and argument
  • Making numerous connections
  • Relating new knowledge and ideas to previous knowledge
  • Linking classroom learning to real-life


However, if we only look at DEEP and SURFACE LEARNing as “approaches to study” by students themselves – we actually come up with a neat little “get-out-of-jail-free card” and can abdicate all responsibility for LEARNing by simply “blaming” students for any form of “failure” that crops up. Basically, we can turn around and say all these characteristics are the things that students have to / should “do” themselves (in order to be successful) – and if not…hey, we did our “best” with “bad” tools!

Most other business organisations and companies would give their right arms for a “trick” like this!


The question remains:

How do most students LEARN these approaches to LEARNing?


Students are not “born” with the ability to relate new knowledge to old. There is no “gene” that fires up and allows students to relate classroom LEARNing to the “real world” – they LEARN this stuff from their LEARNing experiences, they LEARN this from “schools”!

They also LEARN this from how we TEACH them (over years and years), the LEARNing experiences we design for them and they way we reward them – as teachers.



The potential of education to make a real, meaningful difference to the lives of students is well-known to teachers familiar with the work of Dewey (even more so if you know a bit about Aristotle, Plato, and Confucius). But, it was Jack Mezirow that really flagged the need for institutions and educators to focus more on  TRANSFORMATIONAL LEARNingDEEP LEARNing on steroids!

Yes, a lot of his work was directed at “adult” LEARNing – I’ll give you that. But, what school teacher worth her salt does not think about the need for critical reflection, self-knowledge, autonomy, participation, and communication (not to mention “humanism”, “emancipation” and “equity”) in the classroom?

What school principal would stand up and say (publically) that she is not interested in creating “educational experiences” that develop critical and autonomous thinking in all students and allow them continuously evolve their “meaning schemes” (specific beliefs, attitudes, and emotional reactions) and engage in on-going “perspective transformation” that makes them better learners, better people (mummies and daddies, especially) and better citizens?

OK – they might not use those actual words but you get the idea.


TRANSFORMATIONAL LEARNing is what we know (in our heart of hearts) education should be about. I mean isn’t the point of all education supposed to be about making REAL differences to the lives (and futures) of REAL people (even “little” people)…

The sad truth is that many schools, colleges and universities say this is the “business” they are in – few can prove it.


The forth type of LEARNing is an interesting one – interesting because it is not discussed a great deal. A second cousin of SURFACE LEARNing it is also another “extreme“– but an extreme that is more common that we would imagine.

SUPERFICIAL LEARNing was coined (and “trademarked” – WTH) by Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2004) and, as you may imagine, it also has a number of characteristics:

  • Reliance on rote learning or memorisation
  • Passive reception of information
  • Few, or no, connections made to previous knowledge
  • Focus on formulae needed to solve problems
  • Course content viewed simply as material to be learnt for examinations


However, it is not the characteristics per se that expose SUPERFICIAL LEARNing for what it is – but rather, according to Cohen et al., what this variety of LEARNing tends to be encouraged by;

  • Excessive amounts of material and inert, discrete knowledge as facts
  • An excessive amount of material in the curriculum
  • Relatively high class-contact hours
  • Lack of opportunity to pursue subjects in depth
  • Lack of choice of subjects and methods of study
  • Cynical or conflicting messages about rewards
  • Poor or absent feedback on progress
  • Fear of failure, and, therefore, attempts to avoid failure
  • Lack of independence in studying
  • Lack of interest in, and background knowledge of, the subject matter
  • Assessment methods that create anxiety and that emphasise recall or application of trivial knowledge – rather than asking students to apply understanding
  • Lack of reflective analysis of learning and assessments


Now, I’m not sure if you would agree with me – but as I look at this list, I see many of the things that schools systems, institutions and teachers “do to students” and far fewer “approaches to study” (on the part of students).


I get that many institutions cannot “prove” the LEARNing they produce in students (but more should try). It’s tough to break habits we have had since the 7th Century!

However, every single school (and system), college and university could look at how it “does business” – to gain a better idea of what type of LEARNing it is really all about – and perhaps start thinking about what it needs to UNlearn and RElearn before playing the “get-out-of-jail-free card”.


TEACHers, too…


We are, after all, the most powerful determinant of the type of LEARNing produced by our institutions!


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