I have always enjoyed learning and have benefitted from good teaching throughout my education. But my own approach to learning probably made it quite easy for my teachers to teach me. I could self-direct my studies, delve deep into a subject with minimal guidance, absorb and apply information relatively easily.
As I start to reflect on my actions as a teacher and, perhaps, my “teaching style”, it’s useful to consider whether I have a specific “learning style” that predisposes me to teach in a particular way or to be more successful with some students than others. Frank Coffield et al (2011) offer an interesting analysis of a range of “learning styles” in existing research. But ultimately they remain sceptical of the usefulness of any exercise which attempts to categorise students in this way (although it can be very useful to those seeking to market ways to exploit “learning styles.”) There seems to be no strong evidence to suggest that students learn better if they are taught according to their “style.”
As Frank Coffield et al (2011) describe, critics of “learning style” theory point to all the other influences that affect our ability to learn something.
Indeed, if we nail our colours to the “learning styles” mast, we cannot grow. In the real world, we have to adapt our approach to learning to each new situation rather than expecting a situation to adapt to our style.
I strongly believe that, as we mature, we find many different ways to compensate for our weaknesses and exploit our strengths with the result that any signs of an innate “learning style” are hidden under layers of learning experience.
However, dismissing learning style theory does not mean we should assume all our students are the same and this is an important part of my journey on this module.
Because of my own experience of learning, I had assumptions about Higher Education as an exalted place of extreme learning. I was actually quite disappointed with the reality. People didn’t wander round with their heads in books or have erudite conversations around the tea urn. I deliberately chose options on my course (Russian) that were deemed “difficult” because what was the point otherwise? I would rather fail a difficult exam than pass an easy one. So education was fun and pleasurable and always rewarding. I received praise as a result.
BUT this experience actually left a very important gap in my education. I never learnt how to fail well. This gap only manifested itself as a problem once I left academia. If I made errors at work (inevitable) or found I wasn’t particularly good at something I needed to be good at, I found this very difficult to cope with. I felt a total failure and all past academic achievements were meaningless and a cruel deception. I had obviously never been any good at anything and never would be!
This is a completely emotional reaction and when I write it down I can see it is irrational but I find I do get stuck on the emotional element of the reflective cycle when things go wrong. I’m unable to get past it to evaluate rationally, analyse and form an action plan as described in the Gibbs cycle of reflection. I’m concerned this could be a problem as I reflect on my teaching and I need to work on a strategy. I’m hoping peer support, practice and further engagement with the literature will give me the tools to do this.
So my own experience of education creates a contradiction now that I find myself in a teaching role. It’s useful to consider it in the context of the “Robert and Susan Problem” as defined by John Biggs and Catherine Tang (2011). I fully identify with the Susans in that I am “academically committed” (Biggs and Tang, 2011 p3) and I expect students at degree level to be like me. I am therefore frustrated that I also have to find a way of teaching Robert who is “at university simply to obtain a good job” (Biggs and Tang, 2011, p3).
At the same time, I am slightly envious of the Roberts. Robert understands failure as part of the process of achieving his goals. I know many Roberts who have been highly successful in their professional lives precisely because of their rational, pragmatic approach. So whilst I would like Robert to acquire some of Susan’s natural learning attributes, I also think he brings something of value to the learning space and we shouldn’t focus too hard on trying to transform him into a Susan. I think this is an important part of respecting individual learners and the diversity of the learning community as defined in the UK PSF Professional Values. The challenge for me is to learn and experiment with ways of engaging Robert and Susan. Biggs and Tang (2011) argue that “teaching that requires active engagement by students decreases the gap between Susan and Robert.” (p.3) I am already trying to incorporate more activity-based learning into my lesson plans and I will be keen to reflect on how those sessions go and how they compare with last year’s teaching.
Another problem for me as I started to teach rather than do journalism is that there is a certain prejudice in professional newsrooms against the idea of being taught journalism in a university. “Journalists are born, not made. You learn on the job” – is the prevailing attitude. So there is a constant pressure to make my teaching relevant and valuable. So I work hard to keep across industry developments in keeping with the Core Knowledge element of the UK PSF K1, 2, 3 by following key thinkers in the field, subscribing to blogs, following conferences online. Similarly, I follow the work of key “hackademics” who are pushing the boundaries of what journalism education should be about in the social media age. This is an ongoing process but as a result of the PGCAP, I am now inspired to learn about the underlying theories of HE education as well and find ways of applying that knowledge to help resolve the dilemmas of how one should teach journalists.
Another reason for the prejudice against journalism schools in some quarters is that journalism education itself can be highly conservative and protective. As Mark Deuze (2006) described it, “the status quo in the industry is the ideal one, hence newcomers only need to internalise what their senior peers already do” (p.21).
There is a call for massive change in journalism education, especially in the US. This was explored in a series of articles from leading educators writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab (part of a project at Harvard University) at the start of this academic year. The Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton contributed an article urging “creative disruption” in journalism schools.
“Universities must be willing to destroy and recreate themselves to be part of the future of news. They should not leave that future to technologists alone. Journalism and communication schools must begin to change radically and constantly.”
(Eric Newton: Nieman Journalism Lab, Sep 2012)
All this is a huge challenge but it can be overwhelming. I will need to constantly evaluate the extent to which my teaching meets the new demands rather than falling into comfortable routines. But I am aware that I mustn’t lose sight of core journalism skills in pursuit of trendy gimmicks.
I find it hard to think of my strengths as a teacher at present because I am so new to the role. I like to think that I bring enthusiasm. I work hard to try to think of engaging activities. I put a great deal of effort into individual feedback on course assessments which is focused to student needs. I avoid saying “that’s wrong” and instead always suggest an improvement and tell the student what the difference is. I feel I have gained experience in the first three Areas of Activity as defined in the UK PSF.
As I analyse my learning needs on the PGCAP, I think I need to really focus on the learning outcomes of the modules I teach and get students to do that as well. This will help me to guide my lesson plans and also operate as a sort of contract with the students – or a route map we travel together – which will take them to a clearly defined learning goal. This should enable students (Roberts and Susans!) to evaluate their progress and learning needs throughout the module.
I need to work towards greater understanding of the Professional Values as defined in the UK PSF which I had not considered before. This will be a key aim in these early weeks of the PGCAP. This will enable me to constantly develop my teaching practice.
I realise I need to learn more from the relevant literature about how students learn and appropriate methods for teaching in accordance with the Core Knowledge requirements of the UK PSF. Achieving this will help me evaluate my own practice and devise a variety of ways to engage students in learning. This is important given the increasing diversity of the student cohort.
So, plenty to be getting on with!
Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall E., Ecclestone K. (2011) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Retrieved from http://www.leerbeleving.nl/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/learning-styles.pdf
Biggs, J, & Tang, C (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed), Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Society for Research into Higher Education/Open University.
Mark Deuze (2006): GLOBAL JOURNALISM EDUCATION, Journalism Studies, 7:1, 19-34
Nieman Journalism Lab (Sep 2012) : Eric Newton: Journalism Schools aren’t changing quickly enough. Retrieved from http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/09/eric-newton-journalism-schools-arent-changing-quickly-enough/