This essay discusses key approaches to learning which have importance for community education and tries to identify how one could develop the use of these during the time at university. Following wide research in academic literature a clear concept should emerge. It has two main parts; the first one, after a brief definition of learning, focuses on key approaches to learning, their strengths and weaknesses, and their importance for community education as a higher education program as well as profession. The second, more reflective part, will look at how these could be developed during my university studies.
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Each part is broken down into smaller units which will touch on the phenomenon of Learning, Approaches to Learning, Community Education and the Development of Approaches in Higher Education. It will look at how those are related and what is their significance for community education. As there is extensive amount of literature available on each one of these subjects this essay an introduction to these rather than than an exhaustive account. However as a result of this work a clear understanding of the position of approaches to learning within community education and the ways of their utilisation and development should emerge.
Even though there is lots of material available on subject of learning, it seems that this term is largely misunderstood, often used instead of the word teaching or in the narrow sense of formal education as the process through which learners acquire new knowledge and skills. There is another factor which complicates defining learning; Moon (2006) states in A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: Theory and practice that it is a lack of vocabulary that complicates this issue; some languages 'do not distinguish between teaching and learning, having the same word for both (e.g. Russian)'. (Moon, 2006, p.12)
It is almost impossible to define learning without using the word itself or words like learner. However in terms of community education learning can be defined as a constant, 'social, interactive and constructionist process'(Burns and Sinfield, 2008, p.50) which takes place regardless of the presence of educator, it is a process in which one is 'gathering new ideas and information, recording them, organising them, making sense of them, remembering them, using them' (Devine 1987 as cited in Burns and Sinfield, 2008, p.50) as well as deepening understanding of prior knowledge which will consequently bring a change. Therefore 'we should no longer assiduously acquire knowledge once and for all, but learn how to build up a continually evolving body of knowledge all through life- "learn to be". (Faure et. al., 1972:vi).' (Tett, 2010, p.34).
Approaches to learning
Biggs (1987, 1989) proposes that students seek congruence between their learning motives and strategies in a particular context. Thus an approach to learning can be understood as a process of students devising learning strategies to solve the challenges their motives have defined for them. (Wilson and Fowler, 2005, p.88)
As quote suggests approaches to learning are a combination of motives for learning and strategies or methods used in the learning process. There were several studies focused on the phenomenon of students' approaches to learning. The original research was carried out by Marton and Saljo in Sweden in the early 1970s, but in addition to this there were almost parallel studies by John Biggs in Australia, Entwistle in England and others around the world. As a result of these findings three approaches have been identified. These are surface approach, deep approach and achieving/ strategic approach to learning which are recognised independently by numerous researchers, although the terminology originated with Marton and Saljo (Beckwith, 1991).
Students adapting the surface approach were described as ones who tend to concentrate on absorbing as much information as necessary, memorising material and not reflecting on it and see learning as something that happens to them. Biggs (1987, 1990) suggested that motivation of these students is extrinsic e.g. external conditions and pressure; where the student tries to meet given requirements and balance between working too hard and failing. This presents itself in the lack of a critical view of material, where content of learning has not been questioned and there are no connections made between learnt material and previous learning or knowledge, its purposes and structure. The student looks to simply reproduce material as evidence of learning; focusing on what appears to be the most important topic or element and does not see interconnections between these (Biggs, 1991). A consequence of this approach may be superficial learning, where the learner might have difficulty to apply what he or she learnt in different conditions or structures. This type of learning is possibly a result of low interest in the material, or perhaps because learners believe that this is the proper way of learning. It may also be the result of a state of anxiety or pressure, for example in learning for assessment situation as suggested by Moon (2004).
Students who develop the deep approach to their learning are likely to be interested in the topic or material they are learning and see themselves as an active part of learning process. The motive behind their learning is to actualize interest and to gain an understanding of a particular subject; their motivation is intrinsic coming from inside (Biggs, 1990, 1991). These students relate learnt content to previous knowledge; adapt a critical view of material and question its logic and argument (Moon, 2004). They also draw connections to their own experiences, looking for practical examples as well as applications in the real world. While theorising about a subject, generalising it and drawing out hypothesis', searching for meaning and conclusions they tend to put new knowledge or deeper understanding of previous learning into the bigger picture. Their study behaviour is usually marked by wide reading, reflecting on what one reads and hears; engaging in discussion with teachers and other students, and the like (Biggs, 1991). Students adapting the surface approach are more able to demonstrate their understanding and creative in problem solving. In his article Learning Approach and Outcome: Some Empirical Observations, Saljo (1991) states findings of his research on approaches to learning. His experimental session started with interviews, in which participants were to describe how they experience their own learning. The point he makes is that 'the subjects themselves introduced this (surface and deep) kind of distinction in the interview' (Saljo, 1981, p.53). The subjects whose outcome was the deep approach made it clear in all cases that in their view there were significant differences between learning as an active process and memorizing. In their view, trying to "understand", "comprehend", "grasp the meaning" and on the whole to think and reflect actively on what they hear and read was a necessary part and the true purpose to learning. They did not understand learning as mere reproduction of learnt material but as a process in which they try to relate what they read, hear or see with what they previously know and then inject meaning into what they are learning.
Moon (2004, p.60) states that 'in the later work by Biggs in Australia and at Lancaster University another approach to learning was identified... labelled the achieving approach or strategic approach.' The difference between the two aforementioned approaches and the achieving approach is that the surface as well as the deep approach are more closely linked with quality of learning whereas the achieving approach focuses more on how to undertake the task with the aim of succeeding especially in an assessment situation (Biggs, 1991) and (Moon 2004). Students using the achieving approach are highly competitive, motivated by performing well and obtaining the highest grades regardless of whether or not they are interested in the learnt material. They are referred to by Biggs (1985) as 'model students' as they are highly organised and self- disciplined, keeping clear notes, following up all suggested readings, allowing appropriate time to the task given, using time management and schedule planning skills in their learning linked to their perception of importance of the studied material. They are also likely to use one or both of the aforementioned approaches in their learning strategy, creating surface- achieving or deep- achieving approach. There seems to be plenty of evidence, says Moon (2004), that modern learners in higher education need to be strategic especially in modules where they are faced with frequent assessments.
Strong lines are drawn here between surface and deep approaches to illustrate clear differences between them. However this distinction is stereotypical and therefore there are cases in which it does not demonstrate itself in practice. Memorising itself, as some studies suggest, does not mean that student has a surface approach to learning. It is often viewed as such in western culture but in Asian students it is more a question of gaining the understanding 'building up stage by stage' Marton and Booth (as cited in Moon, 2004, p.61). Another example could be actors learning their lines and later interpreting them in the character they are playing, or students memorising new vocabulary in order to better understand foreign language.
Also one student does not adopt one approach constantly. We could say that every student has his or her preferred approach but in some cases 'approaches students use in practice are influenced by personal and situational factors' Wilson and Fowler (2010, p.88). Students might see the deep approach to learning as desirable but may be unable to use it and could slip into the surface approach if pressed by time, work load or if the environment he or she works in is too noisy for instance. The same is the case for students using predominantly the surface approach to learning, who might adapt the deep approach if the task demands it, e.g. surface approach will not be sufficient in writing reflective essays.
It would therefore appear that there are many influencing factors on which approach to learning students use.
As suggested earlier, learners usually use more than one approach to learning throughout their lives. However findings of the studies (try to back up with actual studies and dates) on this matter are showing evidence in favour of deep approach. Results of researches linked low performance scores to students who used the surface approach where the scores of those using the deep and achieving approaches were significantly higher. Kember and Gow (date) see encouraging students to adapt the deeper approach as 'the key task for higher education.' (as cited in Wilson and Fowler, date.)
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What significance do approaches to learning have for community education? Looking at community education as a higher education course in general it is obvious that the approach to learning adopted by students will influence the study experience and its results. Therefore the chosen approach could affect individuals' views on community education and its practice. Selecting the learning approach with the best results would certainly help students succeed in their chosen course and prepare for future employment.
'Community education's primary purpose is education within and for communities... encouraging and engaging people throughout life into learning that is based on what they are interested in.' (Tett, 2010, p.1). However providing services and meeting the needs merely on a surface level would not be effective. Keeping issues of individuals and communities isolated, engaging them in leisure, learning and action opportunities without considering 'their personal, social, economic and political needs' (CeVe 1990:2 as cited by Smith) would be only a partial and temporary solution.
Within this field there is a great demand for critical and reflective practice, making links between learning, development, socio-cultural, economical and political issues and thus sustaining the deep approach not only to learning but to practice as well.
'The work of community educators, whether their focus is on young people, adults or community capacity building will always concentrate on purposeful learning and education in communities designed to bring about change.'(Tett, 2010,p.106). And through this practice to provide the learning which will 'contribute to a more robust and active citizenry through enabling people to review more critically and creatively the values and workings of society and developing tolerance of diversity and difference' (Tett, 2010, p.51).
Practitioners whose preferred approach to learning is the deep approach have a potential to motivate individuals and communities to reflective and critical thinking about whatever situation they are in, equipping them with needed strategies to address those issues, which will help them to be more independent and active participants in society.
Development of Approaches to Learning
Wilson and Fowler (2005)
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