10 advantages of self-directed learners in the workplace

There is evidence that, in the workplace, self-directed learners…

1. adapt to changes in their environments better

Guglielmino, L. (1977). Development of the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale. Dissertation Abstracts International, 38, 6467.

2. remain resilient in the face of challenges and obstacles

Zsiga, P.L. (2008). Self-directed learning in directors of a US nonprofit organization. International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, 5(2), 35–49.

3. demonstrate enhanced performances in their jobs 

Artis, A.B. and Harris, E.G. (2007). Self-directed learning and sales force performance: an integrated framework. Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, Vol. 27 No. 1, pp. 9-24.

4. exhibit superior critical thinking and questioning skills

Candy, P.C. (1991). Self-direction for Lifelong Learning: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

5. demonstrate increased confidence and problem solving capabilities

Durr, R.E. (1992). An examination of readiness for self-directed learning and personnel variable at a large Midwestern electronics development and manufacturing corporation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL.

6. actively share knowledge and build networks with others

Rowland, F. and Volet, S. (1996). Self-direction in community learning: a case study. Australian Journal of Adult and Community Education, Vol. 36 No. 2, pp. 89-102.

7. show stronger emotional commitment 

Cho, D. and Kwon, D. (2005), Self-directed learning readiness as an antecedent of organizational commitment: a Korean study. International Journal of Training and Development, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 140-52.

8. find their jobs more meaningful

Kops, W.J. (1997). Managers as self-directed learners: findings from the public and private sector organizations. in Long, H.B. and Associates (Ed.), Expanding Horizons in Self-directed Learning, Public Managers Center, College of Education, Norman, OK, pp. 71-86.

9. experience “deep” rather than “surface” learning, and

Stansfield, L.M. (1997), “‘Employee – develop yourself!’ Experiences of self-directed learners”, Career Development International, Vol. 2 No. 6, pp. 261-6.

10. are more likely to realize their potential as leaders.

Klute, M.M., Crouter, A.C., Sayer, A.G., & McHale, S.M. (2002). Occupational self-direction, values, and egalitarian relationships: A study of dual-earner couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 139–151.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term “self-directed learner”, a reasonable account can be found at http://www.selfdirectedlearning.org/what-is-self-directed-learning

To get an indication of the degree to which you are  a self-directed learner, try the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale at http://www.lpasdlrs.com/

A Prezi version of this blog entry is available at http://prezi.com/v8eu6aioif2j/advantages-of-self-directed-learners/

Apps for self-directed learning

There are several kinds of apps that can assist you with your learning and help you to develop effective learning habits. Below are 21 recommended apps in 7 categories, and suggestions on how to exploit them.

Many are free to download, but for those which are not, e.g. iStudiezPro, there is usually a free version with restricted functionality. You can experiment with the free version to see whether you like the app enough to invest in the full version. Actually, there are hundreds of such apps on iTunes and Google Play, so why not try others, too.

When evaluating an app, one thing to take note of is its integration with other software and hardware. For instance, Evernote and StudyBlue accounts can be connected, making it easy to create revision flashcards based on notes that you have taken. Mindjet files sync from your smartphone or tablet to your desktop computer via Dropbox.

It is also worthwhile exploring the user guides, video tutorials and case studies that makers of the apps often provide. These can help you realize the full potential of the apps and consider alternative ways to use them.

Study planner apps

Using this kind of app can help get you into the habit of managing your time effectively. Besides keeping track of lectures and tutorials, study planner apps allow you to organize study tasks, assignments and projects according to course schedules, and to set your study priorities. These apps can also provide timely reminders to complete tasks and keep a record of your course grades.

My Study Life

Flashcard apps

These apps can be powerful revision aids. After identifying key terminology in your courses, you can create flashcards for important concepts and later be tested on your retention through a variety of quizzes. Progress is tracked and incorrect answers will be retested. Besides your own flashcards, you can browse and use millions of flashcards made by other learners.

  • StudyBlue (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)
  • Quizlet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • gFlash+ (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)

Dictionary apps

Dictionary apps contain a wealth of information to assist you with academic reading and writing. Besides checking the meanings of words, you can see example sentences and find out common collocations. The thesaurus component in the apps can help you select precisely the right words for written assignments, and hearing the pronunciation of words can assist you with academic listening and speaking.


Mind mapping apps

You can utilize these apps in a number of ways. For instance, mind maps are great tools to capture and organize ideas for assignments and projects. They may also be used to rework lecture notes into a more visual format. Some learners employ mind maps as revision aids. These apps work very well on tablets, and the mind maps may be co-created online.

  • Freemind (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Mindjet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • iMindMapHD (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)

Bibliography apps

For higher education students, these apps can speed up the process of generating citations and compiling reference lists. With them you can scan or capture metadata and then they will automatically generate references in several styles, e.g. APA, MLA and Chicago. Whereas EasyBib is a free mobile app, Zotero and Mendeley are extensions for web browsers such as Firefox and Chrome.

  • EasyBib (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Zotero (Chrome, Safari, IE, Firefox, iPad/iPhone [Zotpad])
  • Mendeley (Any Web browser, Mac, iPad, iPhone,Windows phone, Kindle Fire)

Note-making apps

These powerful apps can do more for you than providing a convenient notepad. They enable you to collect information on an academic topic from anywhere into a single place. This information can be in many forms, e.g. images, text, web pages, audio/video clips.  The information can then be edited, annotated, filed, and even shared with other students.

  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • OneNote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)
  • GoodReader (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)

Scanner Apps

This kind of app can boost efficiency when working with text in several ways. Many kinds of text can be scanned as JPEG or PDF files, including handwritten notes and text embedded in images. Once scanned, you have the options to straighten, crop and combine pages. Those with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) enable export of PDFs to Word, Excel or Text files. PDFs may also be shared or printed wirelessly.

  • Genius Scan (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • CamScanner (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 8)

I hope that you have found this list useful. If you discover better apps, or new categories of learning apps, or new ways to use them, I’m all ears…

Learning style inventories: Dubious, but useful for learner training anyway?

Learning style theory seems to be on the defensive.

For example, this 2007 article raised questions about the VAK (Visual-Auditory-Kinaesthetic) classification of learners: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1558822/Professor-pans-learning-style-teaching-method.html . Reference is made in the same article to Frank Coffield’s January 2004 review in the Times Higher Education Supplement , in which he cautioned against using learning style inventories to “differentiate between students” and questioned the wisdom of using results from inventories to inform decisions about teaching.

Personally, I have always been wary of learning style inventories; the lower quality ones remind me of horoscopes in that they create the Forer Effect. Nonetheless, as stimuli to provoke reflection on learning strategies, I believe that they might have a positive application, which I will now describe.

ScreenHunter_03 Oct. 14 10.16

I asked two groups of Form 6 students in Hong Kong (ages 16/17) to try the free, online Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire (ILSQ) at http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html This generated results like the one below:

Balanced between ACTIVE and REFLECTIVE
After students had been assisted to understand their ILSQ results, they discussed the following questions:
  • Do you agree with your ILSQ results?
  • Do you think your learning style is fixed?
  • Does your learning style explain why you are better at certain school subjects?
  • Can knowing your learning style tell you how to study better?

Following this, the students completed a task to select learning strategies, according to their intuition, that suit them best. Finally, it was revealed which strategies matched which of the ILSQ styles, and students could compare their intuitive responses with the strategies recommended according to their ILSQ results.

The above process forced students to reflect on their preferred ways of studying and exposed them to alternative strategies. For these reasons alone, it seemed worth doing, even though the ILSQ has design weaknesses, e.g. two-option responses. Below is the task that was used, adapted from ILSQ’s own resources.


Every day at school you have new lessons. There is always a lot of new information to understand and remember. Teachers do their best to make lesson content understandable and memorable, but they can’t satisfy all learners all of the time. So, how can you help yourself to understand and remember? What can you do after a lesson? Below is a list of possible learning strategies. Tick those strategies that you think work well for you.

1. Summarise the lesson in your own words2. Summarise the lesson as a mind map (using your own pictures)
3. Highlight key points using coloured pens4.Try to relate the lesson content to another topic that you have studied
5. Read your notes again to make sure nothing is missing6. Think of extra questions about the content and ask your teacher later
7. Explain the lesson content to another person. See if they understand.8. Study multimedia materials about the same topic, e.g. TV documentary
9. Make linear notes with headings and sub-headings to summarise the lesson content.10. Look at the examples in your course book. Think of extra examples.
11. Review the lesson alone.12. Summarise the lesson as a flow-chart.
13. Discuss the lesson content with classmates.14. Find out how this knowledge is used in the real world.

Key research findings about formative assessment

Formative assessment has a significant impact on learning, as much as 1 or 2 grades on GCSE* results.

Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74.

(This seminal article was a meta-survey of over 250 publications linking assessment and learning.)

Students can achieve learning goals when they (a) understand the goals, (b) feel like those goals are personal goals, and (c) can evaluate their own progress during courses.

Sadler, D.R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science 18, 119-144.

Formative assessment promotes effective learning and raises the quality of teaching.

Black. P, Harrison. C, Lee. C, Marshall. B, William, D. (2003). Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice. Oxford University Press.

Learning gains from formative assessment are disproportionately greater for less-able students.

Assessment Reform Group (2002). Assessment for learning – 10 principles: Research-based principles to guide classroom practice. ARG/Nuffield Foundation.

Formative assessment encourages students to take an active role in the management of their own learning.

Juwah, C. et al. (2004) Enhancing Student Learning Through Effective Feedback. The Higher Education Academy.

Purely formative assessment, with no summative standard measurement, is ineffective.

Smith, E. & Gorard, S. (2005). ‘They don’t give us our marks’: The role of formative feedback in student progress. Assessment in Education, 12(1), 21-38.

*GCSE = General Certificate of Secondary Education in England, Wales & Northern Ireland

The formative and summative assessment disambiguator

Assessment for learning

Assessment of  learning

Also known as…

Formative assessment

Summative assessment


To  diagnose student difficulties in reaching learning objectives; To identify student strengths that can be built upon; To inform future learning and teaching.To measure and summarise student achievement of learning objectives in the form of grades; To inform selection procedures for, e.g. promotion, entrance to higher education, employment.


Formal or informal (ad hoc)



Prior to / During school term

During / At end of school term








Specific, qualitative feedback in the form of evaluative comments on performance or   highlighted descriptors on a criteria marking scheme.  Students are provided with constructive and concrete advice on how to improve, time and opportunities for further development and practice. Scores   may be given to show students the result they would have achieved in a ‘real’ test, but the scores do not contribute to grades. Students should absorb teachers’ comments fully before seeing scores.Feedback is optional. If the students are going to do a similar test/exam in future,   then feedback could serve a formative purpose. If the test/exam content is the last time they will be tested on this, then of course no feedback, just grades. If the summative assessment is criterion-referenced, then students can refer to the   criteria marking scheme to understand what the grade implies about their   capabilities, but there is nothing they can do to change their grade.

Feedback providers

Self / Peers / Teacher

Teacher / Examiner

Understanding learning goals

Enhances student understanding of learning objectives, criteria, standards, etc.Merely checks student ability to meet learning objectives




A way to introduce mind mapping tools to students

One of the secondary schools that I consult for is equipped with a large, well-resourced self-access learning centre. The 40 PCs in the centre are loaded with Inspiration mind mapping software for students to use independently.

With guidance, senior students (ages 15-18) can use such software for a multitude of study tasks, for example to brainstorm ideas for project work, to plan oral presentations and written compositions, or to create concept maps that summarise study topics.

To help introduce the functions and potential of this kind of software to junior students (ages 12-14), I created mind maps (or other kinds of graphic organisers) in Inspiration that summarized key concepts for study topics. Here is an example of a timeline that shows 4 stages of Hong Kong’s economy:

Hong Kong Economy1

Once the original had been approved by the subject teacher, I authored two new versions of it. The first new version looked like this:

Hong Kong Economy2

Students could then open this version first and attempt to reconstruct it correctly by dragging and dropping items. After finishing this task, they could request to see the original version.

The second new version focused on vocabulary for that topic. This time, students saw this:

Hong Kong Economy3

Their task was simple enough… just replace the words in the correct gaps. Not thrilling, but good for them to check their retention of key vocabulary items.

To assist students through the process of this learning activity, a laminated instruction sheet was placed next to the PCs.

I hope you find this technique useful and would be very interested to hear of other ways to help learners familiarise with mind mapping software.

Reasons why teaching in higher education could be better

In this entry, I would like to give reasons why it appears to me that the quality of university teaching, overall, is not high enough. Let me qualify that I only have experience at higher education institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK.

Reason #1: The design of professional development programmes for university teachers

The goals of such programmes are (a) to familiarize them with the learning environment, with which I heartily agree, and (b) to develop them as teachers, about which I am skeptical.

The problem as I see it is not so much the scope, duration or content of these programmes. It is the design. The programmes consist of interactive workshops on relevant topics, plus various other activities such as a single lesson observation by a more experienced teacher, or reflective writing about their teaching.

This programme design is not suitable for either pre-service teacher training or in-service teacher development. For the former, it is not substantial enough and the connection between theory and practice is too weak. One would need multiple lesson observations combined with multiple opportunities for reflection and multiple instances of expert feedback to really see development. For the latter, the workshops are too basic and the other activities redundant when the teachers in question already have a teaching qualification.

Another issue is the pedigree of those who lead such programmes. Frequently, they have no teaching qualifications themselves. For me, this means that the main focus becomes talking about teaching rather than teaching itself. They are academic programmes rather than professional ones.

Personally, I would recommend that all university teachers  go through a pre-service teaching practicum as do school teachers. They are paid for teaching and therefore owe it to their students to be skillful in the classroom and sensitive to their learners. Adult learners may be different in nature than children, but they still deserve consistently capable teachers, even though those teachers may adopt different roles than a school teacher. By skills, I am not suggesting anything elaborate. I mean, for example, the skills of setting up learning activities clearly, of checking instructions, of making learning goals explicit, of monitoring students’ progress, etc. I am aware that “quality teaching” is a debated concept and may vary according to context, but the classroom skills I refer to are, I contest, uncontroversial.

If university teachers were professionally trained in this manner, I think it would be highly beneficial, not only for its immediate impact on learning, but also for its impact on the quality of educational research. With more consistency in classroom management practices, for instance, a significant variable would be removed. Then, whatever teaching intervention the research was focused upon, the less of a distraction would be the differences between teachers in this respect.

Reason #2: The ways in which student feedback is administered and utilised

Student feedback on teaching does have it purposes. When I look at feedback from students, for example, I am very interested in what they have to say about certain aspects, e.g. whether I managed to establish an atmosphere conducive to learning, whether the pace of learning was appropriate, whether the content was relevant and specific, or whether my presentations were sufficiently clear to them. However, I must qualify this by explaining that I seek feedback during a course.

In universities it is more common for written feedback to be elicited formally at the conclusion of courses, and, because it can also have an impact on the performance appraisal of teachers, it therefore becomes summative in nature. It simply serves to certify whether that teacher and the course met the students’ expectations. Sincere teachers may proceed dutifully to incorporate student feedback into adjustments to the design and delivery of the next run of the course. However, this will not benefit the students who had provided the feedback.

My view is that it would be more useful if the feedback was sought at an early stage of the course so that the teacher would have time and opportunity to make adjustments. This would be formative feedback, i.e. no grading involved and no repercussions for the teacher. Its purpose would be to inform what the teacher does next to enhance the teaching and learning experience. Formal written feedback could still be sought at the conclusion, too, but for a different purpose.

Unfortunately, this does not entirely solve the problems with student feedback. It can also be argued that, in responding positively to student feedback, the teacher is merely satisfying the learning preferences of the majority of students in that cohort. This can become confusing for teachers, for example when they have attended professional development workshops extolling the virtues of a constructivist approach and have done their best to make their course student-centred, interactive, collaborative, reflective and experiential in nature, yet the response from the majority of students on that course reveals that they would have preferred a traditional, didactic approach. Teachers are thus caught on the horns of the dilemma of either guessing and satisfying perceived learner needs (and hopefully getting more positive rankings on the final feedback form) or resisting this to teach in a principled manner and thereby risking lower overall student appraisals.

Reason #3: The lack of understanding of assessment principles and practice

David Boud (1998) * gave a presentation at the University of Queensland reporting on his observations of university teachers’ assessment misconceptions and malpractice. Even now, in 2014, I encounter examples of assessment “bloopers” in higher education. My sources are students (who come to me for counselling on their learning), hearsay from professional peers taking part-time postgraduate courses, and study of curriculum documents. Let me provide examples to see whether you also conclude that all is not well.

  1. The intended learning outcomes for a course are not properly expressed as outcomes. Instead, they are descriptions of the learning activities in which students will engage, e.g. “You will discuss X and Y.” or “You will examine case studies.”
  2. Norm-referenced assessment is taking place, i.e. students on a course are being ranked, when the published assessment scheme deceptively indicates that the assessment is criterion-referenced.
  3. Language quality is assessed in term papers and oral presentations when there has been no language support or instruction  during the course. Also, the concept of language quality has not been properly defined, and interpretations of “language quality” vary between markers.
  4. The assessment criteria for a course are not accompanied by descriptors and standards.
  5. Students are asked to acquire content knowledge independently and are assessed on their recall of that knowledge before they have received the benefit of expert instruction.
  6. Even on taught master degree courses, a high proportion of marks is awarded for lower-order thinking tasks.
  7. Formative feedback is provided only once, and then there is no further opportunity for students to practise before they are assessed and graded.
  8. First drafts of project work, written assignments, oral presentations, etc. are assessed summatively.
  9. Assessment is used as a threat to motivate students. This is in the context of adult learning, when the learners have freely chosen what to study, are paying for the course, and should have high intrinsic or instrumental motivation.
  10. Intended learning outcomes are written to express positive changes in personal values (towards the desired attributes of university graduates), when such changes are very difficult to measure.
  11. Feedback on learning tasks consists of numerical or alphabetical grades. No information is provided to the learner on how to enhance performance and thereby move closer to the learning goals.
  12. Computerised adaptive language proficiency tests that are designed to inform learning are also employed for summative achievement tests. The tests are administered at the beginning and end of a course, and the improvement recorded. Moreover, students are not prepared specifically for the content/skills of this test during the course.
  13. The belief that comments on student work such as “satisfactory or “very good” are descriptive, qualitative and helpful for development.

* Boud, D. (1998). Presentation to the TEDI Conference: Effective Assessment at University. University of Queensland, 4-5 November 1998.

Reason #4: The lack of excellence of teaching excellence awards

Having award schemes to recognize and honour good teachers in universities would seem to be both positive and uncontroversial. It would also appear to raise the profile of quality teaching. However, I have noticed a few problems with these awards.

Firstly, they appear to contradict a commonly advocated shift in emphasis from teaching to learning. If they were in tune with this shift, wouldn’t they be called awards for promoting learning instead?

Another difficulty is that it is often asserted that teaching quality is hard to define, a debated concept, yet criteria are needed for selection of award winners. How are such criteria identified? Some institutions opt to refer to an external benchmark such as the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme in the UK. But it begs the question how the NTFS criteria were derived. Others conduct internal research to identify best practices of excellent teachers. Of course, the latter approach is circular. How do researchers select excellent teachers in the first place? They are the ones who have been given teaching awards!! It amazes me that there is even a book whose authors employed this research methodology:

Kember, D. and McNaught, C. (2007). Enhancing university teaching: Lessons from research into award-winning teachers. Routledge.

Another significant consideration in deciding who receives such awards is nomination by students. This raises a serious issue. For example, a teacher may be popular because they have, for example, been so supportive that the course became insufficiently challenging. I envision this happening very easily in an enquiry-based mode of learning, where one of the aims is to foster students’ self-direction. Students seek help from their teacher, but it is not always forthcoming, deliberately so. The teacher who provides more help than is optimum may receive praise from students, but has not helped them towards the goal of greater autonomy. In short, implicit criteria that students have for quality teaching are not always aligned with factors identified in educational research that are known to have a positive impact on learning.

Finally, teaching excellence awards have an image problem. I hear snide remarks that, if a professor has won awards for teaching, it must be because he or she is not an able researcher.  It is the case, in Hong Kong at least, that research is viewed as much more important than teaching. Research output raises the status of the institution and attracts funding. Perhaps in some countries university applicants do pay attention to teaching scores in league tables, e.g.,

The Guardian newspaper’s in the UK: http://www.theguardian.com/education/table/2012/may/21/university-league-table-2013

However, I witness that old attitudes prevail; the status of the university as a research institution matters much more, even though undergraduates in particular may not need top researchers to instruct them, but rather great teachers.

Reason #5: Questionable assumptions about the capacities and support needs of today’s university students

In reaction to negative feedback on the quality of their teaching, I have noticed that some professors defend themselves by claiming that it is not their responsibility to teach well; university students have a responsibility to manage their own learning and should not expect to be spoon-fed as they were at school. After all, when those professors were students themselves, they managed to excel in spite of really awful instruction, or a total absence of instruction. (I am not attempting to present a straw man argument here. I have really heard, and heard tell of, such comments.)

There are a few points that can be made in response to any professors that have this attitude.

Firstly, the situation in higher education has changed drastically since those professors were students themselves. The proportion of the population enjoying the opportunity of higher education has increased markedly. Those professors, at the time they gained entry to universities, were in the top band of academic achievers. This makes it evident that they had, rather wonderfully, developed effective study strategies by themselves. (Well, strategies appropriate for success in that era of education anyway…) However, now that the diversity of learners has increased, a greater variation in learning proficiencies and preferences can be expected. Readiness to study at undergraduate level is not a given, and I believe that one of the roles of university teachers is to scaffold the transition from secondary to tertiary education.

Secondly, with renewed curricula at secondary/high schools, spoon feeding is no longer a viable strategy in that sector of education. School-leaving, or university entrance, exams require much more than regurgitation of subject content to achieve high grades. Higher order thinking skills are tested, which has a backwash effect on the selection of teaching strategies. For example, for the compulsory subject of Liberal Studies in Hong Kong, students have to undertake an independent enquiry study (with teacher support and guidance). Moreover, student-teachers following a BEd programme or PGCE/PGDE learn to design and deliver interactive lessons that promote application, evaluation and synthesis of concepts as well as understanding and recall. In other words, teachers are trained differently nowadays and have a range of teaching strategies. They do not subscribe to the transmission model. Perhaps those professors are remembering their own school education some decades ago and are assuming that nothing has changed.

Lastly, those professors seem not to be aware that even the most autonomous learners can be helped to greater achievements through selective and skillful interventions by a teacher. They would do well to study Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Bruner’s theory of instructional scaffolding, and make alterations to their teaching practices accordingly.

Reason #6: Issues with the Scholarship of Learning and Teaching (SoTL)

SoTL can be described as a movement to enhance the learning of tertiary students through formal enquiry by lecturers and professors of all disciplines. Many universities have units or centres for the promotion of learning and teaching quality which provide support to academics who engage in small-scale educational research. There is also extrinsic motivation since, in performance appraisal schemes, there is sometimes a category “pedagogical research”. Participation in this kind of research can be significant for contract renewals and promotions.

This all sounds very positive and commendable. However, SoTL is not free of controversy.

One of the issues is that professors who are not in the Social Sciences have to adjust to a research paradigm that is distinct from the one to which they are accustomed. For example, consider the case of a physicist who is used to hardcore, laboratory-based, quantitative research with severely constrained variables. This scientist will have to “unlearn” past assumptions and beliefs about effective research if they are to investigate an aspect of learning & teaching successfully.

Secondly, when university teachers are expected to conduct educational research on top of research in their own disciplines, this can represent an increase in their workload and in my view runs the risk of diluting their overall research output.

Finally, there is the issue of research scale. An individual professor’s investigations may promote quality within the narrow confinements of a particular course, or may for example lead to the development of superior learning materials. Yet this sort of research is not that useful to other educators in other learning environments. Because of this lack of relatability of research findings, I doubt whether those findings are worth disseminating through publication or presentation.



Learning-based Learning

During the years that I have worked in higher education I have witnessed several passing methodological “bandwagons” onto which educators have jumped, and a little later jumped off (or surreptitiously slipped off ). For example, in recent times Flipped Classroom has become very trendy. A few years ago, there were high hopes for Second Life Virtual Learning.

For your reference, here is an A-Z of methods, or “Learnings”:

Action Active Adventure Applied Case-based Challenge-based Collaborative Community-based Competency-based Computer-assisted Concept-based Content-based Context-based Crossover Differentiated Digital Discovery E-Enquiry/Inquiry-based Experiential Exploratory Flip (or Flipped Classroom) Game-based Hands-on Holistic Humanistic Incidental M-/Mobile Mastery Online Personalised Practice-based Problem-based Programmed Project-based Second Life Virtual Service Situated Skills-based Student-centered Task-based Team-based Technology-enhanced Ubiquitous Web-based Work-based

Have I missed any?

I asked myself why such methods could hold attraction for educators and on what bases they should be selected.

One can see the apparent attractions of employing a method for teaching and learning. Both teachers and students should become comfortable with the routines and processes involved. Teachers should feel happy and confident because they know their chosen method was carefully designed to be consistent with à la mode learning theory. Institutions should feel happy because they can advertise their use of modern, scientifically proven, methods. The creators of the methods should be delighted with their influence on the quality of learning (and the royalties from sales of their methodology books).

The problem though is that so far no single method that has been proposed is able to suit all learning environments. Particularly with those methods that are based on something, e.g. problems, cases or skills, by adopting one method the educator is immediately restricting options.

Here however, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I make the bold claim that my own method – Learning-based Learning or LBL™ * overcomes this difficulty by encompassing all of the other “Learnings”. LBL is amazing because it eliminates the need to think of the other methods as mutually exclusive, rival solutions.

In LBL, teachers are aware of all the above “Learnings” and select elements of them according to their judgment of the needs in particular learning circumstances, and for particular learners.

LBL is complemented by another method – Teaching-based Teaching or TBT™ – in which the capability to adopt LBL by untrained teachers, for example the majority of university professors, is enhanced through the requirement that, besides attending workshops about learning and teaching, they also progress through a substantial and rigorous teaching practicum. Thus, the connection between pedagogical theory and practice is strengthened in their minds through the inculcation of career-long reflective practice. Those teachers gradually become more sensitive to what is going on in their classrooms and better able to teach reactively, to teach in response to learning environments that are in constant flux. Armed also with an encyclopedic knowledge of all the methods, they can pick and choose from them in an informed and effective manner.

*LBL and TBT are not really trademarked

Why I hate “knowledge sharing”!!

In recent years, I’ve witnessed the term “knowledge sharing” being used in educational institutions. At numerous schools and universities I have been invited to, required to attend, and even facilitated “knowledge sharing” sessions.

Having grown to detest this term, I thought it was about time to explain my feelings in a blog post. Be warned though, I am not attempting to share with you!! As this is not a dialogue, it’s really up to you to construct knowledge by reference to my input and your schema.

What’s so bad about sharing?

Firstly, before you think of me as a mean-spirited fellow, I’m not averse to sharing per se. I would quite happily share with you my last piece of chocolate cake, or other food, or even the cold that I have at the moment. It’s the use of the term “knowledge sharing” in particular that gets my goat.

Why does this term annoy me?

Partly, it’s the euphemistic nature. If I’m asked to attend a briefing, a meeting or a seminar then I’m fine. Those terms are emotionally neutral to me. However, a “sharing session” sounds so horribly sweet. How adorable that someone is willing to share!! Gag! As far as I’m concerned attending such a session is still a work task. Any attempt to make the event sound more attractive by giving it a pleasant name actually makes me feel worse.

Where did the term “knowledge sharing” originate?

I believe it’s from the Business discipline of Knowledge Management which is an approach to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of company personnel, and then hopefully whole organisations. If you’re interested in reading more about it, one of the popular writers about knowledge sharing and management is David Gurteen. See http://www.gurteen.com/gurteen/gurteen.nsf/id/ksculture

Why has it gained such popularity in the education arena?

It has probably done so because, rightly or wrongly, many educational establishments have adopted quasi-business models of practice. A vocabulary set has accompanied these models – such terms as “performance management” and “knowledge sharing”.  Unfortunately, this term has been adopted unquestioningly by many educators who, through their own studies of learning theory, should know better.

What characterises a “knowledge sharing” session?

In my experience nothing much, really. I imagine Knowledge Management theorists envisage something more like an interplay of ideas between professionals, informing but also encouraging each other to think from multiple perspectives and thereby gain valuable insights and a more holistic approach to their work. Which would be nice. Unfortunately, in my experience, sharing sessions in schools and colleges are more like briefings or lectures than seminars, with little in the way of interaction, just passive listening to the person invited to “share”.

Why is it inappropriate to use the term “knowledge sharing” in an educational setting?

The assumption by someone coining the term “knowledge sharing” must be that knowledge is something objectively real that can be passed intact and unchanged from one person to another. During the twentieth century, thanks to researchers such as Dewey, Montessori, Vygotsky and Piaget and supported by more recent findings in neuroscience, the idea that knowledge acquisition results from straightforward transmission from one human to another is passé.  “Sharing” is simply the wrong metaphor. Knowledge is not given or received; people construct their own meanings.

Thanks for listening to my rant!

Not Jolly but Folly Phonics for China

I’m going to argue in this post that phonics is inappropriate for children learning English as a foreign language in countries such as China.

I was prompted to write this post by two experiences.

Firstly, I met the owner of a chain of language centres in mainland China who was in Hong Kong to purchase phonics kits from regional distributors of US/UK publishers. According to him, phonics courses sell very well in China.

Secondly, I read a balanced article about phonics on the BBC News website entitled Viewpoints: Teaching children to read  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19812961 To summarise the content, research evidence supports the view that bottom-up systematic phonics is more effective than the alternative ‘look and say’ method. However, it does have drawbacks and limitations and shouldn’t be relied upon alone to cultivate good readers. In other words, it is a necessary but not sufficient component of an overall approach to early literacy development. Those drawbacks and limitations are listed in the BBC article so I won’t repeat them here. The evaluation of phonics by the writer of this article was done with native speaker environments in mind.

I would, however, like to underline a serious problem with phonics in language environments such as China where English is taught as a foreign language to young children. Those children are likely to lack the oral skills in English that are an essential prerequisite to success in learning to read through phonics. This is because phonics teaches children to decode words by sounds. Once a native speaker child has successfully sounded out an unfamiliar written word, they can access meaning by associating it with the spoken version of the word that they already know. So, as one of the literacy experts interviewed for the BBC article, Lisa Morgan, points out, “children with good oral language skills are likely to become good readers”.

So why is phonics so popular in China?

Phonics kits, e.g. Letterland,  Jolly Phonics, etc. are packaged very nicely. Such good presentation alone can give the impression of professionalism and reliability and may be one of the reasons why parents of young children have faith in the method.  It is also systematic, encouraging the view that it is well-conceived. Moreover, repetitive learning is widely practised and accepted in China and phonics fits in well with this educational heritage.

Phonics may become effective after English oral skills and vocabulary have been developed adequately. But from what I observe, it is used at introductory levels of instruction with (very) young children.


Are you using phonics to teach young learners of English and, if so, what are your experiences of this method?