Rethinking Teaching for the Knowledge Society

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Rethinking Teaching for the Knowledge Society


  • Rethinking Teaching for theKnowledge Society

    Diana Laurillard

    For over a decade now, universities have been aware ofthe pressures to expand access to higher education.1 Theknowledge society needs more graduates, and those graduateswill keep returning to study as lifelong learning takes its placein both work and leisure time. These are the positive pressuresfor expansion. But the knowledge society, fueled by the ex-panding higher education sector, is in turn generating moreknowledge industries, producing additional, competitive pres-sures for traditional institutions of higher education. Those in-volved in university teaching in this digital age must cope withthe fact that the knowledge industries are creating the meansby which individuals can acquire the immediate skills andknowledge those industries need. As a result, many individualsare questioning the true benefit of a university education,given its cost.


    Copyright 2002 Diana Laurillard. Reprinted by permission of the author

    and EDUCAUSE from EDUCAUSE Review, Vol. 37, No. 1, January/Febru-

    ary 2002, pp. 1625.

  • Universities wishing to respond to these new demands needto answer two difficult questions:

    How should the curriculum balance expert knowledge andpractitioner knowledge? Universities are comfortableteaching specialist knowledge produced by experts, butpractitioner knowledge and the skill to develop it, whichis what the knowledge industry needs, is not a naturalpart of university curricula. Should universities move intothis area at the undergraduate level, as Michael Gibbonsand others suggest,2 or should they leave it to the post-graduate, post-experience programs within the privatesector?

    To what extent is a degree course a long-term grounding foran individual? A degree certifies the knowledge thatgraduates have developed when they leave a university,but most graduates use very little of this knowledge intheir subsequent careers. The more enduring qualitiesgained are the skills, attitudes, and ways of thinkingderived from courses. But degrees and syllabuses are stilldefined in terms of subject knowledge, rather thangeneric skills. Should universities focus courses andteaching more on the practice of high-level skills, orshould they leave this to individuals to develop throughsubsequent work in the knowledge industries?

    To answer these questions, we must be able to define whatdistinguishes a university education from the knowledge in-


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  • dustries offerings in the form of corporate and for-profitinstitutions.

    In 1997, Lord Dearings National Committee of Inquiry intoHigher Education reviewed the role of higher education in alearning society3 and defined it as having four main purposes:

    1. Inspiring and enabling individuals to develop theircapabilities to the highest levels

    2. Increasing knowledge and understanding3. Serving the needs of the economy4. Shaping a democratic and civilized society

    The first purpose testifies to the universitys commitment tothe long-term personal development of the individual, in con-trast with the focus on the short-term employment needs in-evitably driving other forms of post-school education, such ascorporate training programs. The second purpose links thetwin activities of research and teaching in the development anddissemination of knowledge. The third expresses the economicvalue of this research and teaching, and the fourth emphasizesthe cultural value to the society it serves. For the individual,therefore, universities bring together research and teaching,and a focus on long-term needs, to offer a clear competitive ad-vantage over what the knowledge industry can provide.

    The Committee defined the unique role of the university insociety, embracing these four purposes, as being to enable so-ciety to maintain an independent understanding of itself andits world.4 Each word in that definition was carefully chosen.


    rethinking teaching for the knowledge society

  • Society does not confine the universitys role to serviceof the nation-state. This is one of the key changes now inthe way that universities relate to their context: once anorgan of the nation-state, a university now crossesnational boundaries in teaching, in the way it has alwaysdone in research. Society also implies that theunderstanding is widely owned, fully disseminated, notlocated with some elite but with society itself, therebyenabling it to become, in the fullest sense, a learningsociety.

    Maintain suggests a continuing responsibility, but onethat is responsive to change because of what is beingmaintained: an understanding of society itself, incontinual flux, and of its world, for which our theories arein continual development.

    Independent refers to the unique position ofuniversities as creators of understanding. There will bemany claimants for the role of understanding our societyand its world in the new knowledge society, but most ofthemthe media, industrial research units, corporateuniversitiescannot claim independence from politicaland commercial interest. The individualistic anddisinterested nature of university research and teachingremains unique.

    Understanding expresses the epistemology of auniversity as knowledge acquired with a sense ofresponsibility for how it comes to be known and with thepurpose of enabling enhanced action.


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  • Of itself and its world is inclusive of the full range ofthe natural, human, and social worlds as objects ofunderstanding.

    This portmanteau definition helps to clarify the unique roleof universities for society as a whole. They are distinguishedfrom plausible competitors in the knowledge industries bytheir universality of scope, by their independence of inquiry,and by the nature of their epistemology. Therefore, I concludethis section with the following proposition:

    Proposition 1: Universities will maintain their competitiveedge against the knowledge industries through themaintenance of their core valuesincluding research-based teaching and a curriculum that provides for thelong-term cognitive needs of individuals.

    Does University Teaching Measure Up to Its Role?

    The rhetoric is good, but saying doesnt make it so. Wheneversenior academics are rattled by the pretensions of the privateupstarts in the corporate education business, they incline to theview that the degree-awarding powers of universities protect theuniqueness of their institutions. At present, this is perhaps true,but governments have the ability to change that power if uni-versities are not seen to provide something valued and some-thing distinctive from the increasing offers of the private sector.


    rethinking teaching for the knowledge society

  • For some time now, academics have been arguing for a radi-cal shift from the standard transmission model of universityteaching. Donald A. Schn, for example, demonstrated theneed for a reflective practicum in universities, where stu-dents can prepare for their future careers when existing profes-sional knowledge will not fit every case. Practitioners have tomake sense of uncertain, unique, or conflicted situations ofpractice through reflection-in-action, and they need to beable to go beyond the rulesdevising new methods of reason-ing, strategies of action, and ways of framing problems. Thispresupposes a very different kind of university teaching:

    Designing, in the broader sense in which all professionalpractice is design-like, must be learned by doing. A design-like practice is learnable, but is not teachable by classroommethods . . . the interventions most useful to students aremore like coaching than teaching, as in a reflectivepracticum. . . . The reflective practicum demands intensityand duration far beyond the normal requirements of acourse. . . . A studio, a supervision, an apprenticeship. . . .Students do not so much attend these events as live in them.And the work takes time . . . time to live through the learn-ing cycles involved in any design-like task; and time to shiftrepeatedly back and forth between reflection on and inaction.5

    Similarly, Etienne Wengers account of a learning commu-nity emphasizes the importance of individual and community


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  • engagement in several ways.6 For the acquisition of knowledge,the community must provide three kinds of engagement:

    Give newcomers access to competence Invite a personal experience of engagement Enable incorporation of competence within participation

    For the creation of knowledge, four further types of engage-ment are required:

    Radically new insights Mutual engagement around joint enterprise Strong bond of communal competence Deep respect for particularity of experience

    Wengers account does not privilege universities with uniqueaccess to such characteristics; the knowledge industries arelikely to develop these traits as well, if they are to succeed. Butuniversities will need graduates capable of contributing to themore fluid kind of knowledge creation that is needed by theprofessional practitioner, who is not confined to the well-trod-den paths of expert consensus knowledge of the traditionaluniversity curriculum. Students long-term cognitive needs gowell beyond the acquisition of consensus knowledge.

    There are significant opposing pressures on universitiestodemonstrate research success on the one hand and to providefor wider participation in higher education on the other. Thetwo pressures oppose because research and teaching are seen


    rethinking teaching for the knowledge society

  • to be in competition with each other, at the institutional leveland at the individual level. In the United Kingdom, significantfunding follows high research ratings, whereas funding forteaching is not related to quality ratings, so institutions rewardgood research more than good teaching. Academics have to di-vide their time between the two activities: the one in whichthey are professionally qualified and judged by their peers; theother in which they are neither qualified nor judged. In-evitably, research wins. There have been attempts to ignite ac-ademics interest in the professional accreditation of teach-ingfor example, by setting up the Institute for Learning andTeaching in the United Kingdombut interest is minimal; weare not yet on a transformational path.

    Proposition 2: Universities are not maintaining aprofessional teaching approach that parallels theirprofessional research approach, and the curriculum is not sufficiently oriented toward long-term high-levelcognitive skills.

    What Are the Challenges to University Teaching?

    Our teaching methods have not evolved sufficiently to keeppace with what is needed. The dominant model is still thetransmission model, with the dominant learning technologiesstill being those it has spawned: the lecture, the book, themarked assignment. Academics have been under such pressure


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  • to meet research demands and teach larger numbers of stu-dents that they have been unable to go beyond the traditionalforms of academic teaching. We have begun at last to play withdigital technologies as a way of meeting the demands of thedigital age, but with an approach still born of the transmissionmodel. The academic community has not redefined whatcounts as higher learning and therefore cannot draft thespecification for how the new technology should do anythingother than what learning technology has always done: transmitthe academics knowledge to the student. The academic worldhas called each new technological deviceword processing,interactive video, hypertext, multimedia, the Web into theservice of the transmission model of learning. The potential ofthe technology to serve a different kind of learning cannot beexploited by an academic community that clings only to what itknows. The academy, with respect to the professional practiceof teaching, is not a reflective practicum. There is no progress,therefore, in how we teach, despite what might be possiblewith the new technology.

    What is the difference between a curriculum that teacheswhat is known and one that teaches how to come to know?Knowledge, even academic knowledge, is not adequately repre-sented as propositional statements but has a historicity that in-corporates individuals previous experiences, their perceptionsof the immediate situation, their intentions, and their experi-ences of discovery, of recognized tensions, of uncertainties, ofambiguities still unresolved. This is not situated learning only,nor discovery learning, nor meta-learning. It comes closer to


    rethinking teaching for the knowledge society

  • scholarship as learning. It requires a reflective practicum forthe learning process. But for that to be possible, universityteachers have to renew and develop their model of the learningprocess well beyond the traditional transmission model. It re-quires a teaching approach that turns academics themselvesinto reflective practitioners with respect to their teaching. Inthe context of research, of course, they would certainly de-scribe themselves as reflective practitioners. As researchers,they are consummate professionals who are

    1. fully trained through an apprenticeship program, givingthem access to competence and personal engagementwith the skills of scholarship in their field;

    2. highly knowledgeable in some specialist area;3. licensed to practice as both practitioner and mentor to

    others in the field;4. building on the work of others in their field whenever

    they begin new work;5. conducting practical work using the agreed-upon

    protocols and standards of evidence of their field;6. working in collaborative teams of respected peers;7. seeking new insights and ways of rethinking their field;

    and8. disseminating findings for peer review and use by others.

    In the context of research, academics measure up well toSchns and Wengers ideals. Now run through the above listagain and consider the characteristics in the context of univer-


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  • sity teaching. How many of those eight characteristics of thereflective practitioner contributing to a learning communitytypically apply to the academic as teacher of his or her subject?None, not even number 2, since in this context we should referto a specialism in the pedagogy of the subject, not relying sim-ply on academic knowledge. It is tough for academics who areunder pressure to address this as an aspect of their profession-alism, but if there is to be innovation and change in universityteachingas the new technology requires, as the knowledgeindustry requires, and as students demandthen it followsthat academics must become researchers in teaching.

    Proposition 3: University teaching must aspire to arealignment of research and teaching and to teachingmethods that support students in the generic skills ofscholarship, not the mere acquisition of knowledge.

    What Is Possible?

    I have argued elsewhere that a Conversational Frameworkfor learning offers a more progressive model than the transmis-sion model and i...


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