Learning: an essential coping mechanism

Buckinghamshire New University’s Gloria Moss discusses the importance of learning across all stages of life

Ancient wisdom on change

It was pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus who commented that we never step twice in the same river, thus acknowledging the permanent changes both in ourselves and in our environments. It seems that if humans are to adapt, they must seek to adapt and the University of Warwick’s appointment in 1998 of the first Professor of Lifelong Learning acknowledges the importance of learning across all stages of life.


HEFCE lays down the challenge to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) of providing high-quality learning experience that fully meets the needs of individuals and of society and this implies learning provision that can develop skills, knowledge and attitudes that can benefit the individual and society more generally. The days when learning was assumed to take place in lectures, often given by postgraduate students, with assessments there to check understanding, has given way to a richer view of what HEIs can now do. 

 

A chat with Professor Barbara Dexter, Director of Learning and Teaching at Buckinghamshire University, reveals the complex and exciting vistas now opening up. 

‘Patterns of learning have moved on, with a greater emphasis now on learning rather than teaching. The big drivers have been pedagogical scholarship and technological advances, both of which have highlighted the need to reflect on the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘where’ of our teaching’. The issues involved show what a complex arena this now is.  

The ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘where’ 
 

In terms of the ‘what’ – the learning involved – staff need to be expert in disciplinary areas and, with the emphasis on the individual student experience, also need to develop the graduate attributes of critical thinking, autonomous learning and research skills. 

In regard to the ‘how’ – the way learning is fostered – learning is assisted through a mixture of passive and active learning, with staff providing the stimulus to help motivate students. Prof Dexter has developed a situational ‘learnership’ model – modelled on Blanchard’s situational leadership model – which sees passive learning as the start of a journey towards independent learning, with teaching styles moving from a ‘telling’ approach to ‘coaching’ and ‘facilitating’. Prof Dexter’s model has the potential to take learning onto a new level – with a third of staff now registered with the Higher Education Academy (HEA) – and she presented her landmark model at the APT conference in July.


With respect to the ‘where’ – where the learning is conducted – initiatives are driven by technological as well as pedagogical considerations. Pedagogically, the concept of ‘heutagogy’ puts the learner in control and much of Prof Dexter’s efforts are concerned with creating learning spaces that help students become independent and social learners. So, some classrooms have been fitted with moveable rounded tables for group work and online courses, for example the new MBA, allow for frequent interaction between students both online and in weekend workshops. 
 

Of course, transfer of knowledge from the classroom to the real world can be facilitated not just through course reviews by external practitioners – important given the applied focus of many of Bucks New University’s courses – but through the provision of physical spaces that mirror those found in the real world. So, students on the Music Management courses enjoy state-of-the-art recording studios while those on the Policing and Police Studies courses can use the dedicated mock custody desk and interview room spaces, as well as a bedsit space (eg. to simulate a range of scenarios within a domestic dwelling situation).  

So important is it for students to practise skills in spaces that mirror those encountered in professional life that the Pilot training resources at the university will soon include a flight simulator, supplementing the real flight and simulator training that students receive away from the University. 

Having a flight simulator at the University will make it possible for students to practise on a repeated basis, allowing the kind of ‘overlearning’ that allows newly-acquired skills to move beyond initial mastery leads to automaticity. These examples show that learning on campus still has a role to play in enhancing students’ learning and this is without factoring in the benefits from social and academic exchanges with staff and student colleagues. A further example comes from access to the Learning Development Unit (LDU), which assists students who want to aim higher and improve their degree classification. 

Celebrating 21st century learning 
 

When you consider how far learning provision has come since pre-Socratic times, one can only marvel at the resources available to today’s learner. Now, learning can be delivered in different modes to suit the learner’s particular situation and learning stage and it is just up to the student to press the green button and reach the giddy heights of their potential. As Prof Dexter says: “The University provides the environment, the stimulus and the support that will help students to be motivated, and it is down to the student to make the most of the opportunities available.” 

In the fast-changing world we live in, students could not really ask for more. 

Gloria Moss is Professor of Management and Marketing at Buckinghamshire New University. She is a Fellow of the CIPD and a former Training and Development Manager in blue-chip companies. Her latest book Why men like straight lines and women like polka dots can be found at https://tinyurl.com/olxhf5k