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8 March: Deep and Surface learning and the Humanistic tradition

10 March 2011


From the Reading Groups

  • You can download the Wolf Report (Review of Vocational Education, 2011) from here.
  • Mind-mapping software; I have a free version of MindGenius 2 which can legally be installed from a CD.
  • FreeMind is a powerful (perhaps too powerful, and not very pretty) open-source tool.
  • Edraw MindMap is a more domestic product; basic version is a free download
  • CMap tools is for concept-mapping, which is slightly different but very useful

The reading groups looked at the humanistic tradition, which we visited briefly at the end of the afternoon; you identified the importance of motivation and how it emphasises trusting the learner. And the key question which came up was about the trigger to motivate learners for your subject–how do you find that?

In the humanistic approach the teacher is seen as a facilitator, which is fine, but may result in abrogating responsibility; and we touched on the fact that not all students can handle their increased responsibility for their own learning (although Emily came up with a great example of where the strategy had paid off).

This led on to thinking about whether you have the time to adopt a facilitation approach rather than direct instruction; the curriculum nowadays tends to be so “stuffed” to use Meyer and Land’s evocative term, that it is increasingly difficult. As we discussed, it’s not only a change of tactics, but a completely different approach.

And that brought up the other theme, about Deep and Surface learning (more below); which in turn led to the Wolf report (download link above) and her harsh judgement of the quality of many current vocational qualifications.

In the main session, we first addressed a point from last week’s post-its, about the place of divergent thinking in teaching, and planning for it. Using the Kolb cycle as a basic framework (although agreeing that it is not really about “taught learning”), I showed how he saw divergent thinking as characterising the top-right or reflective quadrant. Reflection is about responding to experience, in many different ways, with assorted feelings and alternative explanations of what may be going on; generating those calls on divergent thinking skills. It is only after the reflection has been tested with theory (abstract conceptualisation) that you collapse the probabilities and zoom in on the (one hopes) correct answer in a convergent way. So a well-formed teaching session will consist of encouraging divergent thinking to begin with, and then testing it, and generating convergent answers. Of course, it has to be said that different disciplines treat this very differently. (We went round the cycle with reference to cooking, and it was Shrove Tuesday–hence the recipes below.)

And so to our concrete experience and reflection bit, using the Prosser and Trigwell Approaches to Teaching Inventory (1999). You completed it and we mapped out your scores, exploring the relationship between subjects and settings and the scores. That led into a slightly more systematic exploration of deep and surface learning, and the different conceptions of what learning is, held by students. Although I didn’t go into all five categories described by Marton and Saljo using their “phenomenographic” approach to the analysis of students’ work, they are described here.

One useful tool for examining the sophistication of students’ understanding of material is Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy, and we went through that, emphasising the importance of understanding connections and relationships between items of knowledge (and–although we didn’t say so, skills and values). We discussed how the internal structures of different forms of knowledge affect its “learnability”–and returned to how the structure of a curriculum can atomise and fragment material making it more difficult to learn. (Here’s a reflection on that from my main blog.)

And so to a brief consideration of the humanistic theorists, based largely on the reading I suggested last week, and developing some of the points you made in the reading group discussions.

We considered the applicability of humanistic approaches to younger students and those with learning disabilities; this is where the rather strange ideas of Rudolf Steiner are at least interesting. We did not incidentally look at A S Neill and Summerhill, one of the great (and still continuing) dubious experiments in education which gives real meaning to the term “free school”!


I hope the above has clarified the requests for more on deep and surface, and convergent/divergent perspectives. However, we only touched on the strategic learner, who is the student who treats his course as a challenge and a game, and tries to play it well.

  • Here is a strange page from the University of Central Lancashire which is actively advising students how to become more strategic. They’ve missed the point; strategic learners get good grades, but they do so only because they concentrate on getting grades, not on understanding the subject.
  • Here’s another blog reflection with links.
  • Note that being “strategic” is generally regarded as a good thing in management terms; the module Peter H teaches on the MA is about “strategic leadership and management”. So if you look up “strategic learning” on Google, you will get all kinds of stuff which is not about this sense of the term at all.

One of the blue notes asks about the empirical evidence behind the humanistic approach. That’s difficult, because it starts from a value position which eschews most of the conventional indices of educational achievement. Exam success, for example, is irrelevant as long as every learner reaches her or his full potential–and what that potential is, may be defined on a purely individual basis (see the Summerhill link above to get a feel for it).

More pragmatically, however, the roots of some humanistic thinking may be found in the work of Kurt Lewin in the ’40s  in adult education in areas such as public health in the States, and that has a sounder basis.

For next week:

We shall be looking at situated learning, and the best introduction is not in the standard texts mentioned in the Unit outline, but this article downloadable here.

…And possibly get on to threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. There are several short papers outlining the idea here (and further links at the bottom).

Now for the important stuff…

Souvlaki [based on Stein (2007: 128)] and extensive experimentation in pursuit of perfection.*

  • about 200g + lamb per person. (Boneless, from shoulder, leg, best end of neck, fillet or even loin chops if you have money to burn, cut into rough 35mm/1 1/2″ chunks)
  • twice as much oregano as you would normally use
  • juice of a lemon. (Roll it on the chopping board under pressure to get the juices out. You can throw the rest of it into the marinade, too. Why not? And bottled lemon juice is almost as good.)
  • Suitable glug of olive oil (enough to ensure that the meat is coated with it and lemon juice).
  • Salt and lots of black pepper
  • Nothing else (less is more. In terms of learning this was my big mistake, and illustrates the limitation of simply continuing with the experiential learning cycle as Kolb sets it out. For years, literally, I “refined” this recipe with more onions/shallots/garlic/peppers/ even (forgive me) chilli. They all worked against each other rather than enhancing each other…)

Mix it all together and leave to marinate. Stein says for one hour; I prefer overnight or longer, but we agree–not in the fridge.

Souvlaki is properly a skewered, barbecued dish, but it can be grilled (10 minutes with turning), slow roasted (an hour or so at a low heat–this kind of dish does not scale for time as a single roast does) or fast roasted (20-30 minutes in a high oven) Don’t go for the middle–it just gets dried up….

Pancakes: a bit late for this year. These are not traditional Shrove Tuesday tossed thin crepes but more robust, thicker (up to 6mm) but more compact (about 100mm) American-style pancakes…

  • A heaped tablespoon of self-raising flour. (Plain flour for Yorkshire puds, s-r for pancakes)
  • A heaped dessert spoon of sugar
  • A rounded tea spoon of baking powder
  • Half a flat teaspoon of salt (or less, but some at least)
  • One egg (this poses the tricky scaling issue; you can multiply all the other ingredients quite happily, but at what point do you need another egg? I think it is when you reach three times the above amounts, but in practice there appears to be no harm in using more eggs, so err on the side of generosity).
  • Milk (or milk and water) to mix the batter to the consistency of thick double cream.

Put it in the fridge and it will thicken, so you may need to add more liquid (carefully–a little liquid makes a big difference) before cooking. You can use the batter at once, but letting it rest seems to produce better results.

Lightly oil a frying pan and pre-heat until a drop of water turns into a dancing ball when dropped in the pan. Pour in the batter, sufficient to spread to about four inches. When bubbles have formed and burst on the top surface, flip over and cook for about fifteen seconds or so until lightly browned. “Children are like pancakes–always throw the first one away” (Peter  Benchley) Once you have the hang of the process, do them in batches of three or four at a time.

Serve with maple syrup.

* Don’t believe Blumenthal! Sorry I can’t reference this properly, because I sent his silly book to Oxfam (strange poetic justice…) He misses the point (simply for the purpose of a TV concept, of course) in insisting that there is a “perfect” hamburger/roast chicken/bolognese sauce. All those dishes and practically all others are just themes on which there are infinite variations suited to individual taste.

The Blumenthal model then, is convergent. Practice is divergent. But training chefs is convergent, towards a standardised product for consistency… It is only at the higher reaches that originality and creativity is valued. And that is probably the only way it can work…


Prosser M and Trigwell K (1999) Understanding Learning and Teaching Buckingham; Open University Press and SRHE

Stein R (2007) Mediterranean Escapes London; BBC Books

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