Challenging conceptions: Can we change how we think about teaching and learning?

Challenging Conceptions

As part of my MA I have been reading a fair amount of research into how our conceptions of what teaching and learning is, can impact not only on our approaches to teaching and learning but also what we intrinsically value in the same. Anyone who has been (kindly) reading my blog for a while, may be familiar with my reflective ramblings that don’t often offer up answers – I’m sorry to say that this post will be another along that thread.

The more I have read, the more this issue seems to be fundamentally important to any progress we make within Higher Education, with or without technology. This might be painfully obvious to some of you, however please bear with me on this as this is my own journey of discovery, which also involves a small amount of reminiscing.

What is learning?

This is the question that was posed to me back in 2010 whilst I was studying on the OU’s PGCert in Online and Distance Education. “That’s easy!” I thought,”learning is the transference of knowledge”.  My tutor listened patiently whilst we listed various descriptors of learning all along a similar theme. “So”, my tutor prodded, “knowledge is something that is neutral and can be passed directly from my head to yours, unadulterated?”. That definitely didn’t seem right to me, but that is how I had just described learning, and so had many of my peers.

That moment was a true “light bulb moment” for me. We spent the next hour debating what learning was, how it occurred, what circumstances need to happen for learning to take place and I really believe it was a transformative moment in my life. I had never, during the previous sixteen years of education , ever, stopped to think about what learning is. Interestingly, and entirely anecdotally, it transformed how I approached learning and viewed the role of Alex, our tutor. No longer was Alex a steely gatekeeper of facts, but a prompting facilitator, helping us make our bumbling way to conclusions that were all the more meaningful, and memorable, for the winding route taken to get there.

How often do we ask learners to examine what learning is? To question the language that they use to describe learning? To consider why they are learning? To what end?

During my entire under-graduate experience, I had not been asked this question once. Could that transformative moment have happened years earlier?

Why do conceptions matter anyway?

Now this is where a lot of my research has been focused. Most of this research is interested in examining the language that people use to describe either teaching or learning and broadly speaking, both can be whittled down to two main groups (made up of sub categories within it).

For brevity, the two main groups for concepts of teaching are made up of people who conceptualise content as the main focus of learning (transmissive) or those that conceptualise the learner as the focus of learning (faciliative). These should be seen as points on a scale, where people can fall anywhere in between the two (Kember & Kwan, 2000).

Interestingly, learners can also be split into two main camps in terms of their conceptions of learning (Säljö, 1979). Again, for brevity, these can be broadly described as those that perceive learning to be passive and those that perceive learning to be active.

And this is where it starts to become important, passive learners who are being taught by faciliative tutors can find the process to be unfamiliar and distressing. This method of teaching does not sit with their expectations of what ‘good teaching’ looks like, or their expectations of higher education as a place to be ‘lectured at’ by experts.

A relationship has also been demonstrated between teachers approaches to teaching in Higher Education and how learners approach learning –  so, content focused teaching results in students who are also focused on the content and recall, and not upon developing a conceptual change in their knowledge or understanding (Lindblom-Ylänne et al, 2006).

What has this got to do with technology enhanced learning?

For higher education to be successful, I believe, that we are aiming for students to take a transformative approach to learning. We don’t want them to simply memorise facts or learn by rote, but to challenge and engage with content, the tutor and one another. This cannot be done through lecturing alone, by only prioritising the delivery of content or facts.

If we are trying to achieve technology enhanced learning and not technology replicated learning (or teaching for that matter), we are looking to innovate how teaching and learning happens in higher education.

Typically, and sometimes unfairly, staff are held up as barriers to this change, but i think it is also worth exploring student expectations and understandings of what learning is and what it means to learn. We need to invite them to explore their existing frameworks of what it means to be a university student and examine the role they play in their learning  – is it active or passive?

Research has also explored how our HE institutions, despite vocalising support for a learner-centric approach to teaching, undermine the good intentions by providing an environment that makes innovation and change impossible to achieve (Gibbs & Coffey, 2004).  Our teaching spaces are still geared up to support a “sage on the stage” approach, the class sizes are increasing, academic workload is growing and timetables are by necessity rigid and unyielding to changes in approach. Where do we expect innovation to happen? Where are the safe places for experimentation?

Is it really any surprise that lecturing is still the dominant teaching method in higher education? Without encouraging teachers, learners and those responsible for policy and strategies, to explicitly examine what they believe good teaching and good learning looks like, and to engage in debates around this, we cannot ever assume that we are all working towards the same goals.



Gibbs, G., & Coffey, M. (2004). The impact of training of university teachers on their teaching skills, their approach to teaching and the approach to learning of their students. Active learning in higher education, 5(1), 87-100.

Kember, D., & Kwan, K. P. (2002). Lecturers’ approaches to teaching and their relationship to conceptions of good teaching. In Teacher thinking, beliefs and knowledge in higher education (pp. 219-239). Springer Netherlands.

Lindblom‐Ylänne, S., Trigwell, K., Nevgi, A., & Ashwin, P. (2006). How approaches to teaching are affected by discipline and teaching context. Studies in Higher education, 31(03), 285-298

Säljö, R. (1979). Learning about learning. Higher Education, 8(4), 443-451.