Most individuals would agree that there are two main purposes for the academy. Higher education exists to develop new knowledge and to disseminate it. Many of these learners are concerned with the latter purpose and assume it is achieved through teaching and learning. In higher education we have set up a system of information exchange to accommodate this teaching and learning. Traditionally, the academy is the source or the collecting point for knowledge. Students come to the academy to learn – and to have their learning validated through the granting of credentials. Typically, students register for courses in specific disciplines and they are taught content, processes and attitudes related to the courses for which they register. They are assessed by their professors, and we say that the measure of their learning is the grade they receive. (Tierney, 1999, p.1)
The Legacy of Pedagogical Learning
These assumptions have been working for quite some time. If nothing changes, there is no reason to believe that they will not continue to work. There certainly is a lot of talk about how the world is changing and how change is a constant situation for us all. However, we can see in many higher education institutions that approaches to teaching and learning are not radically changing, if they are changing at all. We see new buildings being built on our campuses with classrooms where desks are still arranged in rows. Students still take notes for four hours for 10 to 15 weeks. Sometimes students will seek clarification of the content with their instructor. They will inevitably take tests to see what they have gained from this classroom endeavor.
This mode of instructional delivery is similar to what we might have found in classes one hundred years ago. If we were to compare the use of science and technology of both doctors and educators over the past hundred years, we would see that educators are farther behind. The doctor of one hundred years ago would not be able to use the current diagnosis and treatment procedures and techniques. The educator of a century ago might feel quite at home. The world in which many academic institutions operate hasn’t changed markedly in quite a long time. There is evidence that this system has worked and is valued, given the assumptions upon which it is based. Today, we must challenge these cherished assumptions.
Two Schools of Pedagogical Thought
As individuals study the teaching and learning context of higher education, they often say that there are basically two schools amongst the variety of theories that relate to postsecondary teaching and learning: behaviorism and constructivism. (Baumgartner, et al., 2003, p. 8) The behaviorism school assumes that people learn through the development of habits. We learn new information, new frameworks, new ways, and then we embrace them as habits in our lives. We are reinforced in these habits by watching someone doing them, by listening to someone tells us about these habits, and by doing them ourselves and then witnessing the results of these actions. Teaching, in the behaviorist school, involves the learning and retention of information through drill and repetition. Facts must fit within the frameworks that have already been established. The teacher is filling up the students with new information – with the rules of how the world works. This behaviorist model is fully aligned with the existing assumptions about teaching and learning.
Learning in a constructivist framework engages a search for new meaning. It involves the creation of new internal cognitive structures in an individual so that she might organize and reorganize her own world. These processes are stimulated and developed through the introduction of new material into the context of the individual learner. The learner takes the new information and tries to both assimilate it and accommodate it relative to what she already knows. In doing this, the learner creates new meaning. Teaching in the constructivist school involves determining what learners already know, and what the new information might mean to them. The teacher creates the playing field and then is the “guide on the side” who leads students in their own discovery. This constructivist school of learning requires a new set of assumptions and is directly aligned with the realities of our postmodern world. This school forms the basis for the second model of learning — andragogy.