Putting the student at the centre of their learning (what a novel idea)

A few days ago I had an email from a friend of mine, Laura, asking me to do a video describing my ‘learning curve’ on a self-managed learning (SML) MBA programme I completed some 10 years ago. My video along with a few others was to be used to introduce the concept of SML to a client she was working with as part of a leadership development programme.

By way of explanation SML is an approach to personal development where the individual decides: what their learning needs are in light of what you want to achieve; how you might go about finding this out; the study that will be needed; and, the evidence required. In qualification programmes this is written down and formally assessed that it is of the right level for the award, for example Masters level. All of this is carried out as part of a learning set supported by an experienced facilitator. This approach was pioneered by Ian Cunningham and others in the 1990s.

In filming the video, which I have attached, it occurred to me how increasingly important it is to put the individual central to their learning, particularly in an ever uncertain and complex world where learning to learn becomes vital. That sounds obvious, but look at most universities or colleges. Courses are laid out with their learning outcomes, methods of assessment, duration, curriculum content, the amount of time with the tutor, reading lists and so on; all arranged into a number of modules, which are mostly compulsory. Does this sound like the learner is at the centre of their learning? Or is it a product of an education production line? And then there are more subtle aspects. In the production model the lecturer is seen as delivering their knowledge whilst the learner is there receiving and absorbing the insights only to digest and repackage them as part of an assignment. However if the learner was at the centre of their education they would be creating that knowledge with that lecturer and others in a way that was meaningful and challenging to them.

What I have described may not suit everyone and there is an important role for education as we currently know it. But it seems increasingly important to look for additional approaches to education particularly where those individuals are having to learn flexibility and take personal responsibility for their learning in a changing and complex world.

Cunningham, I., Bennett, B., & Dawes, G. (Eds.). (2000). Self managed learning in action: putting SML into practice. Gower.


2 thoughts on “Putting the student at the centre of their learning (what a novel idea)

  1. Your comments remind me of Paulo Freire’s work on education and the importance of the social nature of learning and public good, a point that Dewey makes so vividly too. And, how this contrasts with the fascination politicians and others have on PISA tests and the like: how we have become fixated by numbers, for example how one individual stacks up against another, and how one country compares with another etc. Very little attention now seems to be given to how the individual wants to develop particulalry in the context of wider society. We seem to have lost the bigger picture in all of this.

  2. Good stuff. It intrigues me how far from the mainstream of academia, self-managed learning still seems to be, despite the powerful thinking and writing of people like Alan Tough, Malcolm Knowles and the GrandDaddy of them all (apart from Socrates, of course), the philosopher, psychologist and teacher John Dewey at the turn of the 19th/20th Century.

    Dewey rejected traditional notions f teaching. As he put it in 1938, “To imposition from above is opposed expression and individuality…to learning from text and teacher, is opposed learning though experience…to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.” It interests me how closely Dewey integrated his thinking on education and democracy, seeing active articulation and reflective experience as essential to both.

    It saddens me the conventional academic world seems to continue, even today, despite the emerging recognition of the emancipation of the student (at least the adult student), to be so casually authoritarian, didactic and overbearing on the student and that so many learners seem to accept that as a given, against which they occasionally rebel, but rarely genuinely, intellectually challenge.

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