Phase III Consultation Seminar - Belfast, Monday 14 May 2001



Aims

The aims of the seminar were:

  • to identify some of the problems in teaching and learning in the particular fields of the participants;
  • to identify and prioritise questions for the Phase III research agenda; and
  • to take advice on achieving research impact in the field.

Context

  • Northern Ireland is a society emerging from conflict. It is a period of significant economic, social and political change. This impacts on all aspects of life including education.
  • There is a need to move towards the concept of the learning society, and a need for a vision to facilitate this move. The objective is to engage more of the population in the process of learning, especially at the level of post compulsory education.
  • In Northern Ireland there has not been a strong emphasis on adult learning. It was perceived that there was a need to ease the transition from post compulsory education to adult education. Men in particular need to be encouraged to return to learning, as traditionally they have not been committed to adult education. Learning may also be used to promote a new citizenship agenda for Northern Ireland.
  • The NI economy is one of the fastest growing in the UK. There is a move towards a knowledge-based society. Discussion ranged around how we might best promote improved social capital. More of the population needs to be encouraged onto the first rung of the learning ladder.
  • There is a need to combat the high level of functional illiteracy by promoting uptake of basic skills. Modes of learning are also in transition and there has been great interest in the role of ICT in delivery to new clients.
  • The voluntary and community sector has made significant use of European monies in NI to try new and informal modes of learning. There has been a considerable development of community-based learning. The expectation is that the formal education sector should be moving to work in partnership with the informal sector.
  • There is also a transition from didactic teaching methods to supporting and empowering individual learners.

Values

  • In the context of a changing society in transition it is important to be socially inclusive. There should be wide consultation on policy evolution and priorities for research.
  • There was a strong desire to involve practitioners in the policy evolution and research agenda. This should involve post compulsory education teachers as well as lecturers.
  • There was a desire to nurture further creativity in an effort to promote a learning society, which will seek to involve vulnerable groups.
  • A culture of learning was discussed. This was related to how we best promote new developments and reflective practice in teaching cultures. Individual learner identities were identified as key mediators in learning.
  • The desire to work in partnership and facilitate networking with other sectors was discussed. Teacher exchanges between sectors might facilitate this.

Developing Networks and Partnerships

  • There was a sustained debate about how best to facilitate co-operation across the sectors involved with Education provision in Northern Ireland. These include providers in Further and Higher Education, the private sector and the voluntary and community sector.
  • It was suggested that if a network or partnership were established to work across these sectors on particular and specific problems, then training should be provided to facilitate more successful understanding between the providers. This co-operation between sectors would help achieve greater value for money in educational provision. It should also promote new developmental pathways for learners and offer greater synergy in post compulsory education curriculum development. It should work as a catalyst for action. The theme of the partnership should be Lifelong Learning.
  • The development of a post sixteen partnership in education would also facilitate greater dissemination of research findings.
  • There was agreement that there should be a strong emphasis on social inclusivity and widening access. It might particularly assist with overcoming the divide at Level II between the informal education sector of the voluntary sector and the formal sector.
  • The development of such a network and working partnership would be creative of itself and promote experimental practice in the context of the new devolved Governance of NI.
  • Working in an education providers' partnership would ameliorate the competition for learners. It would also help implement the Government's document on Lifelong Learning in NI and at once improve the link between FE/HE.

Teaching and Learning

Individual Learning Identities
There was prolonged discussion of the importance of facilitating students' ability to learn successfully on an individualised basis. This was in the context of how we must learn to overcome barriers within education thereby promoting more successful uptake of education. Problems with the structure of the current system were discussed under the slogan, 'learning works but does education?' It was felt that research should capitalise on work already done in this area. There was support for a greater emphasis on research on meta learning and on learner identities.

Learning Styles
The importance of customising individual's learning journeys and the necessity of institutions facilitating a positive experience for post-compulsory education were discussed. It was noted that men were noticeably absent from adult returners to education in NI. This suggests we need greater consideration of and research into, what creates and supports a learning culture within organisations and for individual students. Can we tailor individual learning programmes to empower citizens and widen access to non-traditional students? How do we diagnose and address different learning styles? Can teachers respond to individual?s learning styles?

Questions were raised about the relationship between qualifications, skills and learning. Does the qualification structure actually promote skill acquisition or work against it? Is there a stand-off between vocational education (which is difficult to credit) and academic education (which is difficult to use). More research is needed to understand the interactions between formal education and vocational experience.

Motivation for adult learning was also considered to be a relevant topic for future research. This research might be encompassed under the heading of learning how to learn. All of this is connected to problems associated with promoting a greater interest in Staff Development within teaching and encouraging a research-led teaching culture.

There was discussion of the barriers to learning and how best to support individual students with low confidence. This was cited within the new methods of support developed through ICT. How do these new methods alter or affect pedagogy? It was agreed that ICT should only be seen as part of the answer to current problems in education here, and definitely not the whole answer.

Meta Learning in regard to the different settings for learning, time management, responsibility for own learning and reflective practice in learning were considered. This discussion also covered the broader matter of learning environments.

There was a perceived resistance to learning in SMEs, particularly, amongst managers. Further research is needed to understand how experience in SMEs could be used to promote learning.

Developing Evaluation within Teaching and Learning
It was felt there was a need to promote greater professional development within the areas of teaching and learning. Can we create (or do they already exist?) new benchmarks relating to performance in Teaching and Learning? This was seen as especially important in relation to teachers in the post sixteen sector. There was much discussion about how teachers in FE could be helped to engage in reflective practice especially with regard to peer review of teaching.

It was suggested that it might be sensible to carry out an audit of what is currently known about evaluation methods used in teaching and learning. A review of existing literature might assist with new developments through research and help further nurture creative teaching as well as enjoyable learning. This might be tied into elucidation of current models relating to teaching and learning and particularly with emphasis on different methods of teaching both formal and informal. It was felt that there might be advantage in wider dissemination of this information and opportunities for dispersal across the sectors but especially in FE. Could HE staff help FE staff in this area?

Approaches to learning were also discussed in some depth. The difficulties of students engaging in non-traditional approaches like project based learning, work based learning and portfolio building were discussed. It was agreed that it would be useful to understand more about these processes with a view to making them user friendly for students and particularly part-timers.

E-learning was seen as a potentially valuable development but one which needed new teaching cultures. More needs to be understood about, for example, the new divisions of labour in e-teaching and their implications for the development of e-learning.

More needs to be understood about perceptions of learning (what is learning for?) and people's perceptions of the 'good life'. This would be essential in any attempts to stimulate the 'demand side' for learning.

Priorities

  • Audit research already carried out, assess the reliability of this work and disseminate the subject findings more widely with a view to building on this work.
  • Seed fund several projects rather than fund large projects.
  • Research to promote social capital in a knowledge- based society and social inclusion within post compulsory education.
  • Write up stories of successful learning and research developments of learning identities/styles.
  • Promote the spirit of learning through development of new methods of working through networking and partnership across sectors to address common problems.
  • Help develop a learning society while using society itself as the agent of analysis.