Change (and learning)

Learning is about change. Change in terms of creating new understandings and behaviour, and also facilitating change in the student for whatever motivation brought them to the classroom in the first place. People want to be educated because they want to produce change in one or more areas: in employment, in status, in well-being, to find fulfilment.

Seeing things in terms of change reveals something of the job of the teacher too. A large part of a teacher’s job is to adapt their themselves, their style of delivery and the material themselves to the job at hand. They are constantly changing things to suit the moment.

Biggs (2003) argues that education is fundamentally about ‘conceptual change.’ He writes:

“As we learn, our concepts of phenomena change, and we see the world differently. The acquisition of information itself does not bring about such change, but the way we structure that information and think with it does.

Thus, education is about conceptual change, not just the acquisition of information. (p. 13).”

Biggs’s thinking is reminiscent of the famous quote, ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’



Eating (as a metaphor for learning)

Biggs (2003), while discussing the need for ‘constructive alignment’ when developing curricula, notes the common occurrence of metaphors in English that make a connection between eating and learning.  The most common of these is the negative association about ‘spoon feeding’ students. Biggs writes:

“Spoon feeding, like the other level one metaphors with their curious affinity to metabolic processes – ‘regurgitating’, ‘chewing it over’, ‘stuffing them with facts’, ‘ramming down their throats’, ‘getting your teeth into’–puts a stranglehold on the student’s cognitive processes. Spoon feeding does the work for the students, so that they have little left to do but obediently swallow.” (p. 27)

To counter this, Biggs recommends that more emphasis should be put on what the student does rather than what the teacher does, meaning a greater emphasis should be put on activities where the student is actively engaged in the learning process.

However, it’s interesting to explore how prevalent eating metaphors are in an education setting. Getting students to ‘ruminate’ on things is not a bad idea. Ideas themselves can be ‘distasteful’ just as some activities cannot be some student’s ‘cup of tea.’ Things can be ‘easy as pie,’ and then of course there’s the old proverb: ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’

Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, scientist and author, wrote in his essay “Of Studies” makes a great comparison between reading and eating:

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

The prevalence of metaphors about eating is most likely has something to do with the infantile origins of the student-teacher relationship, echoing its child-parent origins. This is presumably why ‘spoon feeding’ has such a negative connotation. It implies total helplessness and passivity on the part of the student.

Further reading

Biggs, JB 2011, Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does, 2nd edn, McGraw-Hill, Maidenhead (UK).



Fire (education as ‘lighting a fire’)

The famous quotation, ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,’ is attributed to a few people, most often W. B. Yeats, sometimes Socrates. According Quote Investigator, the quote comes from the Greek biographer and essayist, Plutarch.

Plutarch’s version varies slightly compared to the quote attributed to Yeats. It appeared in Plutarch’s essay, “On Listening,” which is worth quoting at length:

“We must encourage those lazy ones, however—once they have grasped the basic points—to interconnect everything else on their own, to use memory to guide original thinking, and to accept what someone else says as a starting point, a seed to be nourished and grown.

For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting—no more—and then it motivates one towards originality and instils the desire for truth.

Suppose someone were to go an ask his neighbours for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his innate flame, his own intellect, but is happy to sit entranced by the lecture, and the words trigger only associative thinking and bring, as it were, only a flush to his cheeks and a glow to his limbs’ but he has not dispelled or dispersed, in the warm light of philosophy, the internal dank gloom if his mind.”

According to  that sense of 'lighting a fire' should be the

"Too few of our teacher training programs demonstrate what it is like to teach well, to assess well, or to serve as an effective role model. Most teachers of college or graduate students see their job as transmitting the inert knowledge of their discipline.

While experts need to have some of this inert knowledge, class room teachers need to know how to coach and encourage their students, so that students can gain various literacies, come to love knowledge, know how to learn, and know how to assess their own growth.

Unless candidate teachers have had such experiences in their own education, it is unreasonable to expect them to display these virtues to their students."

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Scott (2005) in response to a large scale survey of students found that:

“If group work is to be effective, students will need to be alerted explicitly to what makes for productive collaboration in order for there to be careful management of expectations around group assessment and for there to be specific strategies for managing ‘freeloaders’, along with specific advice on how to make communication between group members efficient and effective.” (45)