Academic journey


Information and Human Learning

Information and Human Learning

I have written fourteen books, as sole or joint author, edited six more, and have published some two hundred articles. Many would have to be your typical academic potboilers. My first publications were on my NFER work on teaching arithmetic, my first attempt at trying to apply psychology to education top-down. It turned out to be a journey down the wrong road. There have in fact been very few educational innovations directly arising from applying psychological principles, but plenty from educational research conducted in context.

In the 50s and 60s the psychology of learning was all about Skinner, rats and behaviourism. In Information and Human Learning (Melbourne: Cassell, 1968; Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1971; Stuttgart: Klett, 1974) I argued that behaviourism couldn’t possibly model educational learning, but information processing in limited memory systems could. A better fit, certainly, but still wrong. The educational context has to be the starting point, not theories derived from experiments done in laboratories or with captive first years as subjects. To make this point, I thought I’d use the term ‘educology’ (educ – ational psych – ology): ‘Educology: The theory of educational practice’ (Contemporary Educational Psychology, 1, 274-284, 1976).

Student learning research, which started with students’ approaches to learning and now so influential in higher education, is a good example of what I see as educology – although nobody called it that except me – because it started with students learning, not with psychologists psychologising. Another example is the SOLO Taxonomy, which started with Piaget’s stages of development and ended in levels of quality in students ’ learning.

Process of Learning, 3rd edition

Process of Learning

All the above is about how students tick. What does it say about more effective teaching? The following paper elaborated on these implications for teaching and assessment: ‘Approaches to the enhancement of tertiary teaching’ (Higher Education Research and Development, 8, 7-25, 1989). This was based on my Inaugural Lecture on my appointment to the Chair of Education at the University of Hong Kong. Internal politics were going badly at the time and I desperately wanted to impress. I might have – but unfortunately not those I had in mind.

The Process of Learning (Sydney: Prentice Hall Australia, 1981, 1987 with R. Telfer; 1993, with P. Moore) was, in its day, the most popular text in university teacher education in Australia. The thrust was not to tell students about which psychologists said what, as did virtually all other texts, but to give students a framework they could use reflectively when making classroom decisions. This was the first educational psychology text to use examples and applications designed specifically for Australian classrooms.

Where I am at present

The important focus in improving teaching is not on what teachers do, but on what and how students learn. When we have articulated those outcomes of learning, we should align teaching methods to best help students learn those outcomes, and design assessment tasks to allow us to judge how well students have learned them. This is what I call constructive alignment. A useful tool for achieving alignment is the SOLO Taxonomy, which helps us to define the quality of learning we want in our intended learning outcomes and assessment targets. Students’ approaches to learning are a good index of the quality of students’ learning. Individual teachers, and institutions as a whole, can use the principles of constructive alignment, SOLO and students’ approaches to learning to help them reflect on the quality of their teaching, to see why things might be going poorly and how they might be done more effectively.

Teaching in Hong Kong provided me with a most rewarding twist to this work: The Paradox of the Chinese Learner. Students from the Confucian heritage are stereotyped by Westerners as rote learners yet they achieve astonishingly high outcomes that would be impossible on the basis of rote learning. How can that be?

Corporatising universities was a bad move. It prevented universities from pursuing their unique role: to carry out research and to teach without fear of political or corporate bullying, or of being rewarded for producing contrived outcomes. For more, see Biggs, J and Davis R. (Eds) The Subversion of Australian Universities see especially Chs 1 and 12, and Chapter 9 for a look at the extraordinary case of the University of Newcastle, which is still at its games of bullying. The final chapter of my memoir Changing Universities  brings the sorry tale up to date, but since then the Abbott government is dead set on  privatising damn near the whole sector. Now Turnbull is PM we have yet to see how that will be played.