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Learning in a changing environment

Pat Warren-Langford
School of Management
Curtin University of Technology
All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.
(Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland, Preface.)

Alice in Wonderland

We have been fortunate this weekend in having the opportunity to examine a vast array of technological innovations available for incorporation into educational and training programs. Having little technical expertise, however, I must confess to feeling bewildered by the options, rather like Alice in Wonderland wondering which side of the mushroom to bite. It is critical that educators, faced with increased demands associated with new commitments to training, are not overwhelmed or entranced by the brilliant technology and enticing efficiencies in delivery to the extent that sound learning principles are forgotten. Collaboration between technicians and educators is vital.

This paper examines current educational objectives and offers a rationale for the use of cognitive learning strategies. Recent experiences in applying the "learning to learn" approach to the design and presentation of educational and training programmes are discussed and some practical suggestions for session structure offered.

... falling slowly down a deep, dark well

Much attention has been focused on inadequate skill development in the Australian workforce (Dawkins, 1988; DEET, 1988) and trainers are facing a barrage of demands for providing increased functional flexibility, numeracy, literacy and keyboarding competence, negotiating and decision making abilities as well as increased specialist technical knowledge. Concurrently the technical and production environments are changing with increasing rapidity, creating skill and knowledge obsolescence in many areas. Rapid technological change also implies severely resource strained training and educational institutions will find the provision of adequate equipment and machinery increasingly difficult (Cacioppe et al, 1990).

Organisations with competitive advantage therefore are likely to be those that can instil an attitude that learning is a lifetime experience and create employee self managed learning programme. The development of learning independence assumes individual confidence in learning capabilities, an assumption that we may not be able to make (Hesketh and Chandler, 1987).

Many industrial and organisational practices have inhibited the development of positive attitudes to continuous and self directed learning. Occupationally based award structures and associated job demarcations have, for example, allowed unions to cling to the notion of lifetime job entitlement, thus promoting a view that learning ends with the completion of formal education (Meyrick, 1990). Sophisticated cash registers in supermarkets and fast food outlets ensure strict stock supervision and financial control but do little to address perceived numerical deficiencies. Worse than that they carry the covert message that the operator is "a hopeless case", at least in the mathematical area, thereby undermining learning confidence. The tendency in some educational institutions to spoon feed students to ensure acceptance into tertiary institutions is also a cause for concern.

We called him Tortoise because he taught us

The training field is not immune. Research by Downs and Perry (1984) and Hesketh and Chandler (1987) led them conclude that few learning skills were developed in trainees when taught by the traditional "show and tell" or "chalk and talk" methods. These approaches give the trainer firm responsibility for In the presentation of the training session the trainer follows a standard structured format, designed to maintain attention and control, eliminate errors, emphasise key stages and test for competence. Many trainers would probably attest to the success of this approach in the acquisition of particular skills and knowledge. Downs and Perry, and Hesketh and Chandler, however, challenge its value in the transfer of that particular skill or knowledge to a new learning situation.

Curiouser and curiouser

Reference to cognitive learning strategies would provide theoretical support for their views. These strategies, covering information processing, study skills, support strategies and metacognitive strategies, assist learners to perceive, store, retain and recall different forms of knowledge and performance. A key feature of the cognitive approach is the assertion that learners must invest mental effort in actively processing information (Jonassen, 1985). Clearly in the "show and tell" approach most of the higher order processing is carried out by the trainer, not the trainee. The implicit message is that the trainee is not capable of carrying out the necessary analytical processes; a message not conducive to confidence building.

The cognitive approach attempts to transfer the processing to the trainee and to encourage the development of analytical and questioning skills. A critical factor in the development of new skills and knowledge is the knowledge the person already has (Ausubel, 1985). However, as Evans (1988) points out, time pressures and over packed syllabuses often lead to inadequate attention to the determination of what prior knowledge trainees have, and how this can be connected to the new knowledge. In self managed programmes an awareness of the gap between current and required knowledge is important. Trainers and educators therefore need to provide students with tools to undertake this assessment. The suggested session structure given below attempts to address this problem.

Evans (1988) also highlights the need for depth in processing so that better understanding can be attached to the new material. Faced with huge amounts of content to cover, it is all too easy to prescribe definitions and models to be learned without devoting sufficient effort to analysing the significance of their compon-ents. This retards the development of conceptual knowledge in several ways. Not only does it limit the practice of analysing, it conveys the impression that definit-ions and models are not to be challenged. Additionally it suggests the formulation of definitions and models is difficult and beyond the capabilities of most.

Both of these principles can be incorporated into the learning session by allowing trainees to

All persons more than a mile high to leave the court

The teacher's role is to provide organised learning experiences in a supportive, facilitative, non intrusive environment. For many educators, used to identifying and correcting mistakes, explaining in detail what is required and helping whenever students are in trouble, this will represent a radical change. Based on the work of Hesketh and Chandler (1987), Dick (1987), Stevenson (1986), and personal experience in applying these techniques in education and industry, the following suggestions are offered so that such an environment might be achieved.

"They're called lessons", the Gryphon remarked, "because they lessen from day to day"

Following uncontrolled experimentation with session format, both in industry and educational institutions over a three year period, the structure outlined below has been found to be an effective base for applying the "learning to learn" approach. This format can be adapted to practical skill acquisition, the non lecture information session, or to tutorial or discussion groups. The basic elements of the sessions include the following.

Topic introduction and individual commitment to learning task

In this element the topic parameters are set and a working definition determined. This might be achieved by student analysis of a range of examples, definitions, or situations leading to some conclusions about what constitutes the topic area. For example, in an introductory session in industrial relations students examine a variety of newspaper clippings and decide whether each situation can be considered within the province of industrial relations. Following the preliminary analysis, each student or trainee makes some commitment to gather further information. For example, group members will agree to read an article from a set list with a commitment to report back on findings.

Information gathering, preliminary analysis and reporting time

This enables "discovery" and "think time" on an individual basis without time or evaluatory pressures. The students may, however, suffer penalties if they do not fulfil the commitments they have accepted. In this element students develop skill in establishing what they need to know, determining what they already know, and discovering what they would like to know more about. In the reading example students might be asked to report on significant aspects of the article, formulate questions for class discussion and make a list of points to be clarified. This attempts to overcome the tendency to merely summarise.

Activities related to this element might involve "playing" with new machinery, watching silent demonstrations, researching and reading literature, or trying to follow procedures in a manual. The inclusion of some reporting on progress, difficulties encountered and basic understanding is integral to this stage.

Creative session conducted in groups

In this section groups carry out problem solving activities. This might involve the development of a conceptual model, procedural charts for particular tasks, or quality standards for a specific skill. An inherent part of this section is the opportunity to practice and try different techniques, which might involve disassembling or reassembling machinery, objects or constructs.

Testing and exposure of ideas to critical analysis

The models, or procedures are then tested in different situations or with different groups. This section might also include peer evaluation of the models developed or the practice of skills.

Refining for storage and retrieval

Following the testing process the models or procedures are then amended and refined on an individual or group basis. The advantage of individual refinement is that it ensures learning and memorising cues are relevant to the individual. Cue cards or recall devices can take a variety of forms. Student development of crosswords or board games incorporating course knowledge are popular and effective.

Let the jury consider its verdict

Awareness of the relationship between cognitive theory and the learning environment has developed over the last quarter of a century (Jonassen, 1985). The integration into curriculum development, media design and teaching practice has, however been a spasmodic process. Recent initiatives such as award restructuring and the Training Guarantee Levy may provide trainers, educators and media specialists with the impetus for coordination and collaboration in their efforts. It is particularly important that developers of educational technology, some of whom may have little, no or dated knowledge of educational philosophies, be informed on developments in instructional design.


Ausubel, D. (1985). Learning as constructing meaning. In N. Entwhistle (Ed.), New directions in educational psychology. London: Falmer Press.

Cacioppe, R., Warren-Langford, P. & Bell, L. (1990). Trends in human resource development and training. Asia Pacific HRM, 28(2) May 1990, 55-72.

Dawkins, J. S. (1988). A changing workforce. Canberra: AGPS.

DEET (Department of Employment, Education and Training). (1988). Industry training in Australia: The need for change. Canberra: AGPS.

Dick, B. (1987). Mechanisms for democracy in learning. Brisbane: University of Queensland.

Downs, S. & Perry, P. (1984). Research report: Developing learning skills. Journal of European Industrial Training, 8(1), 21-26.

Evans, G. (1988). Teaching for learning. Unicorn, 14(4), 235-241.

Hesketh, B., & Chandler, P. (1987). Training for new technology: Adaptability and developing learning skills. Training and Development in Australia, 14(3), 8-10.

Jonassen, D. (1985). Learning strategies: A new educational technology. Programmed Learning and Educational Technology, 22(1), 26-34.

Meyrick, L. (1990). Industrial reform in Australia. Training and Development in Australia, 17(2), 7-16.

Stevenson, J. C. (1986). Adaptability: Experimental studies. Journal of Structural Learning, 9, 107-17.

Author: Pat Warren-Langford is a lecturer in Human Resource Management and Industrial Relations at Curtin University of Technology. Prior to resuming teaching she had nine years general management experience in the hotel-motel industry. Areas of research interest include training, occupational health and safety and employee participation.

Please cite as: Warren-Langford, P. (1990). Learning in a changing environment. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 324-329. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

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