Anyone who listens to me or reads this blog (e.g. when senior management loses the plot, quality compliance and task corruption, models of growth – responding to the grammar of school, improving university teaching and learning: learning from constructive alignment by not mandating it) knows that I think there are fundamental mistakes being made at most universities when it comes to how they try and improve or change the practice of learning and teaching. The following is an attempt to explain why I think it’s very badly broken and offer an alternative approach based on different theoretical underpinnings.

How do you lose weight?

In the last 10 years I have gained about 20 kilograms. I’ve spread into middle age. So while I haven’t made any serious attempt, I’ve kept an eye on all the various weight loss movements that have come and gone and occasionally dabbled in a few. I’m still about 20 kilograms over weight.

There have been a whole range of fads in that time – the Atkins diet, the CSIRO diet, various weight loss programs based around “shakes” being pushed by chemists – and the list goes on and on. Even with my limited attention span for such issues I’ve learned the important lesson, you don’t create long-term weight loss through fads. You achieve it through changes in what you do, in your lifestyle. Changes that encourage better eating and more exercise. It’s a fairly simple (to state) requirement.

My wife on the other hand is fit and trim. She goes to the gym regularly, eats well and through this interacts with a lot of other fit and trim people. People that appear to have established the changes in lifestyle necessary for long-term health. However, even amongst people who work at the gym there is a tendency to faddism. Just recently my wife relayed the story of one of the people who work at the gym who had spent hundreds of dollars on some magical supplement from overseas that would help give that extra boost. Of course it didn’t work.

Fads don’t work. What you do day in, day out has to change.

Most importantly, telling people this doesn’t work. I know this little maxim, but for at least the last 10 years I have maintained the extra weight. I haven’t made the necessary changes in my lifestyle. I’m a fairly smart fella, I know what is required, I’ve seen all the “horror” stories and commercial about the negative impacts of being over-weight, but for various reasons I haven’t made the change.

No amount of people telling me “You have to eat healthy and exercise more.” has or is likely to change what I do.

People aren’t rational

There’s an underlying assumption that many people have that we are rational, or at the very least I’m rational, but I can’t talk for other people. The idea is that when faced with a decision we will take the time to examine each alternative, weigh the positives and negatives against each other and make the optimial decision given the current context.

If that were the case, why would there be an obesity problem in most of the developed world. Surely, if we were rational, we’d all recognise the importance of healthy living and take the necessary steps…..

Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational has more to say on this.

Human beings are not rational decision makers, we do not process all available information and chose rationally.

People are pattern processing intelligences

An alternative view is that human beings are pattern processing intelligences. Dave Snowden does a good job at explaining this, take a listen to this excerpt taken from one of the many talks he’s given – sorry I’ve lost the specific link, you can access his podcast of talks

The point here is that we make decisions based on the patterns we have collected in our head. Those patterns are mostly influenced by recent experience. What we do in life, what we experience, reinforces those patterns. It’s very hard to break out of those patterns.

Can you see how this explains why it is hard to lose weight? Your way of life creates patterns, the way you eat, the amount of exercise you get, all create patterns that influence your future actions. You have to break those patterns to escape, to make the change.

How do you make the change?

As I said above, I don’t think and I think experience supports this, that having a doctor tell you to lose weight won’t help you make that change. Going on a crash diet won’t help you change the ingrained patterns. You might lose some weight, but those patterns reassert themselves and you are soon back to the same old bad habits and gaining weight again.

The person that needs to lose the weight has to want to make the change. Now, some of these folk have the will power to make drastic change. But most people don’t. Most people need the help and assistance over a long time to make the changes in their day to day activities. They start small and change over time. Make small changes over time, these start to accumulate and eventually the day to day experiences that form patterns are changing.

Over the last few months, I’ve made some small changes sufficient that I am getting into some real exercise at least four or five times a week. It’s getting to the stage that I feel I’m missing out if I don’t meet that goal. The patterns are starting to help. My most recent change is to stop buying ice-cream – we’ll see how well that goes.

I’m trying to make small changes in what I do from day to day. I’m trying to establish new patterns of activity that I can maintain. As each pattern gets established, I’m looking for more small changes.

Patterns and conceptions of learning and teaching

There is a lot of research literature from education/L&T that suggests that the quality and type of learning and teaching an academic/teacher can engage in is limited by their conceptions of learning and teaching. This is something that is hinted at in the following diagram from Trigwell (2001) – and one I’ve used before.

Trigwell's model of teaching

Typically this is talked about in terms of the conception of teaching in terms of Kember’s (1997) main orientations – teacher-centered/content-oriented, or student-centered/learning oriented – or something similar and can be represented graphical as follows.

Kember categorisation model of conceptions of teaching

Then there’s other work that finds that there are also disciplinary differences in how people teach. For example, Harpe and Radloff (2006)

There is considerable evidence that different disciplines have their own culture, language, and practices which influence their approach to learning and teaching and hence, the kind of support required for further development and enhancement of learning and teaching practice.

. Not surprisingly, this discipline based approach to L&T is also evident in online systems. For example, Smith, Heindel et al (2008)

Differences in curriculum and teaching styles across disciplines in higher education courses are also evident in online courses…….Results suggest that over five years, e-learning in pure disciplines has become more commoditized, while e-learning in applied disciplines has become more diversified and more oriented to community practice.

There are many others.

Not surprisingly, I think you’ll find that the conceptions of teaching and the discipline specific differences in teaching are largely created by the “I’ll teach the way I was taught” situation.

The link?

Can you see the link I’m going to suggest between these and the observation that human beings are pattern processing intelligences? I’m going to argue that people teach the way they were taught to a large extent because we are pattern processing intelligences.

When we are asked to make decisions about how we are going to teach, we do not take the time to examine all the literature on pedagogy and choose the approach best suited to the content and students we are teaching. We look for the patterns from our past experience that seem to fit. We select on a first fit pattern match.

Questions for you

Let me ask you some questions.

Think about a university that you know or work at. Think about the processes that are required of academics when they design and deliver a course. Think about the policies that guide these processes. Think about the resources including the rooms and the learning management systems, and how those resources are allocated. Think about the people involved in that teaching in terms of backgrounds, outlook and roles. Now answer these questions:

  • encourage change in teaching practice;
    What aspects of those processes, policies, resources and people encourage change in patterns of experience? What about this things would encourage academics to change the way they do things?

    Now, of those things that encourage them to change. What percentage of the academics at the university engage in them?

  • discourage change in teaching practice;
    Now, think about the aspects of the policies, processes, resources and people at that univeristy that discourage change? What percentage of academics at the university are effected by those forces?

Learning and teaching at universities reinforces existing patterns

I’m not going to go into a detailed list here. It is my suggestion that at most universities that the following applies:

  • Just about everything about the policies, processes, resources and people at Universities discourage change.
    Learning management systems encourage/enable continuation of previous practice. Minimum course standards discourage change. Fear of failure discourages experimentation and change. People teaching within discipline groupings discourages change. The emphasis on research at the expense of teaching, discourages change. The physical nature of the rooms and how they are timetabled discourage change……
  • The policies, processes, resources and people that discourage change effect 100% of the people teaching at universities.
  • There are very few things about the policies, processes, resources and people at Universities that encourage change in teaching.
    It might be argued that requirements for teaching qualifications encourage change. The presence of instructional design and staff development groups encourage change. Learning and teaching grants encourage change.
  • Those aspects that encourage change are embraced by a vanishingly small percentage of the teaching staff.
    At my institution you could count on two hands the number of folk enrolled in a teaching qualification. Some of them are doing it to be compliant. A small group of staff attend the staff development forums, apply for the learning and teaching grants…..

My argument is that most of what an institution does around teaching discourages change. How can you improve learning and teaching if change is discouraged? You can’t.

Institutional processes, policies, and resources allow academic staff to maintain their existing patterns of experience around teaching.

The radical weight loss approach

When universities attempt to improve learning and teaching it is most often through the equivalent of radical, faddish weight loss programs. Academics are required to engage in a new process that will improve learning and teaching, but the new process is so radically different from what they’ve done in the past that there is no fundamental change in their patterns of experience.

At best they may achieve some short-term weight loss (i.e. improvement in learning), but long-term they will revert back to their old practice and eventually put the weight back on.

In some cases, if the radical weight loss is so different, the poor teaching staff member will never actually be able to understand it. To some extent this connects with the point made in this BrainRules video about schema.

The alternative

The policies, processes, resources and people involved in the day to day teaching activities of an organisation have to be designed to have more emphasis on making small, sustainable changes to accepted, widespread practice.

Rather than enshrine and prevent change to current practice, rather than attempt large scale radical weight loss, an institution needs to focus on what the teaching staff do and create policies, processes, and resources that encourage teaching staff to gradually change the patterns they have around teaching.

In the words of Cavallo (2004)

As we see it, real change is inherently a kind of learning. For people to change the way they think about and practice education, rather than merely being told what to do differently, we believe that practitioners must have experiences that enable appropriation of new modes of teaching and learning that enable them to reconsider and restructure their thinking and practice.

Teaching staff need to be able to experience and observe small changes in teaching practice that make sense to them. The small change has to be heavily contextual and related to the prior experience, their prior patterns. However, it needs to help them move their patterns onwards, just that little bit.

A system that continues to encourage this gradual change will not only improve over time, it will radically change how it does things. It will differentiate itself from other contexts, it will innovate.

Theoretical links

I was going to go on. But if you want some additional theoretical links, the above perspective is informed very much by ideas around complex adaptive systems and in particular the work of Dave Snowden, Stephen Downes and George Siemens.


Cavallo, D. (2004). Models of growth – Towards fundamental change in learning environments. BT Technology Journal, 22(4), 96-112.

Harpe, B. d. l., & Radloff, A. (2006, 5-7 July, 2006). Building on AUQA Learning and Teaching Commendations in Devolved Institutional Contexts. Paper presented at the Australian University Quality Forum, Perth, Australia.

Kember, D. (1997). A reconceptualisation of the research into university academics’ conceptions of teaching. Learning and Instruction, 7(3), 255-275.

Smith, G., Heindel, A., & Torres-Ayala, A. (2008). E-learing commodity or community: Disciplinary differences between online courses. Internet and Higher Education, 11(3-4), 152-159.

Trigwell, K. (2001). "Judging university teaching." The International Journal for Academic Development 6(1): 65-73.