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Teacher beliefs about teaching and learning

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 180-187)

5.3 Case Study Two Findings

5.3.2 Making Sense of the Learning Object

5.3.2.1 Teacher beliefs about teaching and learning

The data suggest that the teacher and tutors related to the learning object in markedly differing ways which led to an internal contradiction in the learning object and subsequent conflicts during the transformation of the object. The following section will examine these findings.

The teacher articulated clear objectives around the learning object and believed that, through activity, certain learning objectives would be realised. She drew on constructivist and social constructivist theories of learning to design and implement the learning activity. In terms of constructivism, the teacher viewed learners as active

participants in their learning, believing that they should be engaged in constructing meaning rather than being inactive receptacles for knowledge. The peer feedback activity was a tool to encourage the students to write and reflect upon their writing, and develop an awareness of writing in both business and academic contexts.

Students were required to deconstruct and then reconstruct texts; for example, they were introduced to a critical review text in lecture, re-encountered it and developed their understanding in face-to-face workshops, consolidated and extended their understanding with their peers online, and finally generated a critical review text for teacher assessment. It was an iterative process composed of many steps which required students to develop drafts and then polish them in different contexts.

Informed by social models of learning, the teacher envisioned the students developing their understanding of business and academic writing with their peers in a community rather than in isolation. Through social interaction and the process of giving and receiving feedback online, the students would present their writing to each other, make comparisons between others‘ work and their own, encounter a range of experiences around the text, become sensitized to characteristics of the text, and enhance their understanding through reflection and critical evaluation. Thus, social interaction was used as a tool to support individual learning.

They‟re in a university, part of their university learning is this working together, learning to, I mean for me, I suppose I‟m coming from the idea that learning is valuable when you think about what you‟re doing and why you‟re doing it and how you‟re doing it, so the peer feedback is really to get them to think about what was required in the task and how to do it ... it‟s really to develop in them a more cooperative co-constructed learning approach to their writing which is what they‟re going to have to do in groups, when they‟re doing group work in this school and also in the workplace when they collaborate with others. (Teacher 1/Interview 1)

The purpose of [name of learning management system] is to get the students to write to one another and to get them writing so that others are reading their work. I don‟t want to mark this work at all I just want them to use this platform to put their work up and get feedback so they‟re thinking about what is good writing and in the process of giving feedback they‟re actually having to deconstruct someone else‟s writing. (Teacher 1/Interview 1)

Influenced by the belief that students could act as knowledge resources for each other, the teacher conceptualised the peer feedback activity as a student-only space where social interaction occurred amongst the students and the voice of the tutor was essentially absent. In this activity, the role of the tutor was to provide a blunt assessment by assigning three types of grades (0, 50, or 100) to verify work had been completed rather than offer direct and detailed feedback on the students‘ work. Thus, feedback came from students, not the tutor.

So I tell the tutors this is not your place to give feedback, this is not where it‟s happening. This is just a tool to get the students writing, looking at one another‟s work actually focusing on their own writing and presenting it so others can read it. Um, you‟re not paid to give feedback. If you start giving feedback it will take a long long time dealing with all this work and you‟re not paid for that. Sure I‟d love them to give feedback, but again we don‟t have the resources to pay them. I know when I set [name of LMS] up that this was not going to be a requirement.

The tutors found this really hard and they still struggle with it. And (name of tutor), you might have heard her say at the meeting the other day “I don‟t give feedback.” whereas others are wanting to give comments. (Teacher 1/Interview 1)

There is a hint in the above excerpt that the decision to use student rather than teacher feedback in the online activity may have been influenced by resourcing issues. The context of this learning activity cannot be ignored – five teachers are responsible for the writing development of 260 first year students. By asking the students to give regular direct feedback instead of the tutors, inevitably the tutors‘ workload was reduced. However, regardless of this contextual factor, the learning activity was predicated on the belief that the students could function as resources for each other in the development of writing.

In contrast to the lead teacher‘s beliefs, Tutor One and Tutor Two did not relate to the learning object in the same way. In particular, they were concerned that many students were not capable of offering guidance and advice about writing to their peers. Their pedagogical perspective viewed social interaction between the students as an ineffective tool to realise stated learning objectives. In place of the student

voice, they believed that targeted individual feedback from the tutor-as-expert should be given. Tutor Two questioned the efficacy of independent learning in this context:

I don‟t think they get enough help. I think they‟re expected, the focus on them learning independently is not practical when you‟re trying to undo the previous 10, 12 years of experience writing. That it is not a course where you say, where they have to do this for themselves or they have to learn the grammar for themselves or they have to, you know, they come to the lecture and they have to apply it to their own writing. They aren‟t capable of that in that stage of their writing process, they‟re just not. (Tutor 2/Interview 1)

I don‟t think they‟re quite ready for it [students working together without the teacher]… I think they still need someone to hold their hands and tell them where to put an apostrophe. (Tutor 2/Interview 1)

Tutor One‘s beliefs were reinforced by a negative experience as a student participating in an online discussion which she described as ―sheer hell,‖ particularly in relation to being dependent on others to complete her work. Additionally, in her teaching practice, she had used the LMS in the paper twice before and viewed it as

―clunky,‖ and she questioned the validity of the learning activity.

When you ask people to put things online, because you want them writing, you‟re not testing their writing, you‟re testing their computer skills first, which sets up a whole lot of discomfort I think for some, perhaps not for all, but it sets up a whole lot of discomfort and makes the writing more difficult. If you can‟t type, then, you know, you‟ve got that‟s a barrier before you can even start thinking about what you‟re going to write. (Tutor 1/Interview 1)

Based on these negative perceptions of pedagogy and/or the tool, the tutors perceived that the learning object was flawed. Under an activity theory interpretation, these beliefs can be conceptualised as historical factors which were imported into the learning activity and shaped the tutors‘ engagement in the transformation of the learning object. As the tutors participated in the learning activity, these beliefs were reinforced as they observed some students struggling to offer feedback to their peers.

There was a sense of the blind leading the blind:

They‟re struggling to do what they‟re supposed to do, but they don‟t understand it. I mean, some of the feedback, you see, you think, oh my balls and whiskers, why do you think that? What little fantasy have you got to overcome, um and so if

they‟re giving feedback which is wrong to people who have got no idea what they‟re doing anyway, their usefulness is limited. (Tutor 1/Account 2)

The transformation of the learning object lacked meaning for the tutors in the same way that it had meaning for the teacher. From the tutors‘ perspective, the coupling of the learning object with the teacher‘s objectives was problematic as they believed that student-to-student interaction would not necessarily result in developing the students‘

understanding of writing. This situation created an internal contradiction in the learning object by fracturing the connection between object and objective. This fracture eroded the value of the task for the tutors and aggravated tensions in the relationship between the tutors and the teacher.

These tensions between the teacher and tutors were exhibited during the weekly meetings (attended by the teacher, the four tutors, and the researcher) in which teaching and learning were planned. Motivated by the belief that the pedagogy was flawed, Tutor Two often asserted control over the workshops by distributing teaching resources and giving advice. As the other tutors were focused on the practicalities of teaching the students that week, this functional orientation to the meetings was welcomed and the tutors tended to perceive Tutor Two as the expert rather than the teacher. In addition, resources supplied by the teacher (for example, the tutorial plan and student worksheets) were often radically modified or rejected out-of-hand by Tutor Two.

In her teaching practice, Tutor Two resisted the teacher‘s representation of the peer feedback task (learning object) by posting her own written feedback. She brought her voice to bear in the virtual space which had been designated a student-only space by the teacher. Additionally, Tutor Two devoted extra time for face-to-face interaction with individual students to ensure they received tailored assistance. In essence, she created a new representation of the learning object in which her voice was heard;

however, by doing so, she experienced a significant increase in her workload and this led to feelings of resentment.

In contrast, whereas Tutor One did resist the teacher‘s representation of the object, her resistance was manifested in more subtle and indirect ways. She distanced herself from the learning object by rarely discussing the LMS or the peer feedback task in the weekly face-to-face workshops. In addition, she emphasised the importance of teacher feedback – circulating around the class offering comments on student work and encouraging the students to meet with her face-to-face. Unlike Tutor Two, she did not interject her voice into the online peer feedback activity, but bounded her practice by saying that her role is ―not part of the planning, I just do the teaching that‟s provided‖ (Tutor 2/Interview 1). She added:

But I‟m not writing material for this, this is not run in the way that I would, it‟s not organised in a way that I would organise it if I had any input, and I don‟t have any input because I‟m um you know contracted in every semester, it‟s not appropriate, I‟m not asked, so I take my money and I do the, well, I like to do the best I can, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn‟t. But I would try and bring my students up to a standard, I‟m not sure if I succeed or not um, so, in one sense I have no investment in it. I‟m not paid to be invested in the course, it‟s not appropriate at all. In another you work with the students, you have an investment in them. (Tutor 1/Interview 3)

Tutor One had misgivings about the pedagogy and expressed feelings of frustration that she was unable to give the students feedback, and yet she was content to ―trot along behind‖ (Tutor 1/Interview 1). One can speculate that, as an experienced teacher employed as a sessional assistant, she may have felt undervalued and lacked a tangible investment in the paper. This is suggested by her passionate response when the interviewer incorrectly used the term tutor to refer to her role:

We‟re not tutors, we‟re scumbuckets, we‟re sessional assistants, we‟re not tutors.

(Tutor 1/Interview 3)

(A sessional assistant is usually a postgraduate student who is employed at a fairly low rate of pay to assist the lecturer, for example, engage with students during tutorials or mark portions of student work).

It is interesting to consider how the relationship between the tutors and the learning object implicated issues of identity. Tutor One was able to engage in the transformation of the learning object even though it lacked meaning and credibility for her. By invoking her limited role as a sessional assistant, she sidestepped responsibility to address the situation because it was not perceived to be within the bounds of her practice. There is a sense that her personal identity was not invested in or affected by the ―doing‖ of the learning object. In contrast, Tutor Two appeared unable to separate her ―doing‖ from her ―being.‖ Her teaching practice was interwoven with her sense of self and her sense of responsibility to the students. By being associated with a learning activity which represented less-than-adequate pedagogy for her, the data suggest that Tutor Two experienced a degree of moral angst which threatened her identity as a teacher with an obligation to provide optimal learning opportunities for her students.

I‟ve been doing it long enough for now to see how it really ought to be done and to resent having to carry out things that are poorly done. It‟s just not OK for me to go in, cause I‟m the one who has a personal relationship with those students, [name of the teacher] sees 200 of them at a time, she never goes to tutorial, but they don‟t go to her office hours because she‟s scary, and you know, they‟re not going to go anywhere near there. And I can‟t, it‟s hard for me to say things that are inaccurate or not true. (Tutor 2/Interview 1)

In summary, the preceding discussion has conceptualised the tutors as socio-historical agents and has explored how their beliefs about teaching shaped their relations with the learning object and members of the community, and led to the creation of an internal contradiction in the learning object. In addition to these beliefs, two additional historical factors played a significant role in shaping participation – the teacher‘s feelings of being desensitised to the learning object and the prevalence of

expedient student behaviour which led to limited forms of cooperation. These are now examined in the following discussion.

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 180-187)