Reaching the students that even student

Reaching the students that student-centred
learning cannot reach.
Christine Hockings,
University of Wolverhampton
ABSTRACT In this paper I explore some of the epistemological perspectives of a
large and diverse group of undergraduate students studying business operations
management. I report on the findings from an earlier action research study into
the effectiveness for deepening the academic engagement of all students of the
student-centred approach underpinning this module. I identify limitations of the
‘approaches to learning’ theory as a framework for explaining ‘nonparticipation’ within the context of a post-1992 UK university and then re
examine original data from this study from a feminist epistemological
perspective. Finally I argue that epistemological as well as social and political
perspectives should be integrated into the approaches to learning theory to
provide a more complete analytical framework for explaining, in this case, why
even student-centred learning may not engage all students in a large and diverse
What is the purpose of the paper?
There have been a number of studies (Cannon and Newble, 2000; Hall and Sanders,
1997; Honkimaki et al., 2004; Lonka and Ahola, 1995) that have shown that
innovative, student-centred learning is very effective for encouraging deep learning
and academic engagement and that this approach to learning and teaching has the
potential to engage a more academically diverse student body than the more
conventional teacher-centred approaches (Biggs, 2003 p. 3-4). But in spite of the
evidence in favour of this approach, there is growing evidence that student-centred
learning is ineffective for around 30% of students (see Hockings, 2003; Honkimaki et
al. 2004).
The key research questions that I address in this paper, therefore, are:
a) Why is student-centred learning effective for some but not all students?
b) What theoretical frameworks can help explain why student-centred learning is
ineffective for some students?
c) How can a synthesis of social, pedagogical and epistemological theories help
practitioners and policy makers create more inclusive learning environments?
Background to the study
As a university teacher and researcher in learning and teaching in higher education, I
had for many years been influenced by the approaches to learning literature (Marton
and Saljo 1976a, 1976b; Marton et al., 1997; Marton and Booth, 1997; Prosser and
Trigwell (1999) and by situated theories (Brown, 1989; Wenger, 1998). I had found
the concepts of deep and surface learning useful as short-hand for describing two
extremes of qualitatively different ways in which students approach their learning.
Similarly I found the concepts of student-centred and teacher-centred useful for
describing two extremes of qualitatively different approaches to teaching that may be
used by teachers in different teaching contexts. So in 2000 when my lecturer
colleague, Keith1, and I ran an innovative business operations management module,
developed entirely on student-centred learning principles, with over 200 second year
degree and diploma students, I used the approaches to learning theories as the basis
for evaluating the effectiveness of this module for student learning.
Whilst immersed in the lengthy (and often solitary process) of reviewing and
transcribing the mass of data I had gathered over a year of classroom observations and
interviews (all of which were either video and or audio recorded), I began to see
recurring patterns of student behaviour and approaches to learning. Through an
iterative process of sorting and grouping these behaviours and approaches, I gleaned
ten different learning behaviours, four types that might be considered “deep”
(including. ‘questioning’, ‘conjecturing’, ‘reflecting’, ‘evaluating’), six that might be
considered “surface” (including ‘avoiding’, ‘reproducing’, ‘individualistic and/or
competitive’, ‘focusing on completing’, ‘focusing on right answers’) and five
different conceptions of learning (e.g. ‘learning is about increasing knowledge’,
‘learning is about making sense of the world’) that broadly corresponded to the five
qualitatively different conceptions of learning identified by Marton and Saljo, (1976a,
1976b). I used all of these as the basis for my coding system for data analysis and as
the framework for evaluating the effectiveness of the strategies. Having completed
my analysis, I concluded that the majority of students in my study adopted approaches
to learning that might be considered as “deep”. However, during any one session I
estimated that around 30% of the class behaved as surface learners, half of whom
represented a core of students who always behaved as surface learners, whilst the
other half represented a less consistent group who sometimes behaved as surface
learners and at other times, as deep learners. It concerned me therefore that for
around 15% of the class our student-centred strategies appeared to have been
I needed to understand why some students did not engage with our student-centred
approach, not because I wanted ‘to find out what was wrong with them’ and not
because I wanted to ‘reconstruct’ or ‘mould’ them into an image of their academic
teachers, (Haggis, 2003, p. 98). I wanted to understand because I believed that this
understanding would help me identify some barriers to academic engagement that
appeared to be operating for some students and hence create more inclusive learning
environments in which all students could engage in personally meaningful, relevant
and interesting learning (Ashwin and McLean, 2004).
A number of studies have shown that many educators claim to be putting studentcentred learning into practice when in fact teacher-centred approaches still dominate
(see Farrington, 1991; Lea et al. 2003). This is often because of resourcing or
institutional issues and there was some evidence from our study that supported this
(Hockings, 2005). Keith was new to this approach and occasionally resorted to a
more teacher-focused approach (see Hockings, 2004), particularly when the resources
to implement a particular student-centred strategy were not available. Nevertheless,
Pesudonyms are used throughout to protect the identity of individuals in accordance
with British Educational Research Association Revised Ethical Guidelines (2004)
my analysis of the video taped sessions confirmed that when Keith adopted teacherled strategies, a greater proportion of students behaved in ways associated with
surface learning than when he adopted student-centred strategies (see table 1) and yet
it seemed that around 30% still appeared disengaged. Thus I was still no further
forward in understanding why some students:
1. waited for the teacher to get them started on or unstuck from a problem?
2. appeared to value only the teachers’ knowledge and disregard their own and
their peers’?
3. avoided sharing their ideas with their peers?
4. reproduced rather than thought and wrote critically?
5. did little or no independent or group study between sessions?
At this point, I turned to the literature that explores student motivation,
participation and non-participation from sociological, political and social theory of
learning perspectives.
Table 1. Comparison of learning behaviours observed in response to strategies adopted in different sessions
Session type and content
Types of observed learning
Surface learning / low level
(mathematical) thinking
Avoiding or procrastinating
Distracted or distracting
Giving up
Practising and approval seeking
Accepting and sufficing*
Total for surface learning
Deep learning / high level
(mathematical) thinking
Extending, contemplating,
Total for deep learning
Computer practical
Role play
Project work review
Statistical process
control session
Statistical process
control session
Process choice session
Job design session
Capacity planning/
Inventory mgt
(Number of units by code out
of 128 text units in this
session transcript)
(Number of units by code out
of 300 text units in this
session transcript)
(Number of units by code out
of 379 text units in this
session transcript)
(Number of units by code out
of 579 text units in this
session transcript)
(Number of units by code out
of 327 text units in this
session transcript)
9 (7%)
109 (85%)
14 (4.7%)
45 (15%)
71 (24%)
135 (45%)
18 (6%)
22 (5.8%)
4 (1.1%)
23 (6.1%)
1 (0.17%)
64 (11%)
3 (0.92%)
3 (0.92%)
5 (1.5%)
118 (92%)
283 (94%)
49 (13%)
65 (11%)
11 (3%)
41 (14%)
17 (5.7%)
73 (19%)
84 (22%)
312 (82%)
206 (54%)
85 (15%)
131 (23%)
138 (24%)
118 (20%)
186 (57%)
99 (30%)
164 (50%)
74 (23%)
31 (10%)
675 (178%)
472 (82%)
523 (159%)
Note that the percentages do not add up to a hundred because text units may be coded by more than one code. * Sufficing: Doing just enough to get by.
Sociological, Political and Social Theory of Learning Perspectives
The approaches to learning literature (e.g. Prosser and Trigwell, 1999; Marton and
Booth, 1997) focuses on the interaction between factors in the learning situation (e.g.
prior experience of learning, perceptions of the learning situation and the teaching
context itself) but not motivation, identity, belonging and ways of knowing that
seemed to me to lie at the heart of student engagement. Social, political, economic
and institutional conditions that might lead to a sense of ‘security, identity and
stability or to a deep sense of alienation’ (Mann, 2001, p.9) are missing, as has been
noted in recent studies (Haggis and Pouget, 2002; Lea et al., 2003; Malcolm and
Zukas, 2001; Read et al., 2003; Winn, 2002). These and other studies provided useful
alternative perspectives from which to view the sorts of behaviours (perhaps
mistakenly) associated with surface approaches to learning that I found in my study.
For example, Sarah Mann’s (2001) alternative perspectives on the student experience,
focusing on alienation and engagement (rather than surface and deep approaches to
learning), offers seven different ways of understanding surface behaviour. She
suggests that students may ‘choose’ alienation as a strategy for self-preservation and
From this perspective, surface approaches to student learning, in particular, could be seen to be
a means of escape from the dissonance between the reality of the requirements of the study and
the individual’s attempts to escape them, and to maintain their identity outwith that of being a
student (Mann, 2001, p.16).
It had occurred to me that some of the students in my study might have adopted ‘nonparticipation as strategy’, like the workers in Wenger’s study, either as a:
‘…source of disengagement and boredom, on the one hand, and on the other as a source of
freedom and privacy – a cherished sphere of selfhood… They see their identity mainly outside
their job (Wenger, 1998, p. 170).
And rather than simply describing the behaviour of the students in the two separate
episodes below as ‘avoiding’, ‘distracted’ or ‘procrastinating’, (behaviours that I had
previously associated with surface approaches to learning), I might have explored the
extent to which their non-participation had defined their sense of self:
Field note:
[I focus on one small group of students individually reading notes. A few comments
exchanged mainly between Kay and Harj but these are not shared with the rest of the
group. Kay and Harj seem to want to get away. They notice others leaving early and
Kay checks her watch, commenting that they'll be in time for something. The other
three members are still going through the information on their own].
So are you two gonna split and do your own thing on a topic and bring it back next
How's it going? Done any work?
[Laughs]. Some, but we need to know what we actually need to do. And
there's two members missing from our group as well and they've got all
our stuff.
Have you got all the paperwork with you? The instructions and everything?
No I brought the wrong folder with me.
The approaches to learning theory does not take account of theories of identity,
participation and non-participation that I now feel could have helped me understand
why the pedagogic strategies failed to engage these students. Nor does it account for
the social and/or economic factors that may have contributed to their nonparticipation.
In her study of 23 undergraduate students, Winn (2001) explored the socio
economic pressures upon students to participate in higher education and highlighted
the impact of integrating academic work, child care and paid employment upon
student motivation and their approach to learning. My colleague Keith and I had tried
to take advantage of the fact that so many of our students were in paid employment by
building into the module situated learning activities and work based projects so that
students could combine work and study and see the relevance of the subject matter to
their own lives (Neill et al., 2004). For some, however, the demands of work, caring,
study and their perceptions of ‘a time-pressured environment’ (Case and Gunstone,
2003) were such that they adopted strategies associated with surface approaches to
learning as a way of coping. This explained why some students did little or no
independent or group study between sessions as the following example illustrates:
I just don't think there's as much effort being put in as if it were...this will give you a
grade sort of thing. But if I was... I know that if I was at the end of the night and I
thought I could push on for another hour, I think, well, I've done two and a half hours
tonight I think I'll just knock it on the head and then I've left it at that.
So I sort of, on a Wednesday and Thursday I finish at 4 and I jump on a bus and
jump on another bus and I get to [north campus] and I jump on another bus and come
up here. Which is why I am always sort of stressed out when I get here basically.
Since these wider social, economic and political factors appear to affect students’
approaches to learning, an attempt has been made to incorporate them into a model of
‘academic engagement’ (Ashwin and McLean, 2004, p. 9). This model (figure 1)
conflates the approaches to learning theory (based on the work of Marton and Booth,
1997) and critical pedagogy (based on the work of Freire, 1996).
Figure 1. Model of Academic Engagement. Contexts that are hypothesised to influence academic
engagement in teaching and learning interactions in higher education. Reproduced from Ashwin and
McLean, 2004).
This model offers a framework that opens up the problem space to include the
relationship between teachers, students, the discipline, the institution, as well as the
sociological, political and economic ‘contexts’. It focuses on students’ and teachers’
perceptions of each of these contexts and this addresses some of the limitations of the
approaches to learning theory but still, for me, it lacks an epistemological dimension.
What I had begun to realise, in analysing my data, was that, not only do social and
economic factors influence academic engagement, but so too do students’ conceptions
of knowledge and their ways of knowing. Yet none of the analytical models I had
used incorporates ways of knowing explicitly.
What can a focus on epistemology add to our understanding of academic
If ‘our basic assumptions about the nature of truth and reality and the origins of
knowledge shape the way we see the world and ourselves as participants in it…’
(Belenky et al. 1997, p. 3), then, I conjectured, an understanding of the different ways
that students come to know and conceive of knowledge should give us a more
complete explanation as to why some students appear disengaged and ‘either seek
their identity in subversive behaviour or simply refuse to participate’ (Wenger, 1998,
p. 269). It would also be reasonable to assume that a focus on epistemology, as part
of a broader study of academic engagement, would help us (teachers, course
developers, subject leaders and policy makers) to create learning environments that
engage students’ identities on a ‘meaningful trajectory’, and afford ‘some ownership
of meaning’ (Wenger, 1998, p270). I also anticipated that this type of learning
environment would help all students reach what Perry (1970) described as a position
of ‘relativism’ (an epistemological position in which the student understands ‘that
knowledge is constructed, not given; contextual, not absolute; mutable, not fixed’
(Belenky et al. 1997 p. 10)).
I found the feminist epistemological framework, Women’s Ways of Knowing
(WWK), developed by Belenky et al. (1997) and based on Perry’s (1970) original
scheme, particularly helpful to my understanding of student engagement for two main
reasons. First, it seemed to address the issues of diversity and difference among the
range of students in our post-1992, ‘widening participation’ university. The model
was developed out of interviews with women of all ages, social and economic
backgrounds and life circumstances and includes an appreciation of the social,
economic and political factors that shape women’s ways of knowing about
themselves, their sense of identity, belonging and isolation (Belenky et al. 1997, p.
81). The inclusion of these factors within the categories of knowing seemed to me to
accommodate the concerns of writers such as Haggis (2003), Malcolm and Zukas
(2001), Mann (2001), Read et al. (2003) and Winn (2002), where Perry’s scheme did
not. It also seemed in line with Wenger’s (1998) ideas of identity, participation and
non-participation. My second reason for choosing the WWK model was that I could
see many similarities between the different ways that the women in this study
reported their experiences of knowing and knowledge and the experiences of the
students (male and female) in my study. I had not set out to gather data on students’
ways of knowing originally and my data on these are not extensive. However, I could
immediately apply one of the five epistemological positions that Belenky et al. (1997
p. 15) had developed to a subset of my original data relating to surface learning. This
received knowledge, a perspective from which women conceive of themselves as capable of
receiving, even reproducing, knowledge from the all-knowing external authorities but not
capable of creating knowledge on their own (Belenky et al. (1997, p. 15).
Although criticised by some feminist writers for its lack of a political agenda and for
promoting a discourse of male/female dualism (Ryan, 2001, p.71), I was nevertheless
confident that I could derive some useful insights on the relationship between
students’ epistemological perspectives, student-centred learning and the teaching
environment by applying the WWK model to the transcript data. For the purposes of
this paper, I confine this analysis to the questions I raised earlier and to the
epistemological position of received knowledge which seemed common among the
students who adopted behaviour associated with a surface approach to learning and
for whom our student-centred approach was ineffective. In the following section, I
present a subset of this analysis to illustrate applicability of the model rather than as
evidence of its validity.
An epistemological analysis of behaviour associated with a surface approach to
learning within a student-centred environment
Why do some students wait for the teacher to get them started on or unstuck from a
Keith, the teacher, and I had created a number of operational management problems
that could have a range of solutions derived qualitatively and/or quantitatively. We
encouraged students to think through these problems in groups in a structured way
and to write down how they tackled the problem, where and how they got stuck, what
they had tried to do to get unstuck and what resources they had gathered to help them
move on (Mason et al., 1985). We were particularly keen that students should do this
because writing is said to help individuals think through problems, by reflecting,
gathering information, testing ideas and evaluating solutions, thereby working
towards their own solutions rather than resorting to those of the teachers (Buerk,
1990; Emig, 1977; Hayden, 1990; Luria et al., 1959; Powell and Ramnauth, 1992;
Wayward, 1992; Yinger and Clarke, 1981). Some students were unable or unwilling
to do this and instead asked Keith to go through an appropriate problem solving
technique before attempting a problem on their own. Others would wait during the
session for confirmation that they were ‘doing the right thing’ before proceeding. A
number of students would just give up when they were stuck or wait to be shown
them how to go about the problem or task. For example:
Well we've done OK tonight ‘cos last week we were in a totally CONFUSED
state ‘cos I think... ‘cos before we came to see you we sort of like got
ourselves so confused in what we were trying to do and then coming here it
sort of focused us.
Well I check the answer in the class and I have seen you [Keith] twice,
haven't I, to check some of my answers. So I've just tried to work it out again
for myself. If I haven't understood I go back to the tutor.
This indicated a strong dependency on the teacher as authority, an epistemological
characteristic of received knowers.
Why do some appear to value only the teachers’ knowledge and disregard their own
and their peers’?
A group of mature professional part time students were uncomfortable with project
work and peer tutoring as a form of generating and sharing knowledge mainly
because they did not trust themselves or others to acquire the ‘right’ information or
explain it properly. The fact that this knowledge would be assessed in some way
added to their anxiety:
Do you get a choice of the three topics [in the exam]? Say if, like, I've worked on
capacity management, would I have to talk about the others’ that I've learnt from [the
other students]? Or…?
There is enough flexibility in the exam question for you to demonstrate what
you know.
What we know ourselves or what the rest of the group has taught us?
‘Cos what about if they haven't taught me properly?
That's what worries us. The fact that... How about if their understanding is not quite
right? I'm not saying it is. Or I misinterpret something…. You might understand it
but misinterpret it in some way...
These mature students held full time jobs at junior management levels and had come
to university to study part time in order to improve their career prospects and obtain
the education that they felt they had missed. They were happy to discuss topics with
each other but they only trusted what the teachers said. They came to classes
expecting the teachers to pass on their knowledge and tell them what was right and
wrong. They reminded me of Ann in the following quote, whose acceptance of the
word of authority is typical of received knowers:
I tend to trust more what a professor says than what a student says. I have more faith in the
teacher, that what he says is correct and concise. Whereas the student might be giving her opinion;
it might not be the right one. The teachers are always more or less right (Belenky at al., 1997, p.
Another student was confused when instead of giving a lecture on the ‘Quality Gurus’
we provided a video and a range of printed materials on them and asked the students
to evaluate their ideas and justify which (if any) they would recommend to the
organisation they had been studying. Jay had difficulty with this so we asked him
So what didn't you understand?
How you differentiate between them.
What have you read about them?
The 5 gurus? I read 'em yeah and err (laughs). Yeah I read ‘em but I couldn't
differentiate between all 5 of them. (Laughs again) Might sound a bit funny, yeah.
Did you just read or did you make notes.
I just read through.
You made loads of notes on the video, I saw you, you never stopped writing.
I know. Well notes don't make a difference do it? It's the explanation of them. If he
[Keith] explained it in English, that is! It's all scientific stuff…
These ideas can't be new.
It's not the newness of it. It's the way you go about it… It's not straight-forward.
So what is it that we do?
It confuses you. He never answers a question straight. You ask him a question and he
never answers you straight. Like he's always got three or four different meanings to his
What's that suggest to you?
I don't really think about it that much. Sometimes you've forgot about all the questions.
I thought you said you were OK with the stuff we did at the beginning? Up to the
Deming stuff as you put it?
(Suppressing a laugh). That wasn't that difficult it was the way you went about it. You
tell every body to do their stuff and that's it.
What were you expecting?
Expecting you to tell us. I expected him to go through and explain everything properly
first and then give you the work to do.
Jay expected Keith to explain the difference between the gurus, and was annoyed that
he not only refused to pass on his knowledge but, when asked, presented several
different views. As a recipient, but not source of knowledge, Jay appeared confused
and unable to determine ‘truth’ without the aid of an authority:
She said he was wrong- “wrong in his method of teaching”, not of course, “wrong because of
what he said”. Knowing all the “right answers” himself… “He would make you feel stupid.
He would make you find the answers on your own. And he wouldn’t even give you any hints
on what the right answers were.” How could she learn if the teacher refused to pass along his
knowledge. (Belenky et al., 1997, p. 40).
It is common for students, whose conceptions and expectations of teaching are
different from the teachers’, to feel a sense of ‘fragmentation’ (i.e. the frustration,
confusion and a loss of sense of self, which often results in anger and the need for
right answers’ (Savin-Baden, 2000 p. 149)). But since most of our students had been
used to and expected a teacher-centred approach, it was intriguing that some, like Jay,
experienced fragmentation and others did not. My subsequent reading of Belenky et
al. (1997) led me to consider what influence (if any) the students’ epistemological
perspectives had had on their adaptation to learning through an alternative approach.
I had some evidence to suggest that a perspective of received knowledge could hinder
this process.
Why do some students avoid sharing their ideas with their peers?
Belenky et al (1997 p. 47) commented that it was particularly important for the
women in their study who held a received knowledge perspective to share this
knowledge with others. Keith and I encouraged this and regularly set up peer review
sessions in which groups of students would present updates on their project work to
the rest of the class in order to share their knowledge and experience with their peers
and receive feedback from them. Most students welcomed these opportunities even
with a certain amount of fear and trepidation, but we were shocked when one male
student refused to discuss his work in public in case someone else should benefit from
his efforts:
Is that something that you found in the companies that you are looking at [for
your research project]?
We use ABC [pareto analysis] in the garage where I work but we used a different
example [for the classroom activity].
That’s fine. Do you notice any weaknesses in the garage where you work?
Yes and no. But I don’t really want to go into that. I don’t really want to share my
project with anybody else. You know what I mean? If they don’t share their marks
with me, why should I? I did all the hard work and the research.
This competitive and individualistic attitude did not feature in any of the women’s
ways of knowing that Belenky et al. (1997) had identified and the type of interactive
pedagogy that we had emphasised in the module has been seen, in other studies, to
decrease competitiveness between students and increase motivation (Honkimaki et al.,
2004, p. 446). We did not believe it therefore to be common among our mixed group
of undergraduates, yet during our end-of-module interviews, three of the students
contradicted this belief. They suggested that the ‘ethic of individualism’ (Lukes,
1973; Savin-Baden, 2000) was more widespread within the group than we had
Oh yeah. That lad. He's not here… Yeah [referring to Alex in the extract above].
And he said he wouldn't share the work. I don't think that the class... There wasn't
enough emphasis on the point that it is about understanding and the more you share
your work... But it wasn't just him. It wasn't just him. ‘Cos I noticed a lot of people
were like, ‘em, still like this ‘self oriented’ [behaviour]. That they're gonna get the
good mark and that. But this module doesn't work like that.
Jenny: But isn't that because no other modules work like it, do they? Other modules…
What about in your Marketing modules?
Amanda: You get it, you keep it and you put it down and you get good marks for it. You don't
share. No, ‘cos a lot of it, especially this semester, it's been a lot of project work and
you get marks for it so you don't share it with anybody else.
Pete, Jenny and Amanda recognised the value and benefits of learning in groups but
they felt compelled to take an individualistic approach in some modules because of
the way group work, and in particular group assessment, had been established. The
assessment element of group work seemed to have created an atmosphere of interand intra-group competition and distrust to which some students responded by
adopting individualistic behaviour associated with surface learning.
Why do some students reproduce rather than think and write critically?
Keith and I wanted to nurture the students’ capacity for criticality (see Barnett, 1997,
pp.109-115) and critical thinking (Barnett, 1997, pp 16-17), the latter being a feature
of procedural knowledge (Belenky et al., 1997, pp 100-102). In particular, we wanted
the students to question and challenge the knowledge they had acquired from textbooks by comparing it to the tacit knowledge of people working in authentic settings.
To this end, groups of students conducted investigations into the ways of working of a
number of local organisations, comparing, contrasting and ‘critiquing’ (Barnett, 1990,
p. 18) methods operating in the real and theoretical worlds. During the project review
sessions most students took an objective stance, that Belenky et al (1997, p. 104-5)
associate with separate knowing, i.e. looking for something wrong, a weakness or
loophole. However, in the written, open book, exam, when students were asked to
discuss their project work and critique the methods they observed, many reverted to a
reproductive stance, associated with received knowing. They summarised sections of
the text-book and described the companies they had investigated but made little
connection between theory and practice and offered no critical evaluation (Belenky at
al., p. 42), in spite of our emphasis on critical thinking in all sessions including
examination preparation sessions (see O’Donovan et al., 2001; Rust et al., 2003).
There seemed to be a number of possible reasons why students reverted to this
behaviour. First, the open file format might have encouraged some to procrastinate in
the mistaken belief that they could copy from the notes and simply reproduce them in
the examination. This might have been an efficient strategy for examinations where
the reproduction of information was all that was assessed, but not for the kind of
examination we had produced. Second, students’ prior experience of examinations
might have led them to discount their classroom experiences in favour of
reproduction. Most of the modules within the business curriculum were based on a
‘realist epistemology’ that rewards reproduction of knowledge rather than critical
thinking about the production and justification of knowledge (Jones and Merritt,
1999, p. 353) and the development of wisdom (Barnett, 1997, p. 21). There was
strong reinforcement, therefore, that countered our approach.
Having looked at a subset of my data from an epistemological perspective, I found
that my original analytical framework, based on approaches to learning theory, lacked
elements relating to students’ backgrounds, important relationships, significant
influences, their sense of self, educational experiences and ways of knowing. The
data I had gathered in my original study provided glimpses into these worlds but, I
now believe that a multi perspective analytical framework, including an
epistemological perspective, would have provided a more holistic model for seeking
to understand the issues of non-participation, identity and alienation in addition to
those surrounding how students approach learning.
Where then does this take me in terms of a developing a multi-perspective model
for academic engagement? So far I have shown that the approaches to learning theory
is limited as a model to explain student disengagement and that other complementary
theories are needed to address these limitations. Critics of the theory have offered
some alternative theories for explaining student learning (e.g. Haggis, 2003), others
have argued for a more blended approach (e.g. Ashwin and McLean 2004; Marshall
and Case, 2005;) calling for the incorporation of other theoretical perspectives. I have
offered my contribution to this endeavour, by exploring how the WWK framework
could be incorporated into a model of academic engagement, providing an
epistemological dimension to all contexts within the learning environment. This
combined model could help problematise the relationships between the ways students,
teachers, subject leaders and policy-makers come to know and learn and brings into
question existing assumptions about student non-participation and ‘surface learning’.
I have argued that a better understanding of the relationship between knowing,
learning and participation would assist in the creation of inclusive learning
environments that offer ‘meaningful forms of membership and empowering forms of
ownership of meaning’ (Wenger, 1998, p. 269) and where the acquisition of
knowledge is:
not limited pedagogically to students exercising self-reflection but opened up as a race, gender and
class specific construct to include the diverse ways in which students' experiences and identities have
been constituted in different historical and social formations [ ... offering] students the opportunity to
read the world differently, resist the abuse of power and privilege, and construct alternative democratic
communities. (Giroux, 1992, p75 cited in Povey 1995, p127).
This sort of learning environment ‘requires the teacher to develop an epistemology
that permits an understanding of how power relations shape what it is possible to say
and think’ Povey (1995, p 127).
It remains for further work to see how the five categories of the WWK framework
can be combined with other theoretical perspectives to form a multi-perspective
model of academic engagement. The next step is to open a dialogue with students and
teachers to explore their social, economic, cultural backgrounds, their ways of
knowing and learning, their sense of identity and their levels of academic
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