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by Frank Coffield

Students are contracting a new disease – bulimia academica – defined as repeated bouts of bingeing on information and regurgitating it in exams. The pressures on students to obtain the best possible grades have become so intense that they feel forced to resort to ingesting large amounts of information and then in government-induced bouts of vomiting, otherwise known as national tests, they spew it out.

The term – bulimia academica – is not being used lightly, as that would insult those suffering from bulimia nervosa. Instead it is considered to be every bit as serious as its medical counterpart. Far from feeling better afterwards, students end up feeling empty and educationally malnourished. The students I’ve interviewed in FE and Sixth Form Colleges come to associate learning not with growing self-confidence and a sense of achievement, but with stress and self-disgust. Learning for them is reduced to the skill of passing exams rather than the means of understanding and coming to love the subjects they’re studying.

The cause of this new disease is no mystery. The increasingly punitive testing regime in England is responsible. Politicians from all the main parties will have you believe that it is robust and rigorous. It’s neither. It’s purgative and emetic and as such is both ineffective and inefficient.

This learning disorder is compounded by its equally distressing twin – anorexia academica – that affects individuals and the system. Some students become anxious about being seen by their classmates to be clever; they restrict their intake to bite-sized chunks of information that makes them easier to swallow – the educational equivalent of chicken nuggets. In their teenage years, they lose their previously keen appetite for learning, give lame excuses for repeated failures to learn and pretend to have studied when they have not (or not to have studied when they have). They spend their time reading self-help books about study skills without ever acquiring any. This response may be the self-harming outcome of having been tested every year since they were five years of age, a regime that has turned their stomachs against learning.

The education system itself also shows symptoms of the same malaise, with some curricula driven by qualifications that have had the educational nourishment stripped out of them. Groups of students can be found in colleges discussing topics about which they don’t have sufficient knowledge to form opinions, and so their learning remains shallow. We offer young people so-called ‘transferable’ skills and then discover they need to be in command of a body of knowledge before they can be either critical or creative.

What’s to be done?

In my new book called Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in further education (IOE Press), I’ve scoured the research literature for (and tried out in practice) the most effective interventions, and I discuss the results. Even within the tightening parameters set by government, we can still work at transforming our colleges into learning communities and our tutors into experts in teaching, learning and assessment (TLA). Now that Ofsted has decreed that no college can be judged ‘outstanding’ without being ‘outstanding’ at TLA, the best response is for colleges to access the growing body of knowledge on TLA. And this book is devoted to showing how that can be done and is being done within some colleges.

I shall explore here in a little detail two examples and then list the contents of the other chapters. First, the government policy of identifying and disseminating ‘best practice’ is not working, partly because it builds up psychological resistance in those who are being told implicitly that their practice is poor. Instead we could be using Joint Practice Development (JPD), which is based on mutual trust, where both partners observe and are observed, create and receive practical advice. In these ways JPD restores trust in the professional judgement of teachers.

Another chapter evaluates the use of ‘lipped learning’ where students in their own time watch a video on the knowledge and skills they need to learn next and then come to class to discuss their response. The approach creates valuable space in class for higher-order questions and answers, and more individualized support.

The other chapters explain how to harness the potential power of feedback; how social media can motivate students; how Socratic questioning and peer assessment can change the culture of learning; and how students’ motivation is a combination of psychological and economic factors.

So my answer to the question ‘Can we transform classrooms and colleges without transforming the state?’ is a qualified but emphatic ‘Yes.’

Professor Frank Coffield is Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education, University of London. His co-authors are Cristina Costa, Lecturer in Lifelong Learning (Technology Enhanced Learning) at the University of Strathclyde; Walter Müller, Emeritus Professor of the School of Pedagogy at the University of Würzburg, Germany; and John Webber, Professional Learning and Development Manager at Sussex Downs College, Lewes and Eastbourne.

A book launch for Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in further education will take place at Blackwell’s Bookshop at the IOE on Wednesday 7 May 2014 at 6 p.m.

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