An ongoing tension exists in education

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An ongoing tension exists in education between the established and the progressive, conformity and innovation, and the last few decades have seen practices transformed. Approaches to teaching based upon theories derived from, for instance, behaviourism, gestalt psychology, psychoanalysis, cognitive psychology and brain study, have undergone a paradigm shift with emphasis moving from teaching and towards learning. This reconception of education has centred upon the ways in which we construct and deliver instructional materials; for many years instructional design was largely based upon theories of behaviourism underpinned by an objectivist epistemology. Recent years have seen a sea-change in attitudes, with traditional didactic teaching methods losing ground to more progressive models, such as constructivism, that view knowledge as developmental, internally constructed, non-objective and socially and culturally mediated.

Many teaching innovations have occurred concurrently with advances in technology, and whilst it is not a given that innovation must involve technological change, it is undeniable that the technological developments of recent years have boosted innovative initiatives and made new methods of teaching possible. Research into areas such as neuroscience have suggested new ways of teaching and learning, whilst ICT tools (such as social software) have fostered the development of constructivist ideals in the classroom and extended the possibilities for collaboration and cooperation. In these ways education is now, more than ever before, interacting with science, technology and research. However, Bates (1995) has recognised that the extensive adoption of technology may easily be mistaken for true educational innovation and that technology is often used merely as an addendum to conventional teaching. Such teaching remains largely uninfluenced by researches into, for instance, instructional design, learning psychology or other areas concerned with how learners function and continues to be 'craft-based', following the traditional pattern of apprenticeship learning.

The challenges of the 21st Century require co-disciplinary approaches and educational systems must be capable of developing individuals who can achieve both the personal and professional competencies they need in order succeed in a constantly changing world that values enterprise, proactiveness and self-reliance. In practical terms this may require more innovative, student-centred approaches to education utilising formal, informal as well as unformal practices in both vertical and horizontal structures. When innovations such as these are implemented, it is important to know that they bring improvement and not merely change. Advocates of the learner-centred approach have reasoned that a knowledge of how learning occurs should inform instructional practice (Bransford, Brown and Cockling, 1999; Mayer, 2009); an implication of this approach is that the effectiveness of any teaching method should be judged by its impact on student learning. Recent studies (Anderman and Wolters, 2006; Pressley and Harris, 2006) have shown that students' cognitive strategies and motivational beliefs are key contributors to learning performance. Resultantly, the prime aims of teaching must be to enhance learners' cognitive skills and improve their motivation to learn. In terms of cognitive performance, whilst didactic instruction focuses upon 'drill and practice' and memorisation, constructivist approaches may contribute to learners' deeper cognitive information processing, and this depth of understanding has been highlighted as one of the primary aims of constructivist-orientated instructional reforms (Mayer, 2004; Harris and Alexander, 1998). This emphasis difference between didactic and constructivist approaches aligns with the distinction, extant in much of the cognitive skills literature (see, for example, Dahlin and Watkins, 2000; Elliott, McGregor and Gable, 1999; Entwistle and Ramsden, 1983; Graham and Golan, 1991), between surface and deep cognitive processing. Instructional practices are also likely to have motivational consequences for learning and the potential benefits of constructivist approaches have been discussed by various authors (Blumenfeld, 1992; Hickey, 1997; Pintrich and Schunk, 2002).

In this spirit, this paper will seek to evaluate an innovation that has been initiated in a prison class on the Isle of Wight. The innovation is a business simulation game (SimVenture) recently introduced to a business studies class, and its value will be judged on its ability to engender a constructivist, approach to teaching and learning and concomitantly enhance learning and increase learner motivation. Whilst the last few years have seen a change in further education practice towards more constructivist approaches, several factors have combined to make prison education one of the last remaining bastions of predominantly behaviourist, didactic practice. This innovation is considered important, therefore, for its potential affordance of a more learner-centred approach and will be evaluated accordingly.


Prison education, described by Grubb (2005) as the 'Cinderella' of education, is the sector I began working in three years ago and during this time I have worked in five prisons across the south of England. Prison educators face a range of barriers to effective teaching and learning, engendered, in part, by the ethos of the prison regime which is strictly enforced, rigid and unaccommodating. Prison teachers also face a cohort containing large numbers of students with mental disabilities (Bromley, 2009), and others with either little interest in, or hostility towards, education; high numbers of prisoners were excluded from school, and more than half of inmates have no qualifications (ibid.).

Prison education is poorly funded and teachers must deliver with few of the technological tools that their mainstream counterparts take for granted. For instance, whilst some classrooms have computers, these run limited software which must be vetted and approved by prison security. Bringing new resources into the classroom requires approval by the regime, which can be a long and complex process, and internet access is unavailable to both teachers and students within the majority of prison education departments (House of Commons Report, 2005). Consequently, it is perhaps unsurprising that many teachers continue to rely on 'chalk and talk' methods (Education and Skills Committee, 2005) based upon a didactic pedagogy. For those inmate-students for whom "the classroom has in the past been absolutely awful and appalling" (Wilson, 2005, cited in Education and Skills Committee, 2005, p.48) this approach is likely to reignite past feelings of inadequacy and/or low self-esteem and lead to the classroom duplicating past experiences and becoming again a place of frustration and humiliation (Foster, 1998, cited in Bayliss, 2003, p.162). A lack of prior educational attainment should not require that students be taught using primary methods, and for those who have previously shunned education, or seen it as a source of failure, this approach may well make it appear again an unattractive choice.

Knowles (1984) conjectured that traditional pedagogic practices, which fail to recognise adults as self-directing, may create tension, resistance and feelings of resentment. In contrast, student-centred approaches, such as andragogy, recognise the importance of self-directed learning and consider past experiences as a resource for learning. Andragogy,in common with constructivism, typically focuses upon creating a climate which fosters learning, and views adult learners as intrinsically motivated and autonomous with a problem-centred, contextual approach to learning. These approaches are considered relevant to an evaluation of SimVenture and will now be examined.

The importance of constructivism and andragogy.

Constructivist learning theory recognises the necessity of constructing interpretations, being cognisant of multiple perspectives and becoming aware of, as well as able to manipulate, the process of knowledge construction itself. Constructivism contests the objectivist view that knowledge reflects ontological reality, and instead proposes that our constructions and world views are not stable but rather are in a state of flux as we build upon previous experiences. These changes signify learning, and support the understanding that we are never inert, but instead are always learning and interacting (Kelly, 1970).

The writings of Dewey (1916), Vygotsky (1965), Bruner (1966) and Piaget (1926) have all proposed that students learn actively and form new understandings based upon prior knowledge. Dewey believed that learning situations represent experience(s) of the environment which affect the learner, and that interaction occurs between the learner and the environment, resultantly knowledge is predicated upon active experience. Learning occurs as students construct knowledge by using what they already know to make sense of new experiences (Brandt, 1997) and this is achieved through the development of mental models that are utilised to assimilate experiences into new declarative or structural knowledge and further expanded models.

Kolb (1984) considered that knowledge is created through the transformation of experience and that there is a sequence to this process. Individuals first undergo an experience that provides a basis for reflective observations. These reflections and observations may then be assimilated into abstract concepts that can be actively tested in new experiences.

Kolb (ibid.) explained that students involved in experiential learning must be able to:

"involve themselves fully, openly, and without bias in new experiences; they must be able to observe and reflect on these experiences from many perspectives; they must be able to create concepts that integrate their observations into logically sound theories; and they must be able to use these theories to make decisions and solve problems" (p.236).

Both constructivist and cognitivist theories propose that learners employ mental models to assist in the interpretation/incorporation of experiences and the subsequent construction of knowledge. While cognitivists seek an understanding of what occurs during learning, constructivists aim to utilise this understanding in the classroom. One of constructivism's aims, therefore, is to capitalise upon what cognitive theories reveal about learners' mental models. Constructivists aver that concepts can be consolidated through interactions with the environment, and this may be especially efficacious when carefully facilitated experiences confront learners with variations or conflict enabling them to adapt, reshape and strengthen their mental models, and thus construct knowledge. Consequently, experiences should do more than simply strengthen mental models through, for instance, repetitive applications of skill, but rather should expose the student to a mélange - similarity, dissimilarity and challenges - that engenders testing and adjustment of mental models. Experiences should therefore be facilitated or constructed with cognisance of particular mental models, and the concepts needed to connect with and strengthen them and Jonassen (1998) suggests that these experiences should not be overly defined but instead should be ill-structured to encourage learners to seek solutions to problems.

Situated learning theory contends that since any learning activity is context-dependent (Agre and Chapman, 1987) it should occur within realistic settings; Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) believe that meaning can be seen as rooted in, and indexed by, experience, stating that all learning should be embedded strongly in a given context and that the context should be practical, meaningful and relevant to real life: "To learn to use tools as practitioners use them, a student, like an apprentice, must enter the community and its culture." (p.33). Constructivist approaches, therefore, emphasise the importance of situating cognitive experiences within authentic activities able to provide different alternatives for learning, and recognise that learning may occur through a process of enculturation (Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer and Scott, 1994).

Andragogy also recognises the importance of learning occurring in settings that closely match the complexity of real-world situations. Knowles (1984) considered that adults prefer learning situations that are problem-centred, life-related and meaningful to them. Indeed, Knowles recognised that adults will be de-motivated if their innate autonomy is not recognised. Knowles acknowledged the importance of motivation in adult learning and, as previously stated, it has been shown that students motivational beliefs are pivotal to successful learning performance. Whilst it has been suggested that constructivist environments foster deeper learning than behaviourist environments, where only surface learning may occur, this affordance is only useful if students choose to engage with learning. Some authors (Biggs, 1991; Iran-Nejad, 1987) believe that the processes involved in learning may, themselves, foster an increase in motivation, while others (e.g. Prosser and Trigwell, 1999) consider that greater motivation can encourage students to develop more effective cognitive processes. Resnick (1987) mooted that students are more likely to engage with learning activities that connect with real-life situations believing that such activities are likely to encourage students' natural curiosity and thus enhance learning. Iran-Nejad (1987) suggests that it is the processes of meaning-making involved in these activities and the deep-learning that results, which fosters this increase in engagement. Biggs ( 1999) agrees that the processes involved in discovering underlying meaning invoke positive feelings in the student and so promote motivation however, Prosser and Trigwell (1999) consider that it is the initial arousal of interest which motivates students and encourages them to adopt effective cognitive strategies "such as making the task coherent with their own experience; looking for patterns and underlying principles" (p.91). Keller (1987), in considering the major influences on learning motivation, also proposed that a student's attention must be aroused and sustained by instructional stimuli in order to encourage information-seeking behaviour. His ARCS model, although concerned with learning motivation rather than knowledge construction, has many similarities with Jonassen's (1994, cited by Buck, 1995, no page no.) work on the development of constructivist learning environments. Whilst Jonassen's work is concerned, primarily, with ways in which effective constructivist environments can enhance learning, Keller (2006) points out that "instruction cannot be effective if it is not appealing to people". Since this paper contends that learning and motivation are inextricably linked and seeks to assess SimVenture accordingly, Both Jonassen and Keller's models will form the basis for an evaluation tool which will now be detailed.

Evaluation tool

SimVenture will be assessed for its ability to promote more learner-centric, constructivist practices in the belief that this approach is more likely to engage prisoner-students effectively with their learning than the prevalent didactic techniques currently employed. A semi-structured interview with open-ended questions will be conducted with the teacher who has implemented the innovation to discover how SimVenture has motivated students and enhanced their learning. As previously stated, the work of Jonassen (1994, cited by Buck, 1995, no page no) and Keller (1987, 2006) are considered relevant to this assessment and their models will form the basis for the interview protocol to be used.

Keller's (2006) ARCS model is widely used as a conceptual framework for addressing motivational issues in instructional development but is also relevant in evaluating existing instruction (Huang, Diefes-Dux, Imbrie, Daku and Kallimani, 2004). The motivational design model is founded upon theories of expectancy value, reinforcement and cognitive evaluation and seeks to explain the relationships existing between effort, performance and satisfaction. The first factor, Attention, refers to the response of the learner towards the instructional stimuli that the materials provide. It is considered important that effective stimuli are extant at the beginning of and throughout the whole of the learning process in order to arouse and maintain learner attention and curiosity. Keller (2006) identifies three attention strategies that relate to interest arousal:

Perception arousal - suggests the use of novel or uncertain events to arouse interest. As Jonassen (1998) posited this is likely to evoke a problem-solving response in students.

Inquiry arousal - stimulates information-seeking behaviour by posing questions or creating a problem to solve.

Variability - maintains learner interest by varying instructional elements.

Since Prosser and Trigwell (1999) consider that interest arousal encourages students to adopt effective cognitive strategies, the first item of the evaluation tool will be:

"Does the innovation create problems or pose questions that surprise the learners? Does the experience vary or can students become inured to it?"

The second factor of ARCS, Relevance, has its basis in constructivism and andragogy and links to Jonassen's learning model in considering that learning experiences should be relevant to learners and assist them in associating previous learning experiences with instructional materials. The materials should therefore relate to the learner's interests and goals and should provide:

Familiarity - using concrete language and concepts/examples that relate to the learner's values and experiences.

Goal orientation - making the objectives of the instruction explicit and setting goals for accomplishment.

Motive watching - using instructional strategies that are aligned with student's motive profiles.

Jonassen, in common with other constructivists, considers that effective environments should present the learner with authentic tasks situated in case-based events that represent the natural complexity found in the real world. Further, Knowles () conjectured that adult learners are more motivated by experiences that are life-related and meaningful to them. For these reasons, the next four evaluative items will be:

"Does the innovation present learners with problems or tasks that they can relate to?"

"Are the tasks of sufficient complexity - do they mirror the real-world?"

"Are the objectives and purposes of the instruction obvious to the learners, are there goals set and are there clear methods for successfully achieving them?"

"Does the instruction provide learners with what they want or need to know? Does it align with their personal interests?"

Confidence is the third ARCS factor. In order to be motivated learners must believe that they have a reasonable chance of success before attempting a task. Keller believed that learners are motivated to learn when any challenge is balanced so that the process is neither so easy that the learner loses interest nor so difficult that success does not seem possible. Additionally, Huang et al. (2004) believe that meaningful experiences sustain confidence development during learning. Instruction should therefore provide:

Learning requirements - Often students may have low confidence because they do not know what is expected of them, informing them of the learning/performance requirements and how these will be assessed allows the student to evaluate the probability of success.

Success opportunities - providing meaningful and challenging opportunities for effective and successful learning. This motivates students to strive for greater success.

Personal control - being successful will improve confidence and boost motivation only if the learner attributes the success to their own efforts or abilities. If they believe that success is due to other factors, for example lack of challenge or luck, then increased confidence will not result. Personal control can be enhanced by, for example, allowing learners to choose assessment timings and move through the instruction at their own pace.

This leads to the questions:

"Is what is expected of the students obvious to them? Is it clear how they will be assessed and how they can succeed?"

"Are the instructional challenges complex enough to engage the learners' interest? Are there any challenges that are too difficult for them, and if so how do you overcome this?"

"When the students do experience success, is it obvious to them that this is achieved through their own efforts/abilities? Are they able to move through the instruction at their own pace?"

Satisfaction is the final factor in the ARCS model. Satisfaction strategies must consistently provide learners with intrinsic and extrinsic reinforcements for effort. When learners are able to practice newly acquired skills or knowledge and receive feedback/reinforcements that sustain the desired behaviour they are more likely to have positive attitudes and remain motivated. Whilst behaviourists consider success as motivating and emphasise the importance of extrinsic rewards gained through goal setting and achievement, constructivists place greater importance on the intrinsic rewards that learners gain as information-seekers and problem-solvers. Satisfaction is increased by:

Intrinsic reinforcement - that supports and encourages enjoyment of the experience. Students are likely to be intrinsically motivated when they can apply what they have learned as this helps to affirm new levels of competency.

Extrinsic rewards - provide congratulatory feedback for performance that matches the success criteria. These reinforcement messages are employed to sustain motivation.

Equity - requires that uniform standards and consequences are employed for task completion. Students will become demotivated if assessment and feedback methods are not consistent.

This prompts the questions:

"Do students enjoy the experience? Are they able to apply their newly acquired knowledge to other experiences?"

"Are students provided with feedback that encourages them, does this feedback match the criteria for success?"

"Is the instruction fair? Are the assessments and feedback consistent?"

Finally, Jonassen's work (1994, p.5) forms the basis for the final part of the evaluation tool. Jonassen considers that Knowledge construction can be facilitated through learning environments that foster reflective practice, and focus on knowledge construction rather than reproduction enabling both context and content dependent learning. This leads to the questions:

"What affordance does the innovation provide for reflection? How does this reflection occur?"

"Does the innovation allow learners to develop competencies as well as acquiring factual knowledge?"

"Are the learners encouraged to gain and demonstrate understandings rather than reporoducing existing knowledge?"


SimVenture was introduced into the Business Studies class at HMP Albany at the beginning of December, 2009. The class consists of an average of eight male students studying for OCR's Levels One and Two in Business Enterprise. SimVenture is a business simulation that allows students to establish and mange their own virtual company. This evaluation utilises the tool previously detailed as the basis for a semi-structured interview with Kenneth Ritchie, the class teacher who has introduced the innovation. The interview was carried out face-to-face on 22/03/2010 and lasted for approximately an hour. The interview is used as the basis of an assessment of the effectiveness of the innovation in fostering a more student-centred, constructivist approach in the belief that this will enhance learning and increase motivation.

This evaluation begins with a consideration of how SimVenture arouses and maintains the learners' attention and curiosity. Whether deep learning leads to increased motivation, or whether increased motivation leads to deeper learning, it is apparent that an effective learning environment must engage a learner's interest if they are to be motivated to begin the process of experimentation, exploration, construction and reflection.