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students college learners

Michael Theall

Joseph P. Farrell


Student learning in higher education is a function of both formal and informal experiences. Formal learning takes place as a result of a classroom or related activity structured by a teacher and/or others for the purpose of helping students to achieve specified cognitive, or other, objectives. Informal learning encompasses all the other outcomes of students' participation in a higher education experience. In both cases, the more extended or comprehensive the experience, the greater the potential effect. In a comprehensive 1991 review, Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini described the ways in which college affects students with respect to many kinds of learning. While they found that formal learning related to academic and cognitive skills, and to subject-matter competence, informal learning was shown to impact on many other areas.

Complications arise, however, because of the number and variety of variables affecting college learning. For example, while the differences between being a residential student and a commuter student do not seem to greatly affect cognitive or subject-matter learning, they are relatively influential with respect to psychosocial change, intellectual and cultural values, independence, and similar factors. Is this purely an on-campus versus off-campus difference? Age may be an intervening variable in such cases, because one would expect older, working adults (a constantly growing student population in all of higher education) to represent a substantial percentage of students living off-campus. Given that less psychosocial change might be expected with such learners–because their attitudes and values are already well established–the observed differences between on-and off-campus learning could be a function of student demographic differences such as age, as well as the environment itself. For example, while the influence of college on the intellectual and cultural values of resident students is significant, this effect derives much of its impact from immersion in the college environment and the maturation of younger learners who may not have had a broad range of experience. Adult, non-resident learners may have more firmly-held beliefs and a broader range of experience and by simple maturation, may already have developed more refined sets of values. Thus it is not simply location that makes the difference, but the combination of location and characteristics of the learners.

The Theory behind the Practice

When the first edition of this encyclopedia was published in 1971, the prevailing approach to teaching and learning was the behaviorist model. Developed by B. F. Skinner and others in the 1950s, this model considered stimuli such as instructional events or activities, the responses of learners to these stimuli, and contingencies or consequences based on those responses. The basic proposition was that learning occurred when the desired responses were elicited by the stimuli. Robert Mager's work with instructional objectives (precise statements of intended behaviors along with measurement criteria) and Benjamin Bloom and colleague's 1956 taxonomies (classification schemes) of objectives were also major influences on the ways in which instruction was designed and delivered. The taxonomic levels are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. A practical problem for teachers is that there can be objectives for literally every instructional activity and every kind of behavior–from acquiring basic knowledge to classroom attentiveness and the development of value systems. While behaviorism has been largely replaced as an instructional theory, the underlying value of clear objectives, appropriate measurement criteria, and the specification of various types of desired learning have remained as important basics for designing effective instruction.

Cognitive theory, essentially the position that learning involves the learner's associations of new stimuli with existing concepts and categorization schemes, regained some support in the 1970s and has continued to develop in its applications since that time. Marilla Svinicki (1999) outlined five general strategies for teaching that derive from the early theory: (1) directing students' attention through verbal or visual cues; (2) emphasizing how material is organized, again with various cues; (3) making information more meaningful by providing associations with other material or applications; (4) encouraging active checking of understanding through questioning and feedback; and (5) compensating for limits of information processing and memory systems with smaller amounts of information, review, breaks, and focusing attention.

Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, went beyond simple associations and brought learners more into the process of actively manipulating new information and incorporating it into both their own conceptual schemes and those of the subject involved. Svinicki suggests that instructors should model and describe their own thinking as they work through problems, stress problem solving and other activities that provide opportunities for practicing thought processes, and even teach specific strategies when necessary. The teacher, as the expert in a specific field, becomes a cognitive mentor and uses such techniques to help students move from positions as novices in the discipline to more seasoned practitioners. Teachers thus provide students with tools for understanding and dealing with future, more complex material. Since efficient problem-solving strategies enhance performance, the additional benefit is motivational: it increases students' expectations for successful completion of the work and strengthens their beliefs about their ability to do the work.

Learner-centered instruction is a term that refers to attending to a learner's individual needs, differences, and abilities, as well as to sharing responsibility for learning. Research by Paul Pintrich (1995) has established that students who are able to control their own behavior, motivation, and cognition are generally successful in college. Such students self-regulate their learning in three ways. First, they exercise active control by monitoring what they do, why they do it, and what happens–and then making adjustments. Second, they have goals that mark desired performance levels and they use these when deciding what adjustments to make. Third, they accept that the control must be theirs rather than someone else's. These procedures revolve around the important underlying concept that learners can exercise control and influence educational outcomes, and that doing so has many benefits.

Collaborative learning is the practice of actively engaging learners in joint discovery, analysis, and use of information. It has its roots in the power of peer and other groups to influence the development of understandings, values, and beliefs. From a pragmatic perspective, collaborative learning is also a more representative model of contemporary practice in the working world. In an interesting irony, however, students who have been generally successful in teacher-centered models tend, at first, to reject collaborative learning as an abdication of the teacher's responsibility, assuming that the job of delivering content has been transferred to other students. This is a misinterpretation of the purpose of collaboration, and it poses an additional problem for teachers: planning and structuring collaborative work so that learners' roles and responsibilities are clear, and also making it apparent that the teacher is serving different, but equally important roles as a resource, a guide, a mentor, an assessor, and any of several other roles. Students are not expected to teach each other, they are expected to work together to reach appropriate goals. The value of self-regulated learning is apparent in this context. Well-constructed collaborative work identifies learner responsibilities, sets goals, provides learners with opportunities to consider the goals and to structure their own efforts accordingly, and supports cooperative effort. Svinicki proposes the following methods for promoting learner-centered instruction: (1) encourage self-regulation; (2) use collaborative methods; (3) employ problem-solving activities that connect content to real-world situations; and (4) provide models of the processes, strategies, and habits of thought of the discipline being taught.

Teaching and Its Outcomes

There is not sufficient space here to provide details of all the relationships between various kinds of learning and teaching techniques. More complete descriptions are available in Kenneth Feldman and Michael Paulsen's 1998 discussion of college teaching and learning and in How College Affects Students (1991) by Pascarella and Terenzini. Some basic findings from that work are extracted and outlined below, and the organization of the following paragraphs follows that of the chapters in Pascarella and Terenzini's text.

For verbal, quantitative, and subject-matter learning, lecturing appears to be a valuable method, particularly in learning material at the knowledge and comprehension levels of the Bloom et al. taxonomy. Individualized instruction in various forms seems reasonably effective in teaching similar content. More sophisticated cognitive objectives and affective objectives appear better learned when opportunities for interaction occur, as in smaller classes and those that use discussion and active learning methods. Collaborative learning also provides learners with numerous alternative explanations that must be reconciled, and efforts in this direction support achievement of both complex cognitive and affective objectives for learning content material.

When general cognitive skills and intellectual growth are desired, a process involving exploration of information, developing explanations, and reaching generalizations is useful. Like the experiential model of David Kolb (1984), this process is reiterative, and its strength is in the need for learners to go beyond memorization of facts and into solving problems through locating relevant information, testing possible theories, and arriving at conclusions. The cognitive practice involved in such activities provides useful training that can be transferred. Additionally, the need to discuss and debate the merits of conflicting arguments provides opportunities to develop written and spoken communication skills. Similar methods support intellectual growth, critical thinking, and the ability to deal with conceptually complex issues. However, a single course experience may not produce large effects; more time and exposure are generally necessary.

The psychosocial changes described by Pascarella and Terenzini include internal matters such as identity and self-esteem, as well as external factors such as relationships with people and constructs in the outside world. In the internal psychosocial realm, there do not seem to be many effects that can be directly attributed to college teaching and learning, or even to the overall college environment. One reason offered by Pascarella and Terenzini for the lack of significant or important findings is the difficulty in measuring such changes. Research lacks a generally accepted set of theories to guide the work, and measurement itself is imprecise. They also note the variety of college environments and the difficulty in generalizing from data gathered across these environments. Another reason may be that attending college does not guarantee a progressively positive set of experiences. Academic difficulties can have large negative effects on self-esteem, and research suggests that many students leave college because of a sense of isolation and loneliness. Such negative outcomes can counterbalance the positive effects of college, thus diminishing the overall strength of the findings.

There are things that can be done to avoid such problems. Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson (1987) developed a list of "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." They suggest that instruction that encourages social and academic interaction, cooperative efforts, active learning, regular feedback, high expectations about both student effort and outcomes, and the creation of respect and trust among individuals and groups are all critical to success.

In terms of changes with respect to external factors, Pascarella and Terenzini report general student gains in independence, nonauthoritarian thinking, tolerance, intellectual orientation, maturity, personal adjustment skills, and personal development. They note that "the largest freshman-senior changes appear to be away from authoritarian, dogmatic, and ethnocentric thinking and behavior" (p. 257).

Teachers can do much to support the kinds of growth that have been found in the external psychosocial area. The use of cooperative and collaborative methods of teaching and learning supports the development of social skills and team membership skills, and also exposes students to a variety of opinions and ideas. Teachers can present diverse points of view and engage students in exploration, analysis, and synthesis of these views. Indeed, most instruction that addresses the upper levels of the Bloom taxonomy (i.e., analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) requires students to weigh the merits of alternative ideas and approaches, and to make evidence-based judgments. As students move from entry-level courses through graduation and into graduate education, there is an increasingly heavy stress on independent learning and the development of the ability to carry out one's own analyses and arrive at one's own conclusions. It is not surprising then, that one of the best-documented effects of college is an increase in the internality of students' locus of control. Locus is one aspect of attribution theory, and it refers to the student's perception of the extent to which she or he has the power to influence outcomes. Those students whose locus is more internal (those who are generally successful) feel capable of exercising some control and they take action to do so, while students who exhibit external tendencies are generally less successful and have few feelings of power or the ability to affect outcomes. They are often more passive and attribute their failures (and sometimes, even their successes) to external factors such the skill of the teacher, their classmates, course difficulty or simplicity, and even, to luck.

As with external psychosocial factors, a number of attitudes and values seem to change in college, and there seems a reasonable relationship between these kinds of changes in terms of their nature as well as in the kinds of instruction that can promote growth. Attitudinal changes occur in cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual areas and are marked by greater sophistication and interest in broader ranges of music, literature, philosophy, creative activities, history, and the humanities. Other changes are found in educational and occupational values, including such things as interest in a liberal education and the desire for a fulfilling career. More change seems to occur in the early years of college than does in the latter years. Programs and institutions that support (particularly) younger learners from the outset–and that combine sound instructional methods, the development of a sense of engagement in an intellectual community, and readily available support services–create many opportunities for success.

Insofar as moral development is concerned, attending college appears to consistently promote growth in the direction of principled moral reasoning. This growth takes place primarily in the early years of college and it is reflected in both in-college and postgraduation behavior. Pascarella and Terenzini report this change as one of the most prominent, but they also note that evidence of change does not tell how or why such change takes place. There are some logical connections to teaching strategies in this area, and they are similar to those noted above. For example, use of the discussion method, collaborative learning, peer review, and other techniques that require students to consider alternative points of view and to reconcile differences among these alternatives, can lead to more openness to new ideas, more cultural sensitivity, and more awareness of social/ethical issues. Such techniques can be used in many disciplines and are not limited to particular courses dealing with moral reasoning, ethics, and related subjects. In these or other courses, exposing students to real-world ethical issues and requiring them to propose alternative solutions to problems using the perspectives of the various stakeholders is one way to demonstrate the complexities of making such decisions. Such an approach can also help expand the students' range of understanding of differing points of view.

One of the advantages of higher education's emphasis on diversity and multicultural issues is that the range of experiences and opinions available for discussion is considerably broadened. This advantage relates to research findings that moral reasoning does not develop as much, or as consistently, in contexts where there is a high degree of similarity among students. Homogeneity tends to reduce the conflicting opinions that are the basis for discussion and synthesis.

The Importance of Individual Differences and Motivation

Despite a great deal of discussion and the development of a large number of schema and indicators of individual difference, some caution is necessary when considering their effects. Individual differences–such as general intelligence, affinity for certain subjects, level of knowledge, prior training, personal experience, and cultural and related differences–can be identified reasonably well and taken into account. Other variables, however, are less understood and more difficult to reconcile when instruction is designed. One area of debate is over that group of differences known as teaching and learning styles.

While it is generally agreed that each person may have some unique combinations of characteristics, and that certain of these characteristics can be identified and categorized, it is dangerous to make simplistic assumptions about style. Indeed, there are so many different classifications of style and individual difference, that it is all too easy to assume unilateral reliance on any one, or to attempt to include too many. Research suggests that since most learners have a repertoire of styles, simply using a variety of instructional methods will provide the majority with sufficient opportunities to learn. While students may use some approaches more frequently than others, they can adapt to new situations by using whatever alternative approaches seem most suitable at the moment. It is those few learners who have limited repertoires who have the greatest difficulty and for whom the greatest accommodations are necessary. Useful interventions for these learners include individual assistance, making instruction more concrete and relevant through relating content to real-world situations or to their own experiences, explaining processes for organizing content information, teaching general study skills as well as specific problem-solving strategies, using frequent assessment techniques, and providing regular feedback.

Motivation is a well-researched area, and though there are several descriptions of the elements of motivation, these elements are quite similar. Michael Theall's 1998 distillation of thirteen motivational approaches resulted in a six-item conceptualization that applies to higher education students and faculty. The elements were: inclusion, attitude, meaning, competence, leadership, and satisfaction. Of the models reviewed, one that can be directly connected to college teaching is that of John Keller (1983). Keller proposed a model for the motivational design of instruction. The model outlines a cycle of inputs, events, and consequences that could result in positive or negative outcomes. Students and teachers enter into a teaching-learning situation with sets of values and expectations that affect the extent and nature of the effort they expend. Positive attitudes (e.g., the student is interested in the subject; the teacher has done research on the topic) and expectations (e.g., the students believe themselves to be able in the content area; the teacher expects the course to be well received) lead to greater effort, and effort directly affects performance. Strong performance leads to both satisfaction (via the consequences of good grades, the sense of a "job well done" and the recognition of effective learning) and heightened value and expectations for the future (which further motivate effort). However, in the negative direction, certain attitudes (e.g., the students do not want to take the class; the teacher is tired of teaching the material) and expectations (e.g., a student's subject anxiety; the teacher's concerns about the course) can diminish effort and lead to reduced performance and disappointment, thus reinforcing negative attitudes and expectations.

Raymond Wlodkowski (1998) stresses that intrinsic motivation is more powerful that extrinsic motivation. In other words, the older view of motivation as something that is done to someone is less relevant than the understanding that success involves promoting or creating sets of conditions under which the individual is the one who actually provides the motivation. A typical case in college learning would be a teacher's creation of sets of experiences that arouse the students' interest and allow engagement in activities that both promote growth and provide opportunities for success. In this scenario, satisfaction comes internally from accomplishment, while grades are only a documentation of the learning and satisfaction, rather than after-the-fact rewards that drive performance.

Determining Outcomes

The growth of both evaluation and assessment has been exponential, and with this growth have come expectations that teachers and institutions will be able to document their performance, and that of their students, in meaningful ways. Classroom tests are no longer sufficient as evidence. Certification and licensure are important in certain professional fields, but many disciplines do not require such standardized demonstrations of learning, and many have questioned even these more carefully constructed measures in terms of their ability to truly describe learning.

Moreover, the interest of accrediting bodies is not only in what kinds of data are collected in what ways, but also in what actions have been taken as a result of assessments. In other words, assessment has become a process for continuous revision and improvement. Assessment is concerned with the results of teaching and the educational experience, and of determining as precisely as possible what was learned. This role differs from that of evaluation, which is more a process to determine merit or worth. Evaluation is a more global, formal, quantitative, and occasional process, while assessment is often more narrow, informal, qualitative, and ongoing. This is because assessment's objectives are often at the level of the individual learner and less amenable to social science research methods that depend on samples of adequate size to allow statistical inference. Interestingly, both evaluation and assessment use the terms formative, meaning a process for exploration, revision, and improvement; and summative, meaning a process for determining merit and making administrative decisions about people or programs.

The most widely circulated and complete source of assessment information is Classroom Assessment Techniques (1993) by Thomas Angelo and K. Patricia Cross. This book contains numerous techniques for assessing learning in the immediate context of the classroom, as well as in the broader context of the full course, the college semester, and beyond. In the 1990s, this work and the concurrent interest in Ernest Boyer's conception of the scholarship of teaching led to the development of methods for classroom research that are, according to Cross and Mimi Steadman (1996), learner-centered, teacher-directed, collaborative, context-specific, scholarly, practical/relevant, and continual. Very much like assessment in its emphasis on learning, classroom research provided a bridge that connected investigation of classroom learning with the more formal research that had previously held exclusive rights to the term scholarship. In effect, evaluation and assessment methods were blended to provide a vehicle for the teacher-scholar to carry out the scholarship of teaching.

Adult Learning and the Growth of Technology

A new and unique set of circumstances arose during the 1990s due to the increase in the number of adult learners and programs accessible at a distance. Not only was this population of students very different from traditional, residential students, but the contexts of teaching and learning were also markedly different. Stephen Brookfield (1991) suggests six principles for effectively working with adult learners:(1) voluntary participation and engagement by learners; (2) respect among participants and acknowledgement of learners' experiences and knowledge; (3) collaborative rather than directive facilitation of learners' experiences; (4) praxis and constant integration of activities into a unified whole; (5) critical reflection; and (6) promoting self-directed efforts and a sense of empowerment. But since the majority of adult learners are commuters or students taking courses away from the traditional campus setting, the benefits of the traditional communities of the college campus are not readily available to this population, and opportunities for informal dialogue, for developing social relationships, and for spending concentrated time on course requirements are limited.

At the same time that these issues about new student populations were being discussed, the rapid growth of distance education programs, especially courses and curricula delivered entirely, or almost entirely, via the Internet, was raising questions about how instruction could be delivered in a disembodied form. Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt (2001) suggest that the following lessons have been learned so far: (1) course development needs to focus on interactivity, not content, because even if course content is known and established, there remains the need to deliver it in ways that facilitate learning; (2) faculty and student roles need to change, with less emphasis on one-sided delivery and more on active and interactive modes; (3) faculty and student training on the use of the technology, as well as the new modes of instruction, is critical to success; (4) faculty and students need to have substantial support networks throughout the course experience; (5) institutions must develop strategic plans that go well beyond technological requirements and deal with everything from pedagogical support to intellectual property rights; (6) institutions must have tested and reliable infrastructure in place, and the systems used should be accessible and usable; (7) technologies should be chosen by teams of users, and choices should be based in instructional as well as technical parameters.


Since 1970 there have been many changes in higher education–changes that center on different student populations, different methods of delivering instruction, and different conceptions of what a college education is and how it should be pursued. This change process will continue, but despite dire predictions that technology will replace the need for college campuses, it is likely that the residential experience of undergraduate education and the intensive nature of graduate training will continue to require opportunities for interaction and apprenticeship that can only be provided on traditional campuses.


ANGELO, THOMAS A., and CROSS, K. PATRICIA. 1993. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

BLOOM, BENJAMIN S.; ENGLEHART, MAX D.; FURST, EDWARD J.; HILL, WALTER H.; and KRATHWOHL, DAVID R. 1956. Taxonomy of Education Objectives. New York: David McKay.

BOYER, ERNEST L. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: The Priorities of the Professoriate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

BROOKFIELD, STEPHEN. 1991. Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

CHICKERING, ARTHUR, and GAMSON, ZELDA. 1987. "Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." The Wingspread Journal 9 (2):1–11.

CROSS, K. PATRICIA, and STEADMAN, MIMI H. 1996. Classroom Research: Implementing the Scholarship of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

FELDMAN, KENNETH A. and PAULSEN, MICHAEL B. 1998. Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom, 2nd edition. Needham Heights, MA: Simon and Schuster.

JOHNSON, DAVID; JOHNSON, ROGER T.; and HOLUBEC, ERNEST. 1989. Cooperation in the Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction.

KELLER, JOHN M. 1983. "Motivational Design of Instruction." In Instructional Design Theories and Models: An Overview of Their Current Status. ed. Charles M. Riegeluth. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

KOLB, DAVID. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

MAGER, ROBERT, F. 1962. Preparing Instructional Objectives. Palo Alto, CA: Fearon.

PALLOFF, RENA M., and PRATT, KEITH. 2001. Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

PASCARELLA, ERNEST, and TERENZINI, PATRICK. 1991. How College Affects Students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

PINTRICH, PAUL R., ed. 1995. Understanding Self-Regulated Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

SCRIVEN, MICHAEL. 1967. "The Methodology of Evaluation." In Perspectives of Curriculum Evaluation, ed. Ralph Tyler, Robert Gagne, and Michael Scriven. Chicago: Rand McNally.

SKINNER, B. F. 1953. Science and Human Behavior. New York: Free Press.

SVINICKI, MARILLA. 1999. "New Directions in Learning and Motivation." In Teaching and Learning on the Edge of the Millenium: Building on What We Have Learned, ed. Marilla Svinicki. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

THEALL, MICHAEL. 1998. "What Have We Learned: A Synthesis and Some Guidelines." In Motivation from Within: Approaches for Encouraging Faculty and Students to Excel, ed. Michael Theall. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

WEINER, BERNARD. 1986. An Attributional Theory of Motivation. New York: Springer-Verlag.

WLODKOWSKI, RAYMOND. 1998. Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


A curious paradox can be seen as one considers schooling and teaching across the many cultures of the world. On the one hand there is enormous variation among cultures–and within most cultures–in the ways in which people learn. At the same time there is a remarkable similarity across nations in the ways in which opportunities to learn are provided through formal schools and school systems.

Anthropologists, and educators who have taught in a variety of cultural settings, have long noted differences in the ways that children born into different cultural settings learn to learn. While there are variations within any cultural group–sometimes across a narrow range of difference, and sometimes across a wide range (such differences are frequently referred to as individual learning styles)–clearly observable modal differences among cultural groups have been well documented. Such differences are analyzed in the literature of European settler states, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, which contain references to differences in approaches to, and understanding of, learning between the European settler/colonizer groups and the original aboriginal inhabitants, and between settlers and more recently arrived immigrant groups from areas of the world other than Europe. These differences have also figured prominently in analyses of education in other colonial and postcolonial (or neocolonial) states around the world. Yet, with an increasing awareness of these considerable variations in learning, there has simultaneously spread throughout the world a standard model of schooling, which often does not take these differences into account, and thus often does considerable damage to the learning potential of children.

It is frequently forgotten that schooling, as it has come to be known, is only one of a vast array of social institutions that humans have invented to provide opportunities for young people to learn. It is, in fact, a human invention of relatively recent origin, at least on a mass scale. The broad-scale provision of education as an instrument of statecraft and state development was effectively "invented" in Prussia after, and as a result of, the Napoleonic invasion of that nation. It spread quickly throughout Europe and other relatively wealthy nations of the time, and more gradually across the world through colonial imposition and, in some cases, through cultural borrowing. But in the broad sweep of history it is a quite new social institution. In its fundamental forms (hence the term formal education) it was set by the experience, attitudes, and understanding of the mid-to late-nineteenth century elites in the then newly industrialized nations. As those basic forms have spread around the world they have hardly changed, even in the wealthiest nations, for well over a century. That standard model generally comprises, around the world, the following basic elements.

  • One hundred to several hundred children/youth assembled (often compulsorily for a period of years) in a building called a school, from approximately the age of six or seven up to somewhere between age eleven and sixteen.
  • Instruction lasts for three to six hours per day, five or six days per week.
  • Students are divided into groups of twenty to sixty individuals.
  • Students work with a single adult (a "certified" teacher) in a single room for (especially in the upper grades) discrete periods of forty to sixty minutes, each devoted to a separate subject.
  • Subjects are studied and learned in a group of young people of roughly the same age, with supporting learning materials, such as books, chalkboards, notebooks, workbooks and worksheets, and, increasingly, computers (and in technical areas such things as laboratories, workbenches, and practice sites).
  • There is a standard curriculum, set by an authority level much above the individual school (normally a central or provincial/state government), and which all students are expected to cover in an age-graded fashion.
  • Adults, assumed to be more knowledgeable, teach, and students receive instruction from them.
  • If they are to go any higher in the schooling system, students are expected and required to repeat back to the adults what they have been taught.
  • Teachers and/or a central examination system evaluate students' ability to repeat back to them what the students have been taught, and also provide formal recognized credentials for passing particular grades or levels.
  • Most or all of the financial support comes from national or regional governments, or other kinds of authority centers (e.g. church-related schools) well above the local community level.

There are a variety of explanations or theories regarding how and why this particular pattern of organizing and providing teaching for young people has become almost universally overlaid upon the wide diversity of ways in which young people learn to learn. Within this cross-national paradox, there is irony. While it has been clearly demonstrated that this standard model of teaching and schooling has frequently proven very dysfunctional for learning among children from cultural groups different from its place of origin, the accumulated literature from cognitive and learning psychology, anthropology, and comparative education has increasingly demonstrated that it is also inherently dysfunctional for children (and adults for that matter) from those very cultures of origin.

The system, in short, is inherently inefficient and ineffective. People of every age and culture simply do not learn well under these arrangements. These traditional, but now nearly universal, patterns of teaching and schooling are an artifact of the misconceptions of a different time and, for much of the world, a different place. But now that patterns are in place, it seems nearly impossible to get rid of them, and even the richest nations are able to alter them only slightly at great effort and cost, and usually only over very long periods of time.

In the closing decades of the twentieth century, however, a new pattern began to appear in developing nations where the European system has proven to be so often dysfunctional for learning. School systems have begun to appear that are breaking the forms of formal schooling in quite fundamental ways, and that are producing remarkable learning gains among extremely poor and marginalized children. As of 2002 more than 100 of these teaching/school programs have been documented, some involving tens or hundreds of schools, others tens of thousands of schools. Some common features of these alternative forms of schooling are these:

  • Child-centered rather than teacher-driven pedagogy
  • Active rather than passive learning
  • Multigraded classrooms with continuous progress learning
  • Peer-tutoring–older and/or faster learning children assist and "teach" younger and/or slower learning children
  • Carefully developed self-guided learning materials, which children, alone or in small groups, can work through themselves, at their own pace, with help from other students and teachers as necessary–the children are responsible for their own learning
  • Combinations of fully trained teachers, partially trained teachers, and community resource people–parents and other community members are heavily involved in the learning of the children, and in the management of the school
  • Active student involvement in the governance and management of the school
  • Free flows of children and adults between the school and the community
  • Community involvement includes attention to the nutrition and health needs of young children long before they reach school age
  • Locally adapted changes in the cycle of the school day or the school year
  • Ongoing monitoring/evaluation/feedback systems allowing the "system" to learn from its own experience, with constant modification of/experimentation with the methodology
  • Ongoing and very frequent in-service teacher development programs, with heavy use of peer mentoring

Early indications suggest that they are far more flexible and successful in adapting their teaching/schooling approaches to the variations among cultures in how people learn to learn. But little serious research has been done to try to understand how and why these new programs seem to work so well in promoting learning among very diverse groups. That is a challenge for the twenty-first century.


CASE, ROBBIE. 1985. Intellectual Development: Birth to Adulthood. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

FARRELL, JOSEPH P. 1997. "A Retrospective on Educational Planning in Comparative Education." Comparative Education Review 41 (3):277–313.

FARRELL, JOSEPH P., and MFUM-MENSAH, O. 2002. "A Preliminary Analytical Framework for Comparative Analysis of Alternative Primary Education Programs in Developing Nations" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Comparative and International Educational Society, Orlando, Florida.

FULLER, BRUCE. 1991. Growing Up Modern: The Western State Builds Third World Schools. New York: Routledge.

HALL, EDWARD T. 1986. "Unstated Features of the Cultural Context of Learning." In Learning and Development: A Global Perspective, ed. A. Thomas and E. Ploman. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Press.

KNOWLES, MALCOMB. 1984. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston: Gulf Publishing.

KOCHAN, ANNA. 2001. Community Educational Projects Database: An International List of Community Education Programs. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto Comparative International and Development Education Centre.

SCHIEFELBEIN, ERNESTO. 1991. In Search of the School of the 21st Century: Is Colombia's Escuela Nueva the Right Pathfinder? Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

TYACK, DAVID, and CUBAN, LAWRENCE. 1995. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

ZAALOUK, MALAK. 1995. The Children of the Nile: The Community Schools Project in Upper Egypt. Paris: United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund.


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