What’s wrong with bite-sized learning?

The phrase ‘bite-sized learning’ suggests that a substantial, chunky educational programme has been chopped up into smaller pieces which are easy to take in but have lost any sense of overall meaning; little gobbets of knowledge of no real use.

We should certainly not reduce education to merely the sum of its component parts, it is far more. Being, or becoming, ‘educated’ is a complex human and social process which cannot easily be broken down. As in the well-known paradox of the sorites where it is impossible to say exactly how many grains of sand make a heap of sand, we cannot define the moment when the sum of our learning makes us educated; the point of transition between quantity and quality. Like Rabindranath Tagore, we want an education “where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls” which is not a series of atomized and disconnected experiences

Nevertheless, our learning is episodic, or ‘bite-sized’. We do learn in small pieces which then need to be connected to the pieces we already have and join a bigger mental structure or schema which helps us makes sense of these smaller units of knowledge by connecting them in a particular way. It is essential to join up and integrate these units of learning and this can take time. The process is highly personal and the way each student does this connecting will be different.

So we can describe an educational programme as being about both wholes and parts as well as the relationship between them. The parts only make sense in terms of the whole they are being connected to and vice versa.

Each of us is a whole person engaging with the whole world: questioning, thinking and doing. We recognise the educated whole person as being knowledgeable, skilled, questioning, critical, confident and resilient. The process of educating this whole person involves a multitude of educational parts or learning experiences; some carefully orchestrated, others unplanned. In a well-conceived educational programme planned as a whole, knowledge or practice can usefully be reduced to parts, experienced in parts and accredited and valued in parts; as topics, modules and qualifications. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood”. To contribute to a successful education, these lessons must also be connected.

Is there an alternative to this way of learning? Clearly it is impossible to learn everything all at once. Nevertheless, the anti-‘bite size’ argument is still used against all sorts of fairly substantial learning programmes. This is the critique which has prompted the move away from modular A level assessment in England, where a full A-level can be achieved through aggregating the achievement in 6 (or 4) modules over 2 years with different content at different points in the course. The AS qualification represents the first half of the A-level content and allows for separate accreditation of this in the first year of study from which to build A-level achievement in the second year. With the abolition of January exams last year and the imminent ‘decoupling’ of AS levels, A-level students will soon be assessed mainly on their performance in terminal written exams at the end of 2 years; a so-called ‘linear’ approach.

The case for reform rests on the very shaky claim that modular or end-of-first-year assessment is less rigorous, fails to prepare for degree level study and lacks synopticity (making connections between topics). The only really robust argument here is about reducing the time given to exams and releasing more time for teaching, something we can only welcome.

There is nothing intrinsically less rigorous about assessing mastery of AS level content after a year or indeed of a single module after half a year. There is nothing intrinsically more rigorous about waiting 2 years before external assessment. The linear v. modular debate is not about rigour, it’s about the impression of rigour. What it does is raise the stakes for learners whose futures depend on the grades they achieve and increase the risk and fear of unexpected or unfair outcomes.

The rationale for abolishing modular assessment in January as well as June and for de-coupling AS from A level is pretty spurious and convinces very few of the sixth form teachers who actually teach the courses or the university admissions tutors who rely on AS results to help with their selection processes.

What is wrong with the time-honoured notion of end of year exams which assess comprehension and application of what has been learned in an academic year? This usually involves more synoptic assessment at the final stage to demonstrate cumulative learning and growing confidence built up over several years. The universities for which we are preparing our A level students themselves use modular, semesterised or annual assessment and do not see this as being less demanding.

An AS level or a single A-level module can hardly be described as an easily digestible bite-sized gobbet of learning. An AS level represents well over 100 taught hours on a range of topics providing plenty of opportunity to integrate knowledge from different areas, to master content in depth and breadth and to demonstrate understanding.

So let’s recognize the value of both the whole and the parts and not let dogma get in the way of a recoupling of AS and A2 assessment.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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