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Professor John Cowan

Page history last edited by Norman Jackson 9 years, 6 months ago

 Creating a Buzz - ‘Lifewide Learning’

The need for a radically revised pedagogy

See podcast below 


John Cowan

 In the last half-century, higher education has progressed fairly steadily to a common pedagogical approach which centres on what Biggs (Biggs and Tang 2007) call the aligned curriculum.  In this arrangement, intended learning outcomes are identified and declared; assessment which calls for these outcomes is (ideally) carefully designed; and learning activities which will enable the desired learning and development to be achieved are conceived and undertaken with the support of effective facilitation.  The same principles and practices have been applied in the most purposeful of schemes for personal development planning, and to learner-directed and managed learning. I will argue that full recognition of lifewide learning, wherein learning and development occurs more or less contemporaneously and often incidentally in multiple and varied places and situations throughout an individual's life course, calls for higher education to visualise this situation in terms of an emergent curriculum. In this arrangement the outcomes of lifewide learning emerge late on – rather than being defined initially as intended learning outcomes and outcomes are often unintended – rather than intended. The process begins from the choice of an area of activity which may be attractive to an individual for a variety of reasons, and with learning often as a by-product of the experience – rather than the activity being purposefully selected by someone else and planned to enable the learner to achieve specific learning. Assessment and evaluation for lifewide learning are analytical and reflective – rather than being evaluative, formatively or summatively, comparing progress with intended learning outcomes. The outcomes of lifewide learning may only have meaning for the individual and are judged against particular criteria that make sense to the individual in that context – rather than against more general criteria determined by someone else. Learners have to evolve their own frameworks for analysing and judging their own development in the particular contexts in which it has occurred – rather than being constrained to general criteria devised by others hence learning outcomes from lifewide learning are identified from the assessment or review process – rather than being confirmed by it. Assessment and evaluation of lifewide learning are centred on the learner’s self-knowledge of what the experience has generated – rather than on predetermined outcomes and criteria; Assessment and evaluation of lifewide learning make demands on learners and others for informed and objective judgements for which we currently have few if any established methodologies to offer – rather than having established methods directly derived from and compatible with predetermined learning outcomes. Marked development of confidence and self-belief is a common aim and valued outcome in lifewide learning – and less so than development of competence. All these features of lifewide student development require a radically different approach and pedagogy.   


Powerpoint slides


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John Cowan was born in Glasgow and was educated during the Second World War, in six different Scottish schools. As a child he suffered from poor eyesight. He had wanted to become a lawyer, or rather an advocate but that called for 4 years of study, and he was advised that his eyes would not last for more than 3 years.  So he opted instead to study civil engineering, motivated by the prospect of designing and building useful things.  After a successful career as a structural engineering designer he entered academia in1964 as a teacher and researcher in structural engineering.


In 1982 he became the first Professor of Engineering Education in the UK, at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, where his educationally-oriented research and development concentrated on student-centred learning and the learning experience. On moving to the Open University in Scotland as Director in 1987 he encouraged innovative curriculum development and campaigned nationally for rigorous formative evaluation in higher education.


His passion for and professional interest in student-centred learning now spans over 45 years. During that time he has placed an ever increasing emphasis on preparing students to exercise stewardship over their lifewide development while at University, and in lifelong learning thereafter. The practice of personal development planning in these developments is a central feature of enabling learners to take responsibility for and exercise stewardship over their own reflective and self-assessed development.


He continues to share his wisdom with higher education teachers at Edinburgh Napier University and his collegial spirit is well known. In describing himself he says, “It’s best just to think of me as an active part-time teacher nowadays, with personal history to draw on and a willingness to share with some colleagues, if they want to innovate in areas where I have some experience.” 


During the last 2 years John has worked closely with the Surrey Centre for Excellence in Professional Training and Education to help develop and apply the concept of lifewide learning, development and education.


John has inspired many higher education teachers. In reviewing this book ‘Becoming an Innovative Teacher’ Professor John Biggs wrote’"...a delightful and unusual reflective journey...the whole book is driven by a cycle of questions, examples, strategies and generalizations from the examples. In all, it is the clearest example of practise-what-you-preach that I have seen."  


This sums John up very well!


He was awarded a SCEPTrE Life Achievement Award in 2010 for the significant contribution he has made to the profession of higher education teaching and to honour his commitment to education that truly encourages and draws upon students’ lifelong and lifewide learning experiences.





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