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Variation Theory and the Improvement of
Teaching and Learning
gothenburg studies in educational sciences
Variation Theory and the Improvement of
Teaching and Learning
Mun Ling Lo
© Mun Ling Lo, 2012
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Ineko AB, Kållered 2012 Foreword “He cannot, England know, who knows England only”. This apparently contradictory aphorism exemplifies, and captures nicely the basic idea of Variation Theory. You cannot know what something is, without knowing what it is not. If you have only heard English all your life, you cannot know what “English” means. It is simply “language” for you (and not a language). Similarly, you cannot understand the base-ten system without having come across number systems with other bases, and you cannot understand what linear equations are without having come across other kinds of equation. In the same way, you cannot understand what “a lively style of writing” is by considering only examples of a lively style; you would need to have encountered more and less lively styles.
Making the meaning of things your own is certainly not the only kind of learning there is; but as we act in accordance with what things mean to us, our acts are only as powerful as our meanings of the world around us. One and the same thing often has a limited number of different meanings for different people. In order to acquire more powerful meanings of something, our students need our assistance. And we need to ask what it takes to develop a new meaning. The taken-for-granted answer to this question is that by encountering different instances that have a certain meaning in common but differ otherwise, we can see what is the same among the different cases, and thus the shared meaning appears to us.
The problem with this account of the origin of meanings is that it is in error. If you do not know what English is and you hear 100 people speaking English, you will have no better idea of the meaning of “a language”. If you do not know what “a lively style of writing” is, and you read 100 articles, all of them written in the same lively style, you will still not know what “a lively style of writing“ means.
According to Variation Theory, meanings do not originate primarily from sameness, but from difference, with sameness playing a secondary role. Learners are usually offered examples that have the focused meaning in common, e g “a lively style of writing”, but which differ as far as unfocused meanings are concerned, here the content of different pieces of writing. Variation Theory suggests that we turn this pattern around and let the focused meaning - the liveliness of the piece of writing - vary, while the unfocused meaning - here, the content of the piece of writing - remains invariant. Once the learners have discerned the focused meaning, we turn the pattern back to what is usually taken for granted and thereby enable the learners to generalize the meaning (of a lively style of writing) they have gained, across different examples (of content, for instance).
It is the patterns of variation and invariance among examples, instances, cases, illustrations and so on, which is the aspect of teaching that Variation Theory singles out as a key to better learning. Why such a perspective is adopted, how it is applied in hundreds of cases and with what results, is what we can read about in this excellent book.
The author of this book, LO Mun Ling, is one of the most brilliant educationalists I know. She combines in her work the highest level of scientific rigour with unparalleled faithfulness to the practice of education. Once a school-teacher, she became an outstanding scholar, a University Professor, still remaining a school teacher in heart, and one of the very best.
Gothenburg in June 2012 Ference Marton Preface This book has a relatively narrow focus, aiming to explain how Variation Theory can be applied to improve teaching and learning in schools.
In our experience, some teachers teach better than others. This is an intriguing phenomenon that has stimulated great interest among and investigation by teacher educators and educational researchers. It is believed that if we can understand why this is happening, then we might find the key to teaching for better learning. Learning must be directed towards an object (i.e., an object of learning), and so even if the learning environment is luxurious and high tech, the teachers are kind and caring and the students highly motivated, if the object of learning is very complex and difficult, learning is still unlikely to take place without the teachers’ help to tease out the critical aspects and make them available for students. I was lucky to have the opportunity to learn about Variation Theory from Professor Ference Marton in 1998. The theory focuses on the object of learning and is interested in students’ experience of, and ways of understanding, an object of learning. Under the leadership of Professor Ference Marton, we engaged in a project that used of Variation Theory as an explanatory framework to account for why some teachers are more effective than others in bringing learning about for their students. We found that Variation Theory helped us to explain why certain teaching enactments did and did not help students to learn effectively, and that this was related to the kinds of patterns of variation that were being enacted in the classroom. We felt at the time that if we were able to use Variation Theory to explain the effect of teaching on student learning, then it would have the potential to be developed into a powerful theory that could be applied in planning lessons and teaching to achieve effective learning, and tried to accomplish this in subsequent projects. It is important for teachers to continue learning to better themselves, and the most effective learning is in the classroom context. Developing a community of learners in schools in which teachers work with their peers to investigate their own teaching and how they can improve through action research will result in the most effective teacher learning. Back in 1999, the Japanese Lesson Study was considered an effective model for teacher development (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999), and we felt that this would be the best model for teachers to work together and learn how Variation Theory can be applied to teaching. As a Lesson Study usually focuses on one lesson and requires a long time (from several months to a year) to study in depth how the lesson should be delivered, it suited our purpose of helping teachers to understand Variation Theory and testing and developing Variation Theory to improve teaching. We developed a special kind of Lesson Study by adapting the procedure of the Japanese Lesson Study, taking inspiration from the idea of teaching study in China and adopting a theoretical framework based on Variation Theory. After 10 years, we have made great advancements in this area.
However, there is always a gap between theory and practice, and after engaging in Learning Study many teachers feel that they still do not fully understand Variation Theory and are handicapped when trying to apply it in practice. The main purpose of this book is thus to help teachers to understand how Variation Theory can be applied in practice. The target readers are teachers and educational researchers who are interested in improving classroom teaching and learning. I hope that education administrators and policy makers who are interested in improving the quality of learning will be inspired too. This book does not discuss Variation Theory purely in theoretical terms, but rather attempts to explain Variation Theory through the use of actual classroom examples, which are carefully chosen to illustrate how different elements of the theory can be applied.
All learning theories aim to explain learning, and all useful learning theories should be able to find application in classrooms to improve learning and to predict and explain the effect of teaching on student learning outcomes.
However, theories are not ‘truths’; all have limitations. No single theory can be used to explain all kinds of learning. In fact, because of the complex nature of learning in classrooms, there will never be one theory that suits all purposes.
Almost all learning theories have their own special features and purposes. This book does not intend to explain or examine other learning theories, although sometimes they are mentioned to show their commonality and differences with Variation Theory at the practical level.
Hong Kong in June 2012 LO Mun Ling Acknowledgements This book includes a large number of illustrative examples. These are actual classroom examples that we have developed in our Learning Studies over the past ten years. I wish to acknowledge my debt to each individual teacher, scholar and researcher who has contributed to these studies, and I am truly grateful to these pioneers for their contribution. With this book, I am proud to be able to share pedagogical content knowledge that is generated by teachers themselves.
This book was originally written in Chinese and was published by the Anhui Educational Publishing House in November 2011. I am very grateful to the Publisher for granting the right to Gotenburg University Press to publish this book in English. I would also like to thank Mr Cheung Man Wai, principal of a secondary school in Hong Kong, for reading and commenting on the manuscript, and Professor Gao Wei and Ms Chan Man Sze for their editing work on the original Chinese manuscript. I would also like to thank Ms Chan Man Sze, Ms Rita Chan and Ms Shirley Lo for helping with the initial translation of the book, Ms Chan Man Sze for helping with the formatting and editing of the English version, and AH Editing for editing and polishing the language. I would also like to acknowledge that the examples used in this book are drawn from Learning Studies from projects that were funded by various funding sources, including the Quality Education Fund, the Education Bureau of the Hong Kong SAR, as well as many schools’ own funding sources. The translation of the book from Chinese to English was financially supported by a grant to Ference MARTON and PANG Ming Fai from the Swedish Research Links scheme of the Swedish Research Council. Above all, I would like to thank Professor Ference MARTON for his comments on the English version, which helped further refine and polish the text. I am extremely grateful to them as this book would not have been possible without their contributions.
LO Mun Ling Contents Chapter 1 From Variation Theory to Learning Study
Chapter 2 Object of Learning
Chapter 3 Critical Features and Critical Aspects
Chapter 4 Using patterns of variation
Chapter 5 Using Variation Theory as a guiding principle in teaching
Chapter 6 Analysing lessons using Variation Theory as an analytic framework..................143 Chapter 7 The Development of Variation Theory – Reflection and the Way Forward.....194 References
Chapter 1From Variation Theory to Learning Study What kind of teaching really results in effective learning? Despite keen debate among policy makers, educationalists and education practitioners, no consensus has been reached on this very important question, and opinion remains divided.
Looking at learning theories at three levels The above question can be explored on three levels: the philosophical level, the theoretical level and the practical level. At the philosophical level, the questions of interest relate to our worldview, the relationship between people and the world and the relationships among people. The focus is on philosophical questions such as why people learn and where knowledge comes from. At this level, the different ‘isms’ of different schools of thought are full of conflict, and it is difficult to resolve them to arrive at a consensus.
Example 1.1 Some schools of thoughts, as represented by Plato (BC 427-347) and Fodor (1975), argue that one cannot learn new knowledge because knowledge comes from within from the powers of mind, and so we have to recall or search for the knowledge that already exists in our mind through learning (Marton & Booth, 1997, p.
8). Individual constructivists hold that we construct our own world and then explain the external world by using our internal world (Cobb, 1994). Social constructivists, in contrast, explain that meaning is generated through the interaction of humans in society, and that we explain our internal world by using the external world (Marton & Booth, 1997, p. 8).
Marton and Booth (1997, p.13), as representatives of the thinking of phenomenography and Variation Theory, argue that there is only one world: the world that is constituted as an internal relation between the world and us. As we are all different, we experience the world differently because our experience of the world is always partial.
At the second, theoretical, level, learning theories are produced based on the first level’s philosophical thought. Studies at this level focus on the nature of learning and are interested in questions such as ‘what is learning?’ and ‘how can effective
VARIATION THEORY AND THE IMPROVEMENT OF TEACHING AND LEARNINGlearning take place?’ Most of the answers are given on an idealistic, theoretical level, but begin to point towards practice.
At the third, practical, level, instructional theories are derived from learning theories, and their application to teaching and learning situations tests the practicability of learning theories in real contexts. In my opinion, all learning theories should ultimately be extended to learning and teaching principles if they are to be useful to teachers. For teachers, this is the most important and influential level. However, in the past 20 years, development at this level has been slow.
Example 1.2 Tobias and Duffy (2009) point out that very little progress has been made by constructivists to develop constructivism from a learning theory into an instructional theory.