One step beyond

I have a copy of John Bigg’s ‘Teaching for Quality Learning at University’. It defines the extended abstract as:

“Going beyond what has been given, whereas the relational response stays with it. The coherent whole is conceptualised at a higher level of abstraction and is applied to a new and broader domains” (Biggs, pg. 40).

So, in order to qualify as an extended abstract you would need to create new knowledge, to make – in their terms – a breakthrough. I have a slight problem with that. Biggs acknowledges that in time the extended abstract becomes the relational inasmuch as new knowledge inevitably becomes new old knowledge. Isn’t this an example of rationalisation?

For example, Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the somewhat heretical notion that animals were subject to variation according to the environment in which they lived. He authored an essay on this issue, which he passed to Charles Darwin. This could be described as an example of the extended abstract. Of course, Darwin had been harbouring similar notions and was encouraged by Wallace’s essay to publish his own thoughts on the matter, titled ‘On the Origin of Species’. Does Darwin lose credit for this because Wallace had similar thoughts? Is getting there first important?

Perhaps I am doing Biggs and Collins a disservice. In talking about going beyond what is given, I am not clear whether they are talking about an individual making new connections for themselves  – irrespective of what other people have done – or  making connections that no one has made before. Either way, is it reasonable to ask people to create new knowledge as part of a set of learning outcomes? Should PhD’s have learning outcomes?

Ultimately, is newness a helpful criteria for classifying learning? Innovation, after all, is not always a good thing. For me, I think that it is positive to remind learners that knowledge isn’t static, and that they can help to discover new knowledge. I just wouldn’t call this extended abstract thinking. I would call it creativity.


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