Working with the universities we have, not the universities we wish we had.

This is partly prompted by Jesse Strommel’s post here warning against pedagogical models. 

Jesse has been a voice of reason and humanity in many debates about how we teach and how we relate to students in higher education – not just in situations where technology plays a part, but more generally. He works in North America and some of what he writes resonates very clearly with experiences in US universities. I have lots of friends and colleagues who work in US universities, and I read a lot of the research that comes from US-based education research, educational technology and learning sciences scholars. But all my direct experience of studying and working in higher education has been in Northern Ireland and England (1970s to 2003) and Australia (2003 onwards). There are important differences between countries in the ways higher education is organised, funded, described and experienced. There are significant terminological differences that can also cause confusion, undermine mutual understanding, or simply make our worlds seem strange and even alien. Some of these differences are obscured on Twitter (and in the terser forms of social media more generally), and can generate a bit of irritation. (“That may be how they do things in the US, but it’s not like that here.”)  

One of Jesse Strommel’s recurring pieces of wise advice is that we (teachers in higher education) should spend more time talking with our students, finding out about them, learning more about their real needs and desires, and about the lives they are leading before, outside and beyond university. He also talks about “teaching the students we have, not the students we wish we had.”   I have no trouble identifying with these sentiments, and I suspect that’s also the case with many of my colleagues, even though we’re not closely involved in the American HE discourse to which these words are a reaction. For example, some of the debates about ‘rigour’, grading, making allowances for students’ circumstances, the power of administrators and the cultural variations between universities take on different forms in the UK and Australia. Though we ‘get’ the main points being made, they can feel exotic and are expressed in ways that can cause us to feel well outside the worlds described. 

All that said, I’m trying to unpick what it is that Jesse is deprecating in his article. I’ve come up with the following possible readings:

1) Beware of ed tech companies, consultants, gurus and other snake-oil salesmen bearing gifts. They may be offering you a colourful diagram but their true motives could cause damage to you, your wallet and the people and things you care about.

2) Beware of any attempts to simplify and over-systematise what you do. One size does not fit all. Watch out for administrators and other powers-that-(would)-be who may weoponise rubrics, models, quality frameworks and other paraphernalia, in ways that stop you doing good work. Moreover, don’t do this to yourself: inflexible methods can be used to self-harm. 

3) Beware of specific models. They may be wrong, outdated, or prone to being misunderstood or misapplied. Among those listed in Jesse’s article are: learning styles, Bloom’s taxonomy (original and revised), ADDIE, scaffolding, design thinking, Quality Matters, andragogy and HyFlex. 

4) Beware of all and any models. Model-based action/thinking takes you in the wrong direction. Start by talking to your students.

5) There is also a cynical reading: that undermining the legitimacy of models undermines the credibility of other influencers and strengthens the position of those whose brand depends upon being understood as deeply and inherently good and wise. 

Taking these one at a time.

1) I am in full agreement. Caveat emptor. Especially when someone else is buying with your money. 

2) Absolutely. But pause for a moment to consider how we decide when something is as simple as possible, but not simpler.

3) For sure. But pause for another moment to consider that (a) the things referred to in the list are of quite diverse kinds – are they all actually models? And (b) we evaluate models of the world and models to guide action by different criteria. How, for example, should we think about scaffolding? Should we be testing the validity of the science, from Bernstein, Luria and Vygotsky through Wood, Bruner & Ross and on into the hundreds of studies across psychology, educational technology and the learning sciences? Or should we think about scaffolding (and fading) as designable elements in a learning environment that we have a responsibility to help create? How should we think about design thinking? As the infantilising pastime popularised by fans of IDEO? (Actually, that’s defamatory to infants, who could teach most of the Silicon Valley celebrities a thing or two about ideation and empathy.) Or as a set of resources for people to work together and construct more just and sustainable ways of living? (I’m thinking of Ezio Manzini and Hilary Cottam here, but pick your own.)

4) Cards on the table. One big part of my work has been to create frameworks for analysing and designing complex learning environments. Working with some very creative and industrious colleagues, I’ve helped construct some ways to help other people think about learning and design. We’ve done some of this by designing, some by analysing existing designs, and some by researching how design is done and what design tools and methods help teachers (and others) in higher education to design better. Skin in the game. If you’re interested, you can read more about the approaches we’ve taken by following up on other links from this site – some papers here; a good 3 minute video here

But the main point I want to try to make is the following. Yes, agreed, talk to students – early and often. But don’t kid yourself that this leads in any simple way to a plan of action. One of those subtle, unstated, differences that I pick up when I read some US-based commentators on good practice in higher education and compare what they say with the lived experiences of university teachers here in Sydney is that ‘talking to students’ is a more straightforward proposition when you have a class of 30 or 50 than is the case with Biology 101 or Psych 101 here – with one or two thousand students in the class. 

But let’s not get hung up on scale. Bring in the constraints of a curriculum that can’t be changed till the year after next, a squad of casual tutors who don’t get paid to attend course planning meetings and who may not know they have a job till the week the course starts, a set of teaching spaces last renovated in the 1950s, a digital and regulatory infrastructure that changes every couple of years, QA regimes that don’t measure what really matters, time-poor students who need to satisfice course requirements in order to juggle work and carer responsibilities, worsening job prospects, a risk-averse business sector, an anti-intellectual government and a tycoon-owned media whose business model depends on fanning new fronts in the culture wars. And Covid. And climate change. And colonialism.

About 20 years ago, I made a conscious choice to work with and for the teachers we actually have, in the universities we actually have. I hope that part of my work helps them, and their students, tool up for collective action to create worlds worth living in:  ‘new normals’ worth fighting for. But my work also needs to provide resources – including ‘tools to think with’ – that can be used next Monday, or perhaps the Monday after.  And to help with the complex challenges of distinguishing between what can be changed this week, this year, next year, and maybe never. Finding the edges of what can be changed, and how, is not always simple. Nor is it always easy to discern what should be changed, and what consequences may flow.

So, I guess I’m left wanting to say that I believe in the value of tools and methods that can help groups of people understand complex situations, and come to an agreement on how to move onwards. Talk is good. Raw observation and experience are good. But I’m not sure they are sufficient unto the day – especially Monday.    

Oh yes. I almost forgot.

5) I am good and wise enough to deprecate cynicism.

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