In “Adrift in Caledonia“, Nick Thorpe is in the Shetland Isles speaking to Stuart Hill (aka ‘Captain Calamity’). Stuart says:
“What does qualification mean? … Grammatically, a qualification limits the meaning of a sentence. And that’s what qualifications seem to do to people. When you become a lawyer it becomes impossible to think of yourself outside that definition. The whole of the education system is designed to fit people into employment, into the system. It’s not designed to realise their full creativity.”
Now Stuart may be being slightly cynical and maybe the ‘whole of education system’ is not like that, but sadly the general thrust often seems so.
Indeed I recently tweeted a link to @fmeawad‘s post “Don’t be Shy to #fail” as it echoed my own long standing worries (see “abject failures“) that we have a system that encourages students to make early, virtually unchangeable, choices about academic or career choices, and then systematically tell them how badly they do at it. Instead the whole purpose of education should be to enable people to discover their strengths and their purposes and help them to excel in those things, which are close to their heart and build on their abilities. And this may involve ‘failures’ along the way and may mean shifting areas and directions.
At a university level the very idea behind the name ‘university’ was the bringing together of disparate scholars. In “The Rise and Progress of Universities” (Chapter 2. What is a University?, 1854) John Henry Newman (Cardinal Newman, recently beatified) wrote:
“IF I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or “School of Universal Learning.” This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot;—from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every department of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.”
Note the emphasis on having representatives of many fields of knowledge ‘in one spot’: the meeting and exchange, the flow across disciplines, and yet is this the experience of many students? In the Scottish university system, students are encouraged to study a range of subjects early on, and then specialise later; however, this is as part of a four year undergraduate programme that starts at 17. At Lancaster there is an element of this with students studying three subjects in their first year, but the three year degree programmes (normally starting at 18) means that for computing courses we now encourage students to take 2/3 of that first year in computing in order to lay sufficient ground to cover material in the rest of their course. In most UK Universities there is less choice.
However, to be fair, the fault here is not simply that of university teaching and curricula; students seem less and less willing to take a wider view of their studies, indeed unwilling to consider anything that is not going to be marked for final assessment. A five year old is not like this, and I assume this student resistance is the result of so many years in school, assessed and assessed since they are tiny; one of the reasons Fiona and I opted to home educate our own children (a right that seems often under threat, see “home education – let parents alone!“). In fact, in the past there was greater degree of cross-curricula activity in British schools, but this was made far more difficult by the combination of the National Curriculum prescribing content, SATs used for ‘ranking’ schools, and increasingly intrusive ‘quality’ and targets bureaucracy introduced from the 1980s onwards.
Paradoxically, once a student has chosen a particular discipline, we often then force a particular form of breadth within it. Sometimes this is driven by external bodies, such as the BPA, which largely determines the curriculum in psychology courses across the UK. However, we also do it within university departments as we determine what for us is considered a suitable spread of studies, and then forcing students into it no matter what their leanings and inclinations, and despite the fact that similar institutions may have completely different curricula. So, when a student ‘fails’ a module they must retake the topic on which they are clearly struggling in order to scrape a pass or else ‘fail’ the entire course. Instead surely we should use this this as an indication of aptitude and maybe instead allow students to take alternative modules in areas of strength.
Several colleagues at Talis are very interested in the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), which is attempting to create a much more student-led experience. I would guess that Stuart Hill might have greater sympathy with this endeavour, than with the traditional education system. Personally, I have my doubts as to whether being virtually / digitally ‘in one spot‘ is the same as actually being co-present (but the OU manage), and whether being totally student-led looses the essence of scholarship, teaching1 and mentoring, which seems the essence of what a university should be. However, P2PU and similar forms of open education (such as the Khan Academy) pose a serious intellectual challenge to the current academic system: Can we switch the balance back from assessment to education? Can we enable students to find their true potential wherever it lies?
- Although ‘teaching’ is almost a dirty word now-a-days, perhaps I should write ‘facilitating learning’![back]
“this student resistance is the result of so many years in school, assessed and assessed since they are tiny;”
I would absolutely back that up; I was lucky enough to have teachers, especially at A-Level, who wanted to stretch us beyond the curriculum. Unfortunately, we were largely not very receptive to this. The three years before going to university pupils constantly have exams looming over them, and they are repeatedly told that failure will, essentially, ruin their lives.
The whole experience is imbued with a frightening haste. There just does not seem to be enough time. Many of my teachers would strategically avoid parts of the curriculum, and tell us just not to choose that question in the exam. So against this background it is very hard to be patient enough to learn something not directly related to the exam.
I’m not surprised that this atmosphere at school, leads to students at university who are unwilling, or genuinely unable, to think of education more broadly than as an exercise in passing exams, and becoming employable; it is how we are taught to think.