Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Being a student in the twenty first century: challenging the consensus

Just been to a seminar on being a student in the twenty-first century. Lots of clichés - increasing complexity and "supercomplexity" of the world, inadequacy of knowledge and skills, "lifewide" education, etc, etc. The world is changing and the student experience needs to change too. Obviously.

The speaker encouraged all comments from the floor, so the clichés were interspersed with a random selection of comments as everyone got on their own particular hobby horse. The seminar leader contrived to turn every comment into a platitude he could agree with - we must treat students as people, there are no right answers, things are getting progressively more complex, and so on and so forth.

There are two general sets of assumptions behind this sort of discussion - mutually contradictory, and both unhelpful. The first is that students and teachers, or facilitators, are always engaged in a collaborative, consensual process with no right answers, and the teacher does not possess superior expertise. This was certainly the philosophy espoused and practised by the seminar leader. He did not set himself up as the expert, and all contributions were accepted and valued. However, it's probably more accurate to say that there were no wrong answers, because all suggestions were accepted as right.

The second is that learning is hard, often unpleasant, and requires incentives, which means that it is inevitable that many learners will fail, and certification is required to distinguish the successful from the failures. Failure obviously implies that the learners' answers are wrong, and that the teachers' answers are right: the teacher is the expert and the teacher and the learner do not agree about right and wrong. This is never made explicit, but is implicit in the talk about dealing with learners' anxieties. Assessment in some form is always assumed, and this makes little sense without clear definitions of right and wrong.

This prompts two thoughts. First, the contradiction between the two sets of assumptions needs to be faced. The first set of assumptions is actually too silly to be worth probing in detail: experts obviously do have some expertise (although usually not as much as they think they do), and some answers are obviously wrong. The second set of assumptions is less obviously flawed, but I think that overturning it, which would mean redefining education, would be hugely beneficial. If the system could be redesigned so that there is more success, and the blame for a lack of progress is not laid at the door of the poor anxious student - this would surely be a good thing. I have outlined some thoughts along these lines briefly in this article, and in more detail at http://woodm.myweb.port.ac.uk/nothard.pdf.

The second thought is about the sterility of this kind of session.  The introductory ideas proposed by the seminar leader were really platitudes: the sort of things you couldn't disagree with without feeling like an idiot or a villain. And then the interjections were mostly along the same lines, and any that weren't were either ignored, or redefined so that they are consistent with the dominant mood.

Sessions like this would be more productive if they had more of an edge, if they incorporated some negative or disruptive thoughts to challenge the cosy consensus. But for this to work, we need to learn to suspend our initial distrust of uncomfortable ideas, and give them a chance to see where they lead.