23 June 2009

On implicit values

There is no better opportunity than the enforced leisure of a ten-hour wait in an airport to reflect on the conference we (two collaborators and I) have just attended.

The theme of this year's STLHE conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick was "Between the Tides"; quite appropriate considering that it took place not far (by Canadian standards) from the Bay of Fundy, home to the "highest tides in the world" according to its website. So it looked at negotiating the countervailing influences and pressures to which higher education--particularly in Canada--is subject.

Generally speaking conference "themes" are meaningless. They are cast so widely and blandly as to say nothing which might possibly discourage any attendance or any papers, so they say nothing at all. This one was different, and was structured around four dilemmas, explored principally of course in the Canadian context, but of much wider applicability.

They were;

  • disciplinary education vs. liberal education

  • physical environment vs. virtual environment

  • curricular learning vs. extra-curricular learning

  • institutional/professional autonomy vs. public accountability

I'm not going to go into them directly, but simply to point out that once you start exploring constructs such as these it almost inevitably leads back to the values implicit in them (cf. the "laddering" method in personal construct theory), and the theme of making explicit what is already implicit--so that it can be explored and debated--cropped up time and again in the papers I attended.

It was even there in our own, on "Safe teaching, risky learning?" in which we encouraged participants (it is the tradition to be quite participatory) to explore risk-taking in teaching, in a risk-averse "quality"-obsessed HE culture. (It is even worse in FE.)

What was encouraging was the extent to which such discourses and debates were readily accepted by the conference membership. The hegemony of utilitarian and neo-liberal discourse is being challenged; at least in Canada, at the chalk-face. ("PowerPoint" [blah] -face does not have quite the same ring...)

But what was challenging was to realise that what I had thought of as my stock-in-trade for many years, having grown old teaching social work, is now being being taken up and explored in many more disciplines, via many more frameworks. Instead of people wanting to impose an ethical or political framework on what are seen as basically technical issues such as curriculum design and the adoption of models of learning or even of student attributes---instead of that, there is a new recognition that those issues were never merely technical. They always contained (in several senses) implicit values, and perhaps the choice of technical means ought to follow the value-based ends?

What are these values? What are the frameworks? Hey, work out some answers. There are lots of potential ones!

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