24 November 2009

On being called into question

Literata (who is undertaking a PGCE [PCE] specialising in adult literacy) comments in her on-line reflective journal;
This course is making me feel strangely de-skilled in many ways. I've delivered management training, talks, seminars, workshops and creative writing classes for many years; [...] feedback has always been good and I've always thought that I can get information over to people and relate well to an audience/class. Now I feel like I don't know how to do it right any more at all; that my natural style has been compromised and I may be too old a dog to learn new tricks successfully.
And she goes on...
And yet I'm not impressed with the administration of the course nor the modelling of how to run a satisfactory course for students (...). The teaching of our two main tutors has been excellent, but the surrounding admin and support pretty useless.
She is pointing to a much neglected but very important aspect of in-service learning: its emotional impact. This is not a "touchy-feely" point--it's unavoidable.

I first noticed it thirty-five years ago, teaching on an in-service qualifying course for social workers. It hasn't changed, with experienced students.
(Nowadays it is routine to assume that people will decide on a career, commit to it, invest time and indeed money in training for it, and then go on and do it... Sounds logical, but what if the reality of practice is not what you thought it would be? In those days many practitioners in social work and indeed in teaching in adult education were not formally qualified at all, and if they sought an accredited qualification they did so only after deciding that this was a career for them, so they came to the course with several years' experience.)
Until the week before the course started, they had been working as more or less respected professionals. The default assumption by their colleagues and bosses had been that they knew what they were doing, until proven otherwise.

Then they became "students" and the world turned upside down. Now the onus was on them to demonstrate their competence from an assumed base of incompetence. For them, the experience of learning and progression was subordinate to that of assessment and judgement--and calling into question the skills and practice wisdom they had acquired so painfully in the real world.

No wonder they felt (and their counterparts today still feel) de-skilled. And when the official line about how to teach declares that your previous practice was crap, because it did not tick some fashionable box, you will go through a trough of morale. And as you lose confidence so you lose competence...
(Sometimes of course students' practice really has not met even basic standards, however conceived, but generally this is clear even to a lay observer. There is no getting round that has to be addressed and unless the student improves, they should fail).
The point?

We can't make such troughs go away.  We can re-assure students that they are normal and it is also normal to re-emerge with enhanced confidence. Indeed--in accordance with all the anthropological literature on rites of passage*--it is the preparedness to enter the trough/valley which is the prerequisite of change.

But you can only provide realistic re-assurance if you can demonstrate credibility and competence at personal, professional and institutional levels. The first two are under a degree of personal control (leaving aside some Taylorite middle-manager who decides arbitrarily to re-shuffle all the teaching half-way through the term), the latter frustratingly less so.
And the bureaucrats--nothing personal of course--have no idea of the impact of their systems on student learning until the problem becomes extreme enough for someone to complain:
  • This student has had the bailiffs call round for alleged non-payment of fees, which should have been met by the local authority, not her.
  • This student is half-way through the second year of the course and still does not have a registration number, so she can't access the VLE or the library.
  • This student has passed all his modules to date but he doesn't exist on the system so they can't be credited (but his fees have been debited...)

People are more likely to tolerate the risks and uncertainty of change if they have confidence in the course structure and administration. If they don't, they are likely to back off and go for surface learning or give up. That's why I am a little obsessional about such things as the quality of handbooks, and frustrated by administrative staff (particularly senior administrative staff) who have no idea how easily their cock-ups can undermine learning. Not to mention that it tends to be the academics, who are the public face of the institution, who tend to get blamed.

*  OK, my knowledge starts with van Gennep (1909) and it does conclude with La Fontaine (1986) but it does seem unanimous to that point.

There's more around this from a lightly different angle here. And the final remarks owe something to this paper.


  1. It's not just rubbish admin and support, is it though? Those of us learning how to teach may need reassurance that what we are being taught works better than what we knew previously. I'd personally rather be taught how to teach effectively in an environment devoid of competent support or administration than being taught fashionable but groundless nonsense in the most supportive and well administered environment imaginable.

  2. Very pertinent points, James. And regarding complaints, the college has just received a major one from the entire Full Time DTLLS course after dismissing our well-respected and effective course tutor mid-term, mid-course on the week before we start teaching practice and without the courtesy of letting us, the students, know what's happening. See post:
    Thank you for your comment on my blog.


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