19 May 2012

On reasonable demands

This is one of those confluence posts--when several sources flow together... (started a couple of months ago, but re-animated by further prompts--5 onwards below).
  1. We have just had a Study Day at which Kathryn Ecclestone raised pertinent questions about current approaches to assessment--particularly in the further and vocational education sector, but also at more advanced levels. The students discussed those issues in discipline/setting specific groups and articulated their particular concerns and solutions on posters.
  2. A few months ago I was an external member of an exam board when I had to express concern about the very detailed brief--almost a recipe--for the production of an assessed piece of work at Master's level. (Since fixed)
  3. But the leader of the dissertation module on one of our Master's programmes has recently approached the tutorial team, requesting suggestions for reading as the basis of the literature review for the dissertation
  4. ...and in the past few hours I've had two, much appreciated, thank-you emails from readers of my pages on the structure of a dissertation, and writing at Master's level. #1 is the proximate cause of this post, but it is fuelled by #2 and #3, and #4 poses the question whether I am complicit in this game--if that is what it is.
  5. A couple of former colleagues* and I are working on a conference paper concerning the inability of current educational systems to accommodate liminal states on the part of students. Liminality occurs in conditions of qualitative change (I've elsewhere used the term disorientation for the experience of liminality, with a slightly different emphasis). A precursor of the paper can be found here.
    Karl Marx (Capital vol 1.) argues that "Merely quantitative differences beyond a certain point pass into qualitative changes." We can turn that on its head and suggest that because that is the case, and qualitative change generates liminality, therefore quantitative changes need to be constrained below that trigger point.
  6. Stefan Collini (What are Universities For? Penguin, 2012) in a well-argued (but padded, repetitious and under-evidenced enlightenment-style "pamphlet") contends that the managerialist rhetoric of current neo-liberal politics in which everything has to be accountable and costed, has forced those who would run universities (and indeed other educational institutions) to embrace spurious metrics as distorted proxies for fuzzy contestable aims such as "education" and "scholarship" which are no longer accepted as goods in themselves. In particular he refers to fatuous notions of "continuous improvement" "beyond excellence"--that can only work if the standards do not change. Discontinuities--gear changes--are inimical to the model...
All this is not to fall into a jeremiad about the state of further and higher education; there's plenty of evidence of its achievements, and I continually come across people producing great work, for whom and for which I have great admiration. But they're having to do it despite the structures and the culture of the institutions.

And many of them are not even aware that it could be different. Or that by becoming complicit in merely implementing a cravenly incremental model of curriculum and learning, they are becoming part of a problem rather than that of a solution.

* Peter Hadfield and Peter Wolstencroft

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