01 March 2014

On the next generation...

(This is not a rant, despite the starting point. It may even be a reflective piece—except that I no longer know what that means...)

I've just about descended from the ceiling. I would say I had scraped myself off it, except I can't work out how that might happen. I very nearly sent off an expletive-ridden missive but heroically restrained myself...

New readers start here: In 1996, some great colleagues and I set up a new teacher education programme for Post-Compulsory Education—further- higher- and adult- education. It grew from several roots. It started with about 60 students in three centres—two university campuses and one assoociate FE college. At its peak a few years ago it had about 700 students in 10 centres. The national market for such courses has contracted, but the programme has held its own.

The programme (following on from its heritage as part of the great Huddersfield system) has had several distinctive features, among which have been:
  • an assessment scheme based on learning contracts rather than assignments.
  • no grades; pass/refer/fail, but lots of feedback
  • whole programme-wide gatherings—initially residential symposia, latterly Study Days—to address discipline-specific issues which require the critical mass of the whole course
And under the indefatigable leadership over 12 years of Peter Hadfield, it thrived. It has been inspected by the QAA, by Ofsted, and SVUK (if you don't recognise them, don't worry), and internally through regular programme review. Including—I can't resist mentioning this despite it being rant-ish—a total review invoked (without proper authority) by a former Head of Department on the grounds that it was required before a typographical error in the documentation (undetected for several years and with no practical consequences) could be corrected.

The problem, of course, is that the programme does not readily comply with the standard university regulations. It is, after all, a part-time programme for mature students, while the default university regulations are written for full-time undergraduate students who have just left school.

But! Under Peter's tutelage, we built up a community of practice across the network which really believed in what we were doing and why we were doing it. It is a community of practice* because of the amount of time and debate and effort we have put into developing the model, explicitly based on values set out in the course handbook**.

Now read on...

What follows is based on this argument.

Recently the programme has come under increased pressure to conform to standard grading procedures.The present programme leader has of course consulted her colleagues around the network. I haven't seen all the responses, and those I have seen are on the whole supportive of the present policy.

But one stands out. It starts with:
"it would make life easier if ..."
It was never the point to make life easy! Enough! (This is not a rant.) But that's a plea to relax to what I term the "level of administrative convenience", on the cited page.

Even so. The programme has been through three sets of external regulatory bodies and more sets of actual regulations, based in two universities, with a slow churn of associated colleges... It's like our old axe; it's had three new blades and four new handles—is it still the same axe? I've just realised I am the sole active survivor of the original team of 18 years ago. (I decided a couple of years ago not to attend any more network meetings—I could only cramp the style of the next generation.)

But how do we pass on those values to the next generation (of tutors, let alone students)? Indeed, should we even try? Do they have different but equivalent moral/professional principles in the current era? Whatever the answer, it's not:
"it would make life easier if ..."

* Although as I understand it, that's not necessarily a Good Thing. It is a "community of practice" as long as members influence the practice of other members and however casually induct newcomers into it, regardless of the quality of that practice. There can be—and are—communities of toxic/brutal/lazy/corner-cutting/corrupt... practice.

** Those values are spelt out here:

2.7 Course Values
The course is based on the following values and convictions which apply to and have implications for both students and staff:
  1. That you, the students on this course, are competent adults, already acquainted with the field of work and study, and having more or less clear ideas about what you need to learn to improve your knowledge and practice.
  2. That those ideas will vary according to the nature of your experience, but need to be respected, even when it is necessary to show their limitations and to go beyond them.
  3. That you will learn most effectively when you are both involved in and have appropriate control over your learning experiences.
  4. That the accumulated experience of members of the student group is one of the most valuable resources available to the course, and every effort should be made to utilise it.
  5. That in view of the continuing change which characterises this area of practice, the ability and motivation to learn from continuing experience through disciplined reflection is a defining characteristic of a professional, and should be fostered by the course.
  6. That the experience of being a learner in a formal educational setting is an important resource in itself, enabling you to appreciate anew the experience of your own students and their corresponding opportunities and difficulties.
  7. That a course which purports to teach good educational practice must itself embody and model such practice, and lay it open to scrutiny.
  8. That this includes attention to inclusivity and the active mitigation of disadvantage experienced by minority groups.
  9. ...And a commitment to the highest standards of scholarship in respect of the disciplines contributing to the course.

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