10 September 2009

On turning right in my old age?

I have to concede that since I am sort-of retired and no longer have a full-time academic post (for which many thanks), I am marginal to discussions about course policy, etc. But...

The other day I was attending a committee concerning the part-time post-16 teacher education programme which has been a major reference point of my teaching for the past 13 years. I was there just to speak to a particular agenda item, but...

As is the way of such meetings, it got into a seemingly interminable discussion, in this case on whether or not there should be a (probably secret) fall-back date beyond a formal  deadline whch would give tutors discretion to accept work which (at the end of the summer vacation, mind) students had not managed to submit on time.

There were several minutes of this, with various tinkering amendments being proposed, and an emerging consensus that some accommodation did have to be made for those students who for no other reason than their ineptness, disorganisation and bone-idleness could not get their work in, lest they have to repeat a module at their own expense. (There are already perfectly fair procedures for a generous range of legitimate excuses.)

At last I couldn't stand it any more and butted in with, "This is supposed to be a course for grown-ups!" To which one tutor replied with feeling, "But they're not! They may have grown-up bodies but that's as far as it goes!" I muttered back that if you treat them like kids they will act like kids...

What was going on behind this exchange?
  • Regardless of the political/process issues behind my intervention, I was correct. The first of the explicit course values in the Handbook states:
...you, the students on this Programme, are competent adults, already acquainted with the field of work and study...
  • And that used to go without saying--up to a couple of years ago when the programme was still voluntary. Now it is obligatory, and my fellow-tutors teach it in college settings where their students (who are also their colleagues) are required to get the qualification as a condition of their probationary period.

    • So they are faced with with a great deal of management pressure to "whip" completion, for which trust to the maturity and self-discipline of the programme participants is not enough.
    • These pressures are explored in more detail in this paper, now published as Hadfield P and Atherton J (2009) “Beyond compliance: accountability assessment and anxiety, and curricular structures to help students engage with troublesome knowledge” in C Rust (ed.) (2009) Improving Student Learning 16; Improving student learning through the curriculum Oxford; Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, pp 158-170

  • So, or but, does this force a change in the course values? How should we balance pragmatism and principle? It's my belief that the course is not merely about attaining some specified "standard", (which is the term used by Lifelong Learning UK.) but about inculcating a commitment to self-motivated, self-authorised continuing improvement in practice based on... (it is so difficult to say all this without slipping into the devalued cliches of HR, or enormous pretentiousness.)

  • There's another example. One of the items at the meeting was a document proposing a structured approach to tutorial discussions, which some fellow-tutors believe is too tick-boxing, too hand-holding, even patronising, but which will be greeted with great enthusiasm by Ofsted--the outfit which inspects these courses (among too many other tasks .)
OK--but all that is just part of an important but routine debate about how much standardisation both ensures minimum standards but militates against the achievement of excellence, isn't it?

Yes and no. We could take this in the direction of a discussion of the virtues and vices of neo-liberal and conservative positions on social policy and intervention, which is clearer in the US rather than here (see the health care debate over there).

But this is a more personal and more reflective blog. What does my reaction say about me? Have I changed? Am I just being a grumpy old man? (Sadly, Keith Waterhouse has just died. I could only aspire to the accolade of GOM had I his command of the language, honed over 60 years in the popular press...)

There is another side to this, which is about attitudes to failure, of all things.

The liberal (that is short-hand; this is "neo-liberalism". No-one admits to espousing it [just as no-one declares, "I'm a fascist!". Not the same thing of course.]) --the liberal approach is deeply uncomfortable with failure, because of its association with personal suffering, which is regarded as both bad and unproductive. The downside of liberalism is that removing "failure" from the discourse also removes "success"; if failure is not an option, or has no downside, "success" does not count for anything.

The conservative angle is more robust, and tends not only to accept failure but also to demand it as evidence of the legitimacy of the "contest". The fact that failure may be attributable to factors for which the person who suffers its consequences can in no way be held responsible such as ethnicity, gender, or economic recession may be ignored (until "bad things happen to good people [like us]" when someone else must be to blame...)

Although never a social worker, I spent 20 or so years training them. Social work (or at least its rhetoric--which is often conspicuously at variance with the views of experienced [or perhaps "burnt-out"] practitioners) is of course a great bastion of liberalism and the redemptive potential of everyone. However, yesterday's broadside by the director of a major children's charity, calling for more early adoptions suggests the possibility of a swing back towards conservatism...

I have to confess that pragmatically (rather than ideologically) I am becoming more conservative. I don't think that I see that efforts to "help" actually work, much of the time. What seems so obvious to people in government is much less clear to people on the ground. ...

As ever, I am rambling. This is my fourth attempt to finish this post, which testifies to the extent to which this issue of the meaning of personal responsibility underpins so many other perspectives, as well as the protean nature of the debate. I can't take the discussion any further at the moment; perhaps I can revisit it later when another case kicks my thinking further along.

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