16 September 2015

On Starting Again (and the 1k post)

It's the start of a new academic year, and for the first time in 48 years, I won't be there. I'm mopping up some assessment/progression business from last year, but I shan't be involved in starting a new cohort, or welcoming returning students.

For all but the first five years of my teaching career, I have been involved with programmes for professionals (or semi-professionals), and these are slightly different as courses from simply academic courses. There are obvious differences such as the year being interrupted by practical placements, and other aspects of concurrent engagement with the realities of practice, such as the role of professional mentors or supervisors, but there are also others.

For the students the course experience tends to be more coherent than for simply academic students. The student cohort passes through the process more or less together, and certainly in their first years will take most of their modules together—any options tend not to appear until relatively late in the course, and may well be tied in to placement settings.

For the staff, too, the course experience is different. Although there are large courses where the specialised input is drawn (often reluctantly) from members of academic departments—social work law is taught by the Law School, the psychology of learning (for teachers) by the Department of Psychology—in smaller courses everything may be taught by members of the course team. Sometimes the academic quality suffers because staff are appointed for their professional record and expertise rather than their academic excellence, but on the other hand the team may knit together and overcome notorious academic rivalries to complement each other and build on shared strengths. In two out of the three settings I worked in, that certainly happened. I leave it to any former colleagues who may be reading this to decide which that judgement applies to.

And the academic yearly cycle may be different. Other students have a freshers' week, which is primarily social (although it varies), and may be offered short piecemeal inductions to study skills, health and safety in the lab, or briefing on the Virtual Learning Environment. But then things just start.

Many professional courses start earlier than academic ones, offering one or two precious weeks for induction and orientation before the start of the "course proper", or routine timetable. This time is invaluable; investment in planning it and commitment to do it well pays—in my experience—enormous dividends later.
  • OK—I haven't done a controlled experiment, but I have played around with ways of approaching the induction for about twenty cycles, many of which were formally evaluated. The clearest message across the board was that "you can't please all of the people all of the time", but that however tackled, taking it seriously was generally viewed positively. "Boot camp" or gentle and supportive introduction—it didn't matter than much. But failure to use the time well or to deliver on promises was the kiss of death.
It's a cliche to regard time at "uni" as a "rite of passage", although I suspect many of those who invoke the phrase have never heard of van Gennep or Victor Turner or know anything much about how it works. It's merely tantamount to saying that this first experience away from home (for many but not all students) is a hinge point in the life-course. There is more substance to it than that, for many students. But for students on professional courses it is a more specific initiation. Academic students are faced with a haphazard existential predicament—"Who do I want to be, and what am I becoming?" Students on professional courses have a more focused basis; "What am I required to be (and do I really want to go there?)" And institutions, course teams, and accrediting bodies will make these requirements explicit (nowadays).
  • The first course I contributed to was a 1-year (42-week) intensive full-time qualifying course in residential child care (working in children's homes, etc.) In the early '70s it had a distinctly psychoanalytic/ personal growth bent—on the benign but naive assumption that the more fulfilled and liberated a person you were, the better you would be able to care for deprived (and often of course abused) children, although sexual abuse in particular was barely acknowledged at the time. The first course leader was reputed to have claimed, "We had thirty students on the course last year. We took them to pieces and put them back together again. We had enough bits left over to make two more students!" A world from a curriculum based on specified learning outcomes with behavioural performance criteria and required conformity to ethical guidelines (which are still on the sidelines, but may well amount to, "don't upset anyone!")
Another major difference concerns the age and background of these professional students. I once tried to have a minimum age of admission built into the regulations for a social work course—the proposal was defeated at the planning committee as "ageist", but surely that label could only apply  to a maximum age?

It makes an enormous difference to take seriously the practical, professional and, well, life experience of such students. Many social work courses, quite rightly, take into account previous voluntary or paid but unqualified work in their selection criteria. I lost count of the times when students in individual or group tutorials spoke about their experience of becoming students (particularly on their first placements). They found it very difficult to move from an employed (or established volunteer) position—often of several years' standing— where the default judgement on their practice was that it was at least satisfactory and they were trusted to act independently, to the "student" role where they had to prove their competence from the ground up. That is bound to happen, but the induction process can celebrate and make use of that prior experience.
  • In more recent years (still before it became a full degree) our social work course had a two-week induction period, including all the usual formal stuff. But the majority of it was based on a sharing exercise. The basic introduction was along the lines of: "Social work is a diffuse area. It involves work with a range of user and client groups, in a variety of settings—fieldwork, domiciliary, daycare, residential... None of you (or us, the tutors) have experienced all of these users and settings, but all of you have experienced some. Think about your experience (and lack of it).  Consider your stories, dilemmas, successes, failures. And your ignorance about what it is really like to...
  • Here are some yellow sticky notes—write a short note on them about your experience and then stick them on the wall over there. And some blue sticky notes—write about what you really want to know about, and stick them up over here. You don't have to put your names on them, but some identifier will help in the melee to come, and let's face it, eventually you will all get to know each other...
  • No, we're not going to organise this for you (except for some final details about timetabling and rooms which you can't practically undertake). Gather round your sticky notes (hint; start with the blue ones) and talk to each other about them. Call for people who make intriguing posts or questions. You will eventually coalesce into rough groups, and find yourself in at least two of them. We'll organise two or more cycles of meetings based on themes rather than people and those meetings will form the basis of group meetings for the next x days. Each meeting will be self-organising and disband at the end of its timetable slot, but should generate a list of outstanding questions to be addressed by the course "proper".
Of course it never worked as planned. But a) that's a fact of life in social work, b) it always (n=6, I think before I moved on) established conversations and meetings which might not otherwise have happened.
  • On a part-time course for teachers in further and adult education, there was less time to play with, but still enough for introductory (so-called "ice-breaker) exercises. Ours tended to be fairly conventional, but the list of questions used when participants introduced themselves (or perhaps each other) always included one about how many years' teaching experience each person had. It usually fell to me to keep a running count as we went round the room—and then to announce that there was cumulatively more than 70 (or whatever) years experience represented in the "student" group. That launched into a little spiel about the resources the course group contained and how much we would be helping them to learn from each other...
  • One of the other routines of the induction was known as "the Low-Down". Current students moving into the second year were invited to do a session on their experience of the first year. Warts and all. Tutors introduced them and let them get on with it, so we still don't know what they talked about, but I don't think anyone dropped out as a result of this exercise in transparency.
This is not about hints and rather boring tips for induction. It is about setting the scene and the mindset (not just in a Dweck sense) for the challenge of the course. I don't want to overstate it. Quite probably many courses manage the induction better, or tackle it purely as an administrative process and notice no detriment to student learning. OK.
  • And this may be special pleading, but I remember clearly the opening of one of the one-year courses. It happened to be just after I had succeeded in stepping down as course leader, and was replaced by a colleague. The first week was a bit of a shambles, because the timetables and handbooks were not ready until the third day. Not my colleague's fault—some problem with reprographics—and I felt for him. But the impact on the students was considerable—some of them were actively questioning whether to stay on a course which was so disorganised, and gave them no confidence about how the rest of it would be. My journal (yes, I really kept one in those days, and this ante-dated Schon and "reflective practice" by at least a decade) returns throughout the year to the theme of how inhibited and unadventurous the students were. There are of course many ways to construe and explain this, but the impact of the shambolic start is at least as plausible as any other account.
And the reaction of the staff team matters, too. Can we cope with uncertainty? Can we provide security?
  • Student expectations have risen over the years. The last course handbook I produced had 138 pages—but it was for a whole course and included all the module/unit bumf—and given that the course itself included topics like the role and content of handbooks (US— syllabuses/ syllabi) it was itself a specimen and teaching resource...
    But that assumes that the staff team want to create a secure base from which students feel free to explore ideas and practices, crucially including risking failure (if not in the course as a whole, certainly in occasional specific aspects).
    • On many social work courses in the '90s, that was emphatically not the case. I can't speak for the last 20 years, but that does not affect the argument. In those days they were ineffectually obsessed with "anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice". It was not unusual for courses to start by putting participants on notice that any action or remark which could conceivably be construed as racist, sexist, or representing a range of other "isms", would have serious consequences, including ejection from the course (although I doubt that anything as practical as a fair procedure for establishing grounds was ever established on any course...*) It was all** about rhetoric and one-upmanship. (See here for a particularly egregious but not untypical example.)
    Actually, for once that is not my point. That is simply about the potency of the first few days to "set the tone" of such courses (and probably of many others, too), and hence —I would argue— the obligation of staff to take that into account in the design and tone of the programme. This "obligation" is not entirely disinterested, of course. Establishing a culture we can  all work with is very much in our interest, when you consider the amount of time and effort involved in trying to support/wrestle students who "got hold of the wrong end of the stick" in those first few days.

    I'm sorry to say I can't cite/find the source material, but in 2009 when I was working for Oxford Brookes University, either OCSLD or the Business School hosted a lunchtime seminar on the "first-year (student) experience", when Australian colleagues*** reported on their research in this area. What they described was consistent with my speculations here.

    It comes down to finding ways to communicate; "It will come out OK in the end. We know. We've been there, and we've supported generations of students on this journey."

    Whether you graduate is up to you.

    Whether you learn is a no-brainer. Of course you will. The question is "What?"

      * It is an extreme example, but—prior to legal "vulnerable adult" provisions—when it was reported that a student on placement was having a sexual relationship with a resident of a probation hostel, I was taken aback to discover that there were no college provisions to take any action, since there was no criminal sanction available. All the rhetoric had created no practical outcome: it took several weeks to draft an ethics policy for the course, and I'm not sure that it was ever implemented in formal sanctions. (The student in question eventually decided to leave the course, but the college insisted that he had the right to return.)
      ** Well, perhaps not all. Some people in the system--most particularly those from those groups which experience discrimination--were/are not playing games. But some/many were/are.

      *** This is entirely from memory. So if I've got it wrong and you know better, please tell me—and other readers. If I've got it right (January-July 2009, Wheatley campus) please help me refine the source. Thanks.

      This post has taken a while to assemble, so the crude Blogger stats are merely suggestive, but apparently it is the 1000th post since July 2005  Plus ca change... 

      See also: this post from exactly six years ago

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