Thursday 19 May 2011

The Case for Radical Reorganisation of Education

Harsh economic necessity and the need to live within our means is the fundamental cause of the crisis in Higher Education. But beneath the economics and ideology of public services, there is a deeper crisis which I think concerns the fundamental difficulty in coordinating education. Education is too expensive, and continues to be expensive because the methods we have for coordinating it seem ineffective.

I think the first problem we have to face is one of 'variety management': one teacher, many students; one course, many teachers; one nation, many institutions; and so on... Coordinating many teachers, all of whom have different approaches to dealing with their students can get terribly bureaucratic, and as a result, expensive: the costs associated which processes which have nothing to do with the experience the students receive start to explode. Where are the intervention points to optimise the system?

Teachers managing the variety of their learners in different ways is potentially the root of the problem. The variety management that teachers engage in is multi-level: production of resources, design of activities, classroom management, design of assignments, student feedback, etc. Not all of this variety management has an equal effect in terms of benefit to the student.

Choosing the types of activity that are engaged in and coordinating those activities at the highest level does not necessarily need to be performed by the teacher. Indeed, in organising teachers by subjects and modules, a small part of this coordination is currently taken away from them. But ultimately, they tend to individually end up reinventing everything from scratch in the name of “academic freedom”

This is a problem of reductionism. Knowledge has got compartmentalised into boxes, and those boxes are used to coordinate education, but the content of the boxes is open to interpretation – particularly in a post-modernist environment. Basically, nobody any longer understands the fundamental coordinating principle. So they make it up as they go along, guided not by knowledge, but academic procedure: the achievement of learning outcomes and assessment criteria. These are the real inheritors of the knowledge-coordination mechanism.

Universities are about knowledge. I agree with Newman when he says that the purpose of a university is to teach Universal Knowledge. It is important to appreciate that this is not an appeal to theology. Newman makes this quite clear: 
“If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can the seat of literature and science.” 
I think I might add to what Newman says and remark that teaching Universal knowledge is about maintaining it, which is identical to maintaining civil society. At a time when Universities are seen as ‘knowledge creators’ (whatever that means!) or ‘innovation factories’ (equally meaningless), Newman’s point is easy to lose.

The central point which relates to the teaching activities of a university is “what is the relationship between knowledge and learning activity?”. In the language of learning outcomes, this is addressed by saying that activity has an outcome which is knowledge. Really? Where exactly is this ‘outcome’??

If activity produces anything observable then it is communication not knowledge. As the medium of knowledge, communication is a good thing, but it is not to be confused (as it usually is) with knowledge. Knowledge, on the other hand, certainly is expressed through certain communications: some of them more powerful than others. When someone professes “This is what I KNOW” what occurs is a rich, authentic and powerful human performance. Such communications occur in a context of other communications, and those communications will have played a role in establishing the conditions for this moment of truth.

This is the nature of activity in establishing patterns of communication which can contribute to the conditions for apprehending knowledge. Activities were once face-to-face conversations in a social setting – often occurring around the coordinating device of the curriculum. Now they are more typically complex skilled performances with online tools. Those tools are reproducible and ubiquitous. That means the activities people engage in with them are also potentially ubiquitous. Because of this, there is no need for teachers to continually reinvent activities or resources or even to individually manage their coordination. What teachers have to do is to nurture the communications that occur in activity contexts: by revealing their knowledge and their desire to help others through feedback to their learners (if they have no desire to reveal their knowledge, or certainly no desire to help others, then clearly they should not be teaching!)

The variety management that teachers are required to perform relates to the personal and personalised feedback of knowledge. There is no direct need for them to deal with the other aspects of variety management. Most of that can be centralised: the provision of tools, the identification of scenarios, the coordination of activity, the coordination of assessment points. Teachers need to make sure those activities work by stimulating communication and feeding back with regard to assessments.

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