Monday 23 May 2011

The end of laissez-faire pedagogy?

It is not uncommon for institutional teaching and learning strategies to be delegated to individual academic departments. This tends to be done pragmatically on the basis that teaching and learning in different disciplinary areas presents very different challenges and are therefore best dealt with individually.

However, delegation can open the door to a lack of consistency in teaching and learning across departments, and presents a challenge to institutions to address problems in delivery. These coordination challenges also become economic challenges because of the link between the way teaching is delivered and the institutional costs involved: not just in staffing, but also with the effects of losing students.

Any attempt to standardise and centralise pedagogy would be resisted by academic departments as a loss of academic autonomy and freedom. But what does this mean? The central organisational question is whether academic freedom means the freedom to create and coordinate activities individually, to assess individually, to take individual responsibility for a module or class and to have the freedom to interpret the subject that is taught.

This depends on what we think the essence of teaching is. Freedom of individuals to control particular curriculum areas with regard to how things are delivered is a view of teaching and learning which is centred on the person of the teacher. However, if teaching is more about teachers making communications with the intention of nurturing communications by learners (which I think it is), then we can examine each of the areas of responsibility that teachers have as ways of making communication.

Does the teacher need the freedom to design their own activities in order to convey their understanding of the subject? Does the teacher need to control assessment in order to help their student reach a critical appreciation of the subject? Does each teacher need direct and personal control over each class in order to convey their understanding of a subject?

I think the answer to these questions is 'not necessarily'. Teachers can reveal their understanding through individual feedback in activity contexts which do not necessarily have to be of their own making. The organisational imperative for this to happen will be the economics of University education.

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