Saturday 7 November 2020

Paul Ashwin's Critique of the London Interdisciplinary School

Paul Ashwin has written this critique of the London Interdisciplinary School:

I couldn't post a comment on the HEPI blog, so these are my comments:

I think there are two basic and related questions in Paul's critique:

  1. Is LIS trumpeting the scarcity of its offering to an elite market of “exceptional students”?
  2. Is LIS’s offering really new in being focused on transdisciplinarity and real-world problems?

These are very important questions not just for LIS, but for all institutions. With regard to scarcity and elites, all education, from kindergarten onwards, declares what Illich referred to as “regimes of scarcity” in the experience they provide. It’s ironic that they all end up looking the same! 

LIS’s marketing is unfortunate because it apes absurd Oxbridge-style scarcity, although one can understand how their marketing people might feel compelled to present themselves in this way. I doubt it will be quite as elite as they suggest – and indeed, being more comprehensive will, I'm sure, make their educational offering better.

But is it scarce? Is it new? Paul suggests not, but I think this really depends on what we are looking at. It is of course true that the desire for a radical restructuring of education is not new. What initiatives always amount to is not a restructuring or discarding of bodies of knowledge, but a reorganisation of the conversations through which knowledge is transmitted and produced. Sometimes they also reconfigure the means by which the variety of skilled performances by students are assessed and codified.

That, in my view (and I’m not an insider) is what LIS is aiming at – and that is different at a time when higher education has become increasingly transactional, learning outcomes (which I think Paul is no fan of) codify compliance with institutional expectations, not personal understanding, and technologies for learning become mere reinforcements defending institutional hierarchies and processes rather than liberating individual creativity and expression (how much can learners actually do in your institutional VLE?)

This is certainly not a great time in education, and we need experiments to find alternatives to the institutional sclerosis – particularly in the wake of the pandemic. If our older institutions are wise, they will look to learn from LIS, and wish that it succeeds. What might they learn? Well… 

  1. Focusing on inter-disciplinarity and polymathery is not to throw away knowledge. It is to reorganise conversations;
  2. Focusing on real-world problems is to find alternatives to the curriculum for organising conversations;
  3. Focusing on new ways of coordinating conversation will lead to more sensible ways of using technology to support personalised learning and deepen intellectual engagement, rather than uphold institutional structures;
  4. Assessing students in diverse work settings and activities will present new opportunities for exploiting new technologies both for formative and summative assessment, which may get us away from the ideology of constructive alignment and learning outcomes. 

Finally, in the face of bold and genuine attempts to make education better, I wouldn’t want to defend our institutions on the grounds of the structured bodies of knowledge they contain. If they can be said to “contain” knowledge at all, they do so because of the conversations that they have hosted. In the face of managerial nonsense over the last 15 years or so, those conversations have become increasingly difficult to maintain - particularly at disciplinary boundaries (REF has seen to that!). We do need to find new ways of reorganising ourselves, and LIS could be where we learn to do it.  

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