Headlines over the last few weeks confirm once again that pedagogy literacy in the media is middling at best. Universities stand accused of “refusing” to offer face to face lectures in the autumn, with “lectures” acting as a catch-all term for any kind of teaching activity universities might provide.
The distance between the popular idea of the lecture as the paradigmatic higher education learning experience and the creative pedagogical challenge universities are wrestling with post-Covid is astonishing.
And it speaks, I think, to a prevailing view in UK higher education that places more value on specialism and expertise rather than on being understood.
While it’s annoying when journalists misrepresent, simplify, or just plain get it wrong, I don’t think a pragmatic answer to the problem is just for journalists to spend more time over on the Advance HE website reading up on the latest thinking in pedagogy before they’re allowed to say anything about it.
Because, let’s remember, journalists are to some extent representing, or channelling, or amplifying, or shaping, a popular perception of what higher education is and what it does. And if that perception is confused, well, that’s on higher education.
A change is gonna come
I’m enormously optimistic about the shifts in learning and teaching that could take place post-Covid – not solely about increasing the use of technology to enhance and enrich learning – but about what looks to me like a renewed attention to diversity and inclusion – and an associated openness to innovation to allow for much greater flexibility in how students access and engage with learning.
Stuff that the learning and teaching community has been clamouring about for decades – learning community, authentic assessment, programme design – are suddenly at the top of universities’ strategic agendas, rather than being the preserve of the enthusiastic few. Genies are out of bottles all over the place.
But it also feels precarious. There’s the long tail of the financial, organisational and physical and emotional consequences of the pandemic. There’s the continued uncertainty about how this next phase might play out in the coming academic year.
There’s the real need to research and evaluate some of the shifts that have occurred – such as the unexpected narrowing of awarding gaps in some universities – which could create the perception of stasis or cause some to return to the known in the absence of a clear evidence base for the novel.
There’s the resurgence of the Office for Students’ quality regulation agenda and a new TEF to worry about which, whatever you think about the merits of the policies on their own terms, will certainly cause questions about whether innovations are worth the risk.
And there’s immense public scrutiny about how universities can somehow make it up to the students whom the pandemic robbed of a “normal” education experience.
Universities are accustomed to thinking of learning and teaching as an internal strategic question, not a matter for public engagement. Sometimes even a conversation with current students or their representatives about curriculum and pedagogy seems like a stretch. But this needs to change.
In a nutshell, if universities forget to bring students, their parents, and the public with them on this journey of pedagogic reform, it will make it a thousand times more difficult.
The language of pedagogy
As with any specialist field, pedagogy has its own technical language and concepts that are mobilised fluently by experts in the field, and are a bit mysterious to everyone else. There are strong incentives among the experts to keep it that way – the status of pedagogical scholarship isn’t well established in the academic disciplines, and so education developers hoping to influence practice, as well as academics seeking a route to advancement via the learning and teaching route, have skin in the game of maintaining a sense of prestige.
For the purposes of advancing scholarship in the field that makes some kind of sense – complex and precise ideas can require complex and precise language. Existing networks of learning and teaching experts – such as those convened via Advance HE, SEDA, and SRHE – do an exceptional job at advancing research, scholarship, and practice. But for the purposes of engaging more diverse voices in a discussion about learning and teaching, the language of expertise is not fit.
Another thing about conversations about learning and teaching is that generally speaking the people who take part in them are really passionate about the subject. There’s a good reason for that – they’ve witnessed the awesome power of well-executed knowledge sharing in action and they want to share it with the world.
But evangelism can be jarring for the distracted, the disenchanted, and the cynical. Many people’s experience of learning has been dull, stressful, or in some cases actively harmful – is it any wonder that a university education is so frequently framed in public discourse in the most instrumentalist of terms, or that prestige is so regularly mistaken for quality?
Then there’s the language of university leadership and strategy, which is so abstract as to be meaningless. It’s hard to escape the plague of “learning experiences” that are “inclusive”, “high quality”, “challenging”, “supportive” and the rest of it. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t good ideas and concrete intentions underpinning the words, it’s just that trying to say something meaningful for every possible academic discipline and professional team does tend to create the conditions for waffle.
Teaching in a vacuum
But this is also about more than talking loudly and clearly. It’s also about finding the resonance of learning and teaching with other concerns and challenges that are shaping the experiences of students and staff, and the perceptions of the wider public.
Great pedagogical scholarship reminds us that teaching and learning take place in an organisational, social, and political context. People inside and outside universities bring cultural burdens to their understanding of learning and teaching – think of the prestige implications of the wood-panelled room, the power of coming-of-age narrative tropes, the shameful associations of being “behind” in learning – or even the simple clarity of purpose wrapped up in the idea of a national exam.
There are real practical issues with achieving change that universities might prefer were not widely discussed, but where a gap might be filled with alternative, worse narratives – the realities of academic workload, the expectations of external validating bodies, and the costs of achieving a level of contact time at scale that students and their parents would recognise, and consider adequate. Where these topics are raised inside universities it’s generally with an intent to explain why something can’t be done, or in defence of the status quo – and to put them out of reach for discussion. Maybe it’s time to tackle some of these questions head-on.
The pandemic brought into focus the kinds of learning activities students engage in that are not scheduled or curated – library access, coffee drinking, conversations with peers – that have nothing to do with “quality” but everything to do with academic confidence, wellbeing, and as such, students’ understanding of the ultimate meaning of their university experience.
Conversations about pedagogy must acknowledge that students may not make a neat and tidy distinction between “learning and teaching” and “the wider student experience” – and this means that the academics and professional teams who tend to take responsibility for each aspect should try very hard not to either.
Great pedagogy meets people where they are, and strives to frame difficult concepts in relatable terms. Learning is a weighty topic, and for most people their learning experience (good, bad, or indifferent) cuts straight to the heart of their sense of themselves – why else do we know or care where people went to university or what they studied? Acknowledging this means seeking to understand “the student experience” as a historical and cultural artefact shaping public perception, as well as a domain for political and policy intervention in the here and now.
Whose problem is this?
I see this public engagement in pedagogy work less as the responsibility of institutions and organisations than as a possible emergent area of thinking and practice. While you’d hope that specialist learning and teaching organisations would be interested in encouraging it, and that universities would include it in their comms (and marketing) plans, people want to engage with people.
If there were to be an emerging community of practice in this space, I would very much hope to see subject leaders and experts as well as pedagogical experts engage with it – given that what we study is by far the most important thing about the learning experience.
And as higher education professional staff increasingly engage in the scholarship of learning and teaching and apply it to their practice, those individuals too, including those working in students’ unions, who can speak to aspects of the university learning experience that others cannot reach, but that matter, a great deal.
But this would require people to adopt public personas in ways that are not established at scale in the UK. One of my best reads of the year so far is The New Education by American educator Cathy N. Davidson. While not relevant in every respect to the UK system, Davidson addresses universal topics like access to higher education, technology-enhanced learning, and the curriculum, for a non-specialist audience.
While the UK can boast many educators of great talent and charisma, I can think of none who have sat down to translate their insight to inform public debate in the way that Davidson has done (and please, send me your reading recommendations if you think I’m overlooking someone, I would be thrilled to be proved wrong).
There are public intellectuals of science and innovation – but not (to my mind) of higher education pedagogy. Yet up and down the UK sector there are people thinking about transforming higher education for the better. Perhaps it’s time to start speaking up.