Wisdom: an age-old solution to the problem of learning in a digital age?

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By: Dr Kenny McAlpine

Wisdom. Solomon had a surfeit; Curly, Larry and Moe, not so much. It’s something that we imagine we will all develop as time and experience ravage us – Stooges excepted, of course – and it’s a concept that’s becoming something of a hot topic in higher education. So began today’s Understanding ModernGov conference on Optimizing Higher Education Curriculum Design.

Hang on a minute, I hear you splutter indignantly at your keyboard, you can’t teach wisdom! It’s one of those things, like making a decent cup of tea, that depends on good judgement; an ability to draw on interconnections between disparate pockets of knowledge, situational awareness, and the contextual application of a bunch of related skills, and it’s very easy to get any one of those things wrong, as anyone who has witnessed the look of horror on my face as they’ve poured freshly boiled water directly onto tea leaves will – hopefully – have realized.

True, you can’t teach experience or good judgement, but you can provide opportunities for students to gain that experience, and, perhaps more importantly, to reflect upon it and feed back into their contextual and situational awareness when problem solving. That was the broad thrust of Alison Le Cornu’s opening session at the event.

Dr Le Cornu, a Consultant in Academic Practice at the Higher Education Academy, began by turning the notion of the constructively aligned curriculum on its head. We typically think of the curriculum in terms of three related ideas, perhaps best expressed as the why, the what and the how of teaching. Between them, these monosyllabic aides-memoires cover the learning aims and objectives, the syllabus and the pedagogic approach, but, she argued, in thinking about the curriculum in this way, we risk putting the cart before the horse: shouldn’t the curriculum be driven more by the qualities that we wish to emerge at the other end of the learning process than by the specific knowledge and skills that students will acquire along the way?

There are strong resonances here, of course, with our notion of graduate attributes. Dr Le Cornu’s argument, however, was that we should not be thinking about how we embed those graduate attributes in the curriculum, but rather that our curriculum, our whole approach to teaching and learning, in fact, should be in the service of those attributes.

It’s an idea that makes sense, although it’s not without its challenges. Those attributes might be realized in very different ways across disciplines, and their realization depends on a certain degree of disciplinary praxis. And people, annoyingly, are individuals, and don’t all respond equally well to a one-size-fits-all approach, so if the curriculum is to be conceived as the thing that facilitates the development of graduate attributes in individuals, then flexibility in the curriculum is essential to support their development. It helps to foster meaningful and deep engagement in a way that meets the needs of the students and develops in them the ability to be flexible themselves, responding to the flexibility in the supporting structures of the system to become flexible themselves in how they approach and respond to the world around them.

The question, then, is how do we achieve it? That’s not an easy question to answer. We, as academics, may well have a view on what graduate attributes look like in our own particular areas, and we might have good ideas about how to develop those qualities in our students, but so too might employers, professional or legislative bodies, or even – Heaven forbid! – the students themselves.

That idea, of working in partnership, was presented by Jess Sewter, Head of Partnerships & Placements, and Catherine O’Connor, Head of School of Arts and Communication, both of Leeds Trinity University. Ms Sewter and Ms O’Connor detailed how their university’s background as a small teacher training institution had provided a framework for a flexible approach to employer collaboration, with placement opportunities embedded as core elements within the curriculum during the first and second years of study. During their presentation, they outlined ten key principles that ensured student, staff and employer buy-in, with each stakeholder getting genuine value from the relationship, and – crucially – giving students multiple opportunities to contextualize their learning through practice, and consolidate and reflect on their experience through a sustained relationship with a professional partner. Individually, none of the points that Ms Sewter and Ms O’Connor raised were particularly groundbreaking, but collectively, they created an infrastructure that allowed for, as they put it, a whole-institution approach to supporting this aspect of student development.

Catherine Hack, currently a Consultant in Academic Practice with the HEA, brought a global perspective to the discussion. Internationalization, she argued, isn’t just about how we deal with international students coming to our campuses to study, and nor is it just about how we facilitate study abroad. It is about preparing students – all of our students – for living in and contributing to an increasingly-connected global society.

Of course, with the current trend, both politically and culturally, towards exclusionism and building walls, both real and metaphorical, never has it been more important to celebrate the richness of experience and broadening of perspectives that diversity brings. Dr Hack challenged us all to think about the four key areas in which internationalization might overlap with the notion of nurturing wise students: the ways in which students situate their learning within a global context; an understanding of how knowledge might be applied differently in different environments and communities around the world; the sheer diversity of cultural experiences that exist, and sensitivity towards one’s own place within and impact on the global landscape. Again, these are far-from-trivial things to address, but they are vital, and they depend on a triumvirate: the institution, the student and the curriculum all coming together to empower individuals as they negotiate their learning within that global landscape.

In the afternoon, Rafe Hallett, Director of Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence, presented a fascinating session on new modalities of learning. There has been some talk – ever since hand-copied ecclesiastical Latin texts were supplanted bymass-printed tomes in the language of the hoi polloi, in fact – of how successive technologies have undermined students’ ability to read, understand and relate to information. The current outcry, driven by the explosion in digital communications technology, suggests that unfettered access to information promotes cursory, hurried reading, distracted thinking, and superficial learning.

That’s possible certainly, but it also encourages a form of digital bricolage, a creative culture of online assembly and exhibition that encourages collaboration and the construction of collective knowledge drawn from multiple sources. It is about scanning across media and across disciplines, not just within them. This isn’t just a youth phenomenon either. Lots of world-class research now focuses on visualization of complex data – dendrograms and sunburst diagrams, for example – that make research more accessible by offering different routes to datasets and which encourage different ways to engage with complex knowledge and information. Such approaches borrow conventions from many different disciplines; even the way we present research outcomes is becoming multi-disciplinary.

With that in mind, then, how do we design curricula that enable students to learn using the methods that are being readily adopted and celebrated elsewhere in academia? More importantly, perhaps, do we need an assessment revoluation? After all, if we fail to design assessments that legitimize these collaborative trans-media approaches to information construction and their use, students will learn to see learning as being something separate from the rest of their digital lives.

Ultimately, then, I came away from the event feeling quite stimulated and challenged. The key takeaway was that we should not just be encouraging learning, but we should be kindling a deep desire to learn, coupled with a nuanced understanding of the context in which that learning takes place. Curiosity, then, may well be the single most important thing that we can foster in our students, but that has to go hand-in-hand with the confidence to embrace and hold on to new experiences and the resilience to keep moving forward in the face of failure.

And finally, we come to the F-word. It’s vital to all of this. If we are to create confident and creative individuals who can push against both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, we must also capture the notion of the glorious failure. Often, we learn the most from reflecting on those times we fail, and the more spectacular the failure, the greater the potential gain from learning from it. But how do we account for that in a regulatory framework that gives academic credit only for success?

This, I think, brings us back full circle. What sort of graduates do we want to create? Confident, creatives who are equipped for and prepared to take calculated risks to better the world we all collectively share and inhabit, or students who are so risk-averse that they confine themselves to the targeted pursuit of a set of core knowledge and skills that may well be out-of-date by the time they graduate? What, I wonder, would Solomon do?




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