As the Higher Education sector is increasingly being exposed to market forces, universities are ever more concerned about keeping students ‘satisfied’ to ensure their league table positions in the National Student Survey are maintained or improved. In this piece, Paula Stone, using a personal example that relates to current approaches in Initial Teacher Education, considers this and how universities need to move beyond a ‘listen and respond’ mode and move towards one where students and tutors are ‘active collaborators’.
There are growing concerns from students and graduates about being viewed as ‘customers’ in constant need of being ‘satisfied’. This has prompted me to write about a similar project in which tutors in the Department of Primary Education at Canterbury Christ Church University have engaged a small group of students in the design and development of an option on our Primary Education degree that goes beyond the model of students as consumers, instead seeing them more as active collaborators in their learning.
In the US, the level of student engagement is being used as an indicator of educational quality through the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Although this is not yet practice here in the UK (Gibbs, 2010) the increased marketisation of Higher Education in the UK in recent years, in combination with the increased influence of the student voice through the National Student Survey and the Newly Qualified Teacher Survey has prompted universities to become increasingly concerned with how to engage students in their learning experience in more effective ways.
At the time of undertaking this project, like most HE institutions, CCCU has made significant progress in engaging our students at a deeper level, through encouraging students to undertake self-audits to evaluating their own progress, to participation in Staff Student Liaison Committees. However, there were still only a limited number of occasions where student involvement went beyond the ‘listening and being responsive’ rationale that pervades most higher education institutions (Little et al., 2009). In this project we wanted to pilot an opportunity in which student teachers could be an ‘active collaborator’ and ‘co-producer’ of knowledge (Dunne and Zandstra, 2011).
For those of us who work in Initial Teacher Education (ITE), social and political demands mean that we need to attend to not only the challenges faced in Higher Education, but also to a wider range of issues facing education in these times of huge change. We are constantly seeking ways in which we can find out how we can prepare student teachers to think more critically and creatively about the future of education and the systems and practices that support it; and how we, as teacher educators, improve student teachers’ engagement with their professional development as reflective practitioners.
We sought to answer these questions by engaging in a small collaborative action research project. We asked ten final year undergraduate students to design and plan a subject option for a course that combines subject specialism with research methods. The students were presented with two key questions to get them started: ‘What is sustainability, and what implications does this have for Primary Education?’ The students devised a series of ten questions based on ‘wicked problems’ that they believed underpinned the learning outcome for a series of taught sessions. The students were then asked to plan a sequence of ten two hour seminars including activity ideas to support the sessions.
It was also decided, by the students, that as part of the sustainable nature of this subject option, it would be evaluated and updated by future students in subsequent years on an ongoing basis in order to prepare them for teaching and learning in a world that is constantly changing and evolving. It is hoped that the sustainable nature of this project will lead to continued activity.
This project provided a meaningful opportunity of engaging students in curriculum development; indeed, the evaluation suggests that it provided a real opportunity to engage students in a way which had an impact on practice and provision of their own learning.
This project has shown that students want to, can, and will engage with learning in new ways when the opportunities are available, and they can take a lead in the production of learning. There is little doubt that the project has been effective, but as yet only on a small scale. But questions need to be asked: should all students be involved in such projects? In what depth? And how can tutors facilitate this on a larger scale? Could such an approach be taken in schools too?
A recent discussion about the notion of ‘student as producer’ versus ‘student as consumer’ with PGCE students led one student teacher to examine whether primary school children can also be producers of knowledge. As part of her course she examined whether children can ‘produce’ and share with the mathematics community a new mathematical name for 2D shapes that are not polygons. After examining and evaluating the process, she intends to present the children’s work and her findings to the mathematics community through a subject association magazine.
The whole notion of whether learners are passive ‘consumers’ or active and productive collaborators is of fundamental importance in the current educational climate. The former suggests teaching is a relatively straightforward affair, where handing over lots of information will suffice; a good example of this can be seen in Michael Gove’s views of teacher education:
Teaching is a craft and it is best learnt as an apprentice observing a master craftsman or woman. Watching others, and being rigorously observed yourself as you develop, is the best route to acquiring mastery in the classroom. (NCSL, June 2010)
In contrast, teacher educators see learning as a much more complex and nuanced. Current ideology of education ‘protects teachers from theory and treats them as technicians who are not expected to challenge or problematise’ (Sutherland, 2007. p131) but what is evidenced here, in both the initial project and one student’s response to it, is that student teachers do want to learn in an environment of educational research that enables them to be co-constructors of knowledge, which makes links between theory and practice through a process of reflection on and theorising about practical experience. This active and participant process is one that I believe is far more likely to have long term impacts on learners and is also much more likely to keep them ‘satisfied’.
Dunne, E and Zandstra, R (2011) Students as change agents – new ways of engaging with learning and teaching in higher education. Bristol: A joint University of Exeter/ESCalate/Higher Education Academy Publication.
Gibbs, G. (2010) Dimensions of Quality York. The Higher Education Academy.
Little, B., Locke, B., Sesca, A. and Williams, R. (2009) Report to HEFCE on student engagement. Centre for Higher Education Research and Information. The Open University
Sutherland, R. (2007) Teaching for Learning Mathematics. Berkshire OUP