Friday, October 09, 2009

Banning pleasure

There was a really nice piece on Comment is Free (I don't type that often) about adult education by Sue Blackmore. Her attempt to do a sculpture evening course foundered on the funding regime that required accreditation with a formal syllabus expressed in learning outcomes. Hers is a classic restatement of what many of us have argued, that learning for the sake of it is both fun and useful. She concluded,
The best kind of learning is learning for its own sake – for the intrinsic reward of studying or learning a new skill. And that's all we oldies wanted to do – enjoy learning sculpture for a few weeks.
I like her sentiments, though regular readers of this blog might be surprised by the fact that I don't fully agree with her argument. There is no better or worse kind of learning. People can have mixed motives, instrumental and liberal, and either of them are fine. It depends what the student wants.

The first thing that struck me about her experience is that she was unlucky, her tutor was young. Us old lags know how to work the system to make the course fit the needs of the student, rather than the other way round. However, the mere fact that we need to do so, demonstrates that there is clearly something wrong with what is on offer.

Blackmore picks out a couple of things that irritated her. The first is the use of a syllabus with learning outcomes. Actually, it is important to have a syllabus, it shows that the tutor has thought about what is intended to be taught and has structured it well. A good scheme allows for flexibility and negotiation, the problem is if a syllabus is over-prescriptive. On the other hand, I have always been ambiguous about learning outcomes. In one sense they are positive in that they focus on what the student actually does, not just on what is taught. However, they can also be mechanistic, restrictive, and sometimes stupid and banal. It does depend how they are written. What I do know is that they can form the basis of endless and tedious debates about minutiae when you are trying to get your bloody courses approved. Written well and generically, they can be OK, but they provide ample opportunity for misuse.

The second thing she highlighted is the requirement of accreditation for funding. On this she misses the real issue. I have no problem with accreditation. A non-accredited course would have suited her, but not someone who wished to use their learning in another setting. She wanted to do some sculpture, someone else might have wanted to get into art college. An accredited class could easily allow both. However, this is the big problem. If doing the assessment for the accreditation is mandatory rather than voluntary, if the funding is dependent on the student completing the assessed work, then you start to exclude those who simply want to study for fun. And that process of driving out the non-vocational learner is a by-product of the instrumental neuroses of a government obsessed by dubious notions of the linkages between education and economics.

If a course is non-accredited it excludes people who need and want a qualification, if assessment is compulsory then it excludes those who want to study for the intrinsic pleasure of learning. The conclusion is obvious. The person who best knows what they want from a course is the student. Let them choose rather than force them down a path they do not want to go down and you will have a healthy, mixed group of people who are both having fun and studying seriously. And you know what, they both gain.

Tipping the topper to Will


Anton Deque said...

It is in some way a comment on our age that it has to be pointed out that learning is its own point.

While I agree with certain of Peter's comments I cannot but sympathise with Blackmore and the tedium of syllabus reading, and worse still Module Guides, is enough to blunt any ones enthusiasm. I conclude they were a part of the means whereby managers protected themselves from the attention of litigious students.

The Plump said...

enough to blunt any ones enthusiasm

I agree. The answer is not to read them, nobody does. Yet it is more than managerial self protection. The withholding of information is a way of dis-empowering students. They need the info and the criteria. They should be given it so that they know, rather than everything being a huge mystery guarded by an academic elite. The big problem is that the stuff we give them is often written in vile bureaucratic bollocks. We can inspire and enthuse if we try, if only there was a spark of imagination and creativity. Learning is exciting and systems and institutions try to kill it.

Anonymous said...

Process has conquered purpose, but you don't need to be told that.

My modest proposal is to introduce a rule, to be enforced by draconian measures, to ban the imposition of the criterion of being a graduate to apply for a job or to be admitted to a profession.

That will remove the impetus which drives the many thousands of young people, who have absolutely no interest in learning, from going to University.

Numbers attending universities can fall, many universities can lose their status and return to their true role of providing vocational training for those who want it.

Universities can, with any luck, become ivory towers which are properly funded becasue excess demand is removed.

It should escape no one's attention that Britain made its biggest impact on the world when universities taught little but classics. Even I would not pursue my argument to that conclusion. The conclusion which would appeal is one in which sixth formers would make a real choice between going to university to pursue a course of study which interests them, and going to work and earning some money. That would make it possible to restore grants and do away with loans.

Why pursue this elitist agenda? Because there is a real chance that some members of that learned elite will make the world a better place.

The Plump said...

I like the line, process has conquered purpose. I shall nick that. As for the rest, however flippant, I am not keen on something that would end my job (oh shit, I have just ended my job).

to ban the imposition of the criterion of being a graduate to apply for a job or to be admitted to a profession.

Might have a problem with medicine there.

The point that I was arguing is one that I am happy to labour. That there is no distinction between vocational and 'ivory tower' learning. That they are all part of the same thing and happily co-exist.

On elitism, if you want to ensure that only those who want to learn for intrinsic reasons go to University then make it possible for everyone to go. Then a degree loses the market cachet that it had when only a few went.

And we are not just talking about young people here, people of all ages want to study in a variety of ways. Let's break the idea of the University as an extension of school.

On Empire, I think that the Industrial Revolution and British naval power was a tad more important than Latin and Greek.

As for a learned elite (apart from it becoming clear that a degree IS of advantage if you want power), when people talk about the cream floating to the top, I am keen to point out that scum also rises.

And this is my main big speech. Education is for everyone, universities should be open institutions rooted in their towns, cities and regions. They should not be gated communities for an elite.

You underestimate the desire for learning. It is a human need and a human right. The obscurantism that produces crass process is a product of an elitist rather than a democratic mindset. I'm a populist rather than an elitist.