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«Growing concerns about retention and attrition rates in a mass and increasingly marketised higher education system have encouraged the idea that ...»

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Haggis, T. (2006) Pedagogies for diversity: retaining critical challenge amidst fears of ‘dumbing

down’ Studies in Higher Education 31, 5 pp.521-535

Pedagogies for diversity: retaining critical challenge amidst

fears of ‘dumbing down’

Growing concerns about retention and attrition rates in a mass and increasingly marketised

higher education system have encouraged the idea that ‘meeting learner needs’ should be a key

focus for institutional attention. It will be suggested that this approach is unrealistic, however, because of the extent of the diversity which it attempts to respond to. An alternative response is to move away from the individualised focus on needs, deficits and ‘support’, towards a consideration of ‘activities, patterns of interaction and communication failures’, in relation to higher education pedagogical cultures. This move reconceptualises the idea of ‘barriers to learning’, attempting to understand how more subtle aspects of higher education pedagogical cultures may themselves be creating conditions which make it difficult, or even impossible, for some students to learn. Deliberately forging a middle path between conventional and radical approaches to pedagogy, the paper attempts to identify examples of ‘older’ values and assumptions which may be positive and functional, and to separate these out from a number of other values and assumptions which, it is argued, may act to prevent students from being able to access new disciplinary worlds.

The current policy context of mass Higher Education in the United Kingdom constructs the lifelong learner, amongst other things, as a customer shopping for learning services (Gibbs, 2001, in Stierer & Antoniou, 2004). This situation, combined with growing concerns about retention and attrition rates, has assisted in the development of the idea that meeting learner needs should be a key focus for institutional attention (QAA, 2004). By extension, the reality of difference (whether in relation to age, past educational history, culture, class, disability etc.) is often assumed, pedagogically, to indicate a need to find out about individual learning approaches or styles, in order to diagnose deficits, and then to offer support where deemed necessary.

It will be suggested, however, that it is impossible to succeed in meeting the needs of the range of students now coming into higher education; both in terms of the extent of this diversity, and in terms of available resources. In addition, the growing diversity of students means that level and prior experience of learning at the point of entry into higher education can no longer be assumed.

Beginning students, at all levels, no longer necessarily ‘know what to do’ in response to conventional assessment tasks, essay criteria, or instructions about styles of referencing. Rather than seeing this situation as an indication of falling standards, or of the need to ‘dumb down’, this paper will argue that it impliesthe need for a change of perspective.

Arguing for different approaches to pedagogy in higher education is not anything new.

Challenges to conventional views and assumptions in this field have come from adult education (eg. Brookfield, 1995; Boud, 2000; Harrison, 2001), from feminist researchers (Tisdell, 1998;

Johnson-Bailey, 2001), from those working in new universities (Leathwood & O’Connell, 2002;

Archer et al, 2003), as well as from research into higher education learning itself (Ramsden, 1992; Prosser & Trigwell, 1999). Some of these perspectives have argued for quite radical 1 changes to pedagogy, curriculum structures and assessment (eg. Boud & Solomon, 2001; Lillis, 2001), many of which are now being implemented in a range of different contexts. This paper, however, whilst accepting that many aspects of higher education culture and practice are (and should be) contested, attempts to outline a path between ‘conventional’ and ‘radical’ approaches.

It accepts, for example, the privileging of abstract, propositional knowledge, rather than arguing, as would be possible, for the recognition of a wider range of types of knowledge in the academy.

The intention here is to examine whether it might be possible to transform potentially alienating types of exposure to propositional knowledge (Mann, 2001) into richer kinds of engagement, in order that a much wider range of students might gain access to conventional and established forms of knowledge and power.

After briefly outlining some of the different responses to the challenges of mass higher education, the paper will argue that current responses are often based on a deficit view of the student.

Combining insights from the social model of disability with research into academic literacies, it will then explore five aspects of higher education practice which is it argued could be potential causes of ‘non-learning’ for students.

Responses to new challenges The rapid transition in the UK to a mass higher education system is presenting challenges not only to conventional university teaching structures, but also to many of the deeply-held beliefs and values which underpin such structures. Responses to these challenges are constructed in a range of different ways. Perhaps the most common articulation is the need to work out how to make success possible for ‘new’ types of student (‘mature’, ‘disadvantaged’, ‘non-traditional’, ‘overseas’). Perceived as being ‘weaker’ in terms of educational experience and/or ability, these students are likely to be offered generic support in the form of additional courses and/or consultation. Apart from the problem of limited resources for this approach, however, research in academic literacies (Lea & Street, 1998; Lillis & Turner, 2001) suggests that this kind of ‘add on’ work, whilst helpful for new and under-confident students in general terms, may not be sufficient to make a difference to many of the problems currently being experienced. This first response sees the cause of the problem as located within the student, whilst tending to leave conventional goals of higher education learning largely unchallenged (Northedge, 2003a) (such goals may be interpreted in various ways; for example, particular assumptions about subject knowledge, or the development of independent thought).

A second response focuses on a perceived need to improve conventional teaching methods. This view suggests that as previous methods were only ever partially effective, they are likely to be even less so in the larger and more diverse classes that characterise a mass higher education system. From this perspective, the search is for new approaches which will ‘work’ in terms of ‘delivering’ improved student success and retention for increasing numbers of students, without increasing resources (HEFCE, 2001). Whereas the first approach focuses on support in relation to student needs, this approach largely focuses upon researching and developing new teaching technologies. Though expanding the range of teaching methods is important, focussing on teacher action without interrogating deeper assumptions in relation to aims and values is arguably likely to lead to limited changes in understanding student learning.

A third description of the challenge comes from a variety of adult education perspectives (eg.

Boud, 2000). As has already been discussed, these perspectives engage with more fundamental aspects of teaching and learning practices, criticising conventional higher education goals and the 2 perceived elitist, exclusionary and narrow assumptions underpinning conventional assessment practices. This position certainly does look at underlying cultural assumptions and values in relation to teaching approaches, raising difficult questions about aims and purposes. By its very nature, however, this kind of challenge, whilst perhaps the most likely to effect real change, may also be resisted, or may not initially be understood, and thus may be rejected.

Finally, and linked to the idea of rejection or resistance, is the response of people such as Frank Furedi (2004) and Dennis Hayes (2003), who take up a position of what might be called ‘defensive cynicism’. This response frames the current situation in terms of erosion of standards and dumbing down, and blames the ‘quality’ of the students, some of whom are seen to be incapable of coping with the critical challenges of conventional higher education. This response appears to equate widening participation with an inevitable abandonment of certain key elements of higher education assumptions and values in relation to learning.

These various different readings of the situation appear often to become conflated, which may be contributing to potential confusion around these issues. The purpose of the discussion here is to try to separate out some of the different elements which might be involved in the notion of ‘conventional’ higher education; to try to define elements of this which could be seen as positive, and to attempt to distinguish these from aspects of culture and practice which may no longer be sustainable. For the purposes of the discussion a simplified definition of a higher education goal will be created, in order to begin a conversation about these issues. This will inevitably be an ‘ideal type’, reducing a great deal of disciplinary complexity and diversity.

Goals, values, and assumptions, (in the humanities and social sciences) It could be argued, both in relation to the humanities and social sciences, and in relation to various forms of professional knowledge, that one of the aims of ‘higher’ learning is the development of a more questioning, critical engagement with the world (Barnett, 1997). In many disciplines and areas, particularly within the humanities and social sciences, it is often felt that this critical awareness is best developed through processes which challenge the student. This challenge is usually offered through a) the stimulation of a good lecture on the subject, b) engagement with, and exchange of, ideas, expressed verbally in seminars, in response to reading, and c) processes of reading and thought involved in the creation of an academic essay. Whilst agreeing with the idea that a wider range of approaches and methods should both challenge and add important variety to experiences of learning and teaching, this exploration will assume these more conventional forms. This is partly to make the point that methods themselves do not necessarily have to be changed in order to make higher education more accessible, and also to underline the idea that how teaching is done may be more important than the use of an ‘innovative’ method.

Though it will be argued that the above articulations of goal and process could, in principle, be maintained in the current context, it seems much harder to argue for some of the values and assumptions which can underpin these. Conventional cultures within universities, for example, largely accept that the academy is the highest point in an education system which legitimately functions through processes of selection and exclusion (Young, 1999). In addition, value positions relating to the status of intellectual activity in comparison to physical or manual work frequently combine with beliefs about ability which suggest that only a minority of people in a 3 society are capable of doing high level intellectual work; a view which often comes to the surface when figures of 50% participation are discussed (Leathwood & O’Connell, 2002).

Values are also embedded in ideas and models of learning. Independent learning, learner responsibility, taking a ‘deep’ approach, and becoming a ‘reflective practitioner’ are key ideas around which a great deal of writing and research is now based. Though embedded within many research accounts as an obvious good, these ideas are not neutral ‘truths’ about learning, and their use in educational theory has generated an enormous amount of debate in other arenas (eg.

Brookfield, 1993). As statements of value, however, such ideas reveal much about what is encouraged and rewarded in higher education. What is potentially difficult for some students is that these underlying principles are usually only implicit in course outlines, assessment instructions and assumptions about the structuring of work, and are therefore difficult for those unfamiliar with the discourse to see and understand.

At the level of writing and study practices, expressions of these larger value positions are not necessarily obvious to students. The valuing of independence, for example, may translate, for university teachers, into an assumption that students (who know that they are expected to read widely?) will make it their business to learn how to use the university library effectively; will succeed in selecting appropriate texts from the range on offer; will know that academic reading is strategic, and will be confident enough to skim over large chunks of irrelevant material; will succeed in making sense of the dense genres of much academic prose; and will feel confident enough in their interpretation of the assessment task to be able to work ideas gleaned from text into their own written answer to a question. If the student fails in any of these tasks, assumptions about ability, or about preparation for university, are likely to combine with ideas of learner responsibility to call forth a discourse which suggests that the student must ‘work out’ how to do whatever is required, perhaps by talking to other students, or by attending a generic study workshop. The ubiquitous presence of the word ‘support’ in relation to these issues suggests the existence of a superior group who function in a strong and ‘unsupported’ way, thus pathologising any student for whom these assumptions are not clear.

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