Losing control – how can we involve students in their education?

Posted in: learning and teaching

In the two years that I’ve been working for the University of Bath, the one thing that has struck me most is the quality of the students here. They are amazing people, full of ideas and enthusiasm, and keen to contribute to change. Give them a task and they come back with something better than you could anticipate. Ask them a question and they come back with a smarter one.

So it is frustrating that our students spend so much time listening to PowerPoint presentations in lecture theatres, and that we drive home the message that assessment is everything. In this setting, it is unsurprising that the experience of many students is highly individualised and competitive. We tend not to prioritise risk, imagination or collaboration, and when we do, we are afraid of the impact on the final result or evaluation.

I know that this culture is influenced to a great extent by the environment. It is hard to teach differently when the groups are big; when you’re stuck in a tiered lecture theatre and there’s so much to cover. But I also think this has something to do with our reluctance to let go. Fundamentally, I believe that we need to give students greater agency within the curriculum. We need to give them the chance to shape their experience here by testing things and trying again if they fail. They need to learn in a way that can be sustained throughout their lives – by reading, thinking, collaborating, creating and persevering.

In order to enable students to do more and to take responsibility, however, someone else has to release power and control. This appears to be a sticking point. Colleagues are comfortable with the idea that students should be involved with curriculum design or representation, right up until the point that someone suggests this may mean that cannot deliver their specialism in the way that they have done for many years. At this point, doors start to close, and the idea of students as partners slips down the agenda again.

And yet in so many other sectors – health, local government, Whitehall, social care, sport, housing, journalism, engineering, prisons – experts are finding new and imaginative ways to make services more client centred, and to involve users, members or customers in design and delivery. This is leading to all kinds of improvements and enhancements, many of which are being profiled at a two-day event this week in Birmingham entitled Losing Control. Check out the details here: https://www.losingcontrol.org/sessions/

In order to learn more about these interventions, I’ll be joining over 400 delegates from a wide range of organisations to learn about successes and challenges in empowerment, enabling and co-creation. I hope to be able to bring back ideas that can stretch our imagination of how to better involve students in the work that we do. As far as I can see, I’m the only representative of the education sector at the event, but I hope that I can bring back some messages that encourage others to benefit from these processes. I understand that the idea of sharing authority and responsibility is uncomfortable for some, but it needn’t threaten our security in any way, and can lead to so many new and enjoyable ways of working with the people who are supposed to benefit most from the work that we all do.

Andy Pitchford

Centre for Learning & Teaching

Posted in: learning and teaching


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