“Blame the teacher” and its negative impact on learning and e-learning

The following post is sparked by reading Findlow (2008) as part of my PhD work. I’m about halfway through it and finding it very interesting. In particular, this post is sparked by the following paragraph from the paper

The institutional counterpoint to this was the feeling expressed, implicitly or explicitly, by all the administrative staff I talked to that, in the words of one mid-ranking administrator, ‘No offence, but some academics need a kick up the bum’. Only five survey respondents cited constraints not explicitly linked to aspects of ‘the system’, singling out academics’ ‘attitudes’, which they elaborated as: ‘lack of imagination’ and/or ‘a reluctance to take risks’

Blame the teacher – level 1

In promulgating the idea of reflective alignment I borrowed and reworked Biggs (Biggs and Tang, 2007) ideas of constructive alignment to take it from looking at how individual academics could design teaching to looking at how a university could improve the design of teaching performed by its academics.

The sentiments outlined in the above quote from Findlow (2008) are a perfect example of, what I framed as, level 1 knowledge about improving teaching. The “blame the teacher” level. The level at which management can feel consoled that the on-going problems with the quality of teaching is not the fault of the system they manage. It’s the fault of those horrible academics. It would all be better if the academics simply got a “kick up the bum”.

Escalation into “accountability” – level 2

The immediate problem that arises from level 1 knowledge about improving teaching, is that management very quickly want to provide that “kick up the bum”. This is typically done by introducing “accountability”. As Findlow (2008) writes

Key to the general mismatch seemed to be the ways in which the environment – both institution and scheme – demanded subscription to a view of accountability that impeded real innovation; that is, the sort of accountability that is modelled on classic audit: ‘conducted by remote agencies of control’ (Power 1994, 43), presuming an absence of trust, and valuing standardisation according to a priori standards.

This approach fits nicely into Level 2 knowledge about improving teaching – i.e. it is a focus on what management does. The solution here is that management spend their time setting up strategic directions against which all must be evaluated. They then set up “accountability courts” (i.e. “remote agencies of control) to evaluate everything that is being done to ensure that it contributes to the achievement of those strategic directions.

This can be seen in such examples as IT governance or panels that evaluate applications for learning and teaching innovation grants. A small select group sits in positions of power as accountability judges to ensure that all is okay.

Once the directions are set and the “accountability courts” are set up, management play their role within those courts, especially in terms of “kicking but” when appropriate.

Mismatch and inappropriate

There is an argument to be made that such approaches are an anathema to higher education. For example, Findlow (2008) makes this point

New managerialism approaches knowledge as a finished product, packaged, positive, objective, externally verifiable and therefore located outside the knower. By contrast, an ‘academic exceptionalist’ (Kogan and Hanney 2000, 242) view of knowledge places it in the minds of knowledgeable individuals, with the holder of the knowledge also the main agent in its transmission (Brew 2003). This kind of expert or ‘professional knowing’, closely related to conventionally acquired ‘wisdom’ (Clegg 2005, 418), is produced through an organic process between people in a culture of nurturing new ideas. The process is allowed to take as long as it takes, and knowledge is not seen as a finished product.

There are arguments back and forth here. I’m going to ignore them as beyond scope for this post.

I will say that I have no time for many of the academics who, at this stage, will generally trot out the “academic freedom” defense to “accountability courts”. Accountability, of an appropriate sort, is a key component of being an academic, peer review anyone? Findlow (2008) has this to say

accountability is intrinsic to academia: the sort of accountability that is about honesty and responsibility, about making decisions on the basis of sound rationales, on the understanding that you may be called to account at any point. Strathern (2000a, 3) suggests that ‘audit is almost impossible to criticise in principle – after all, it advances values that academics generally hold dear, such as responsibility, openness about outcomes’.

Academics should be open and clear about what and why the perform certain tasks. Hiding behind “academic freedom” is to often an excuse to avoid being “called to account”. (That said there are always power issues that complicate this).

My argument against “accountability courts” is not on the grounds of principle, but on pragmatic grounds. It doesn’t work

It doesn’t work

Remember, we’re talking here about improving the design of courses across an institution. To some extent this involves innovation – the topic of Findlow (2008) – who makes the following point about innovation (emphasis added)

The nature of innovation … is change via problematisation and risk. In order to push the boundaries of what we know, and break down dogma, problems have to be identified and resolved (McLean and Blackwell 1997, 96). Entering uncharted territory implies risk, which requires acceptance by all stakeholders.

This last point is where the problems with “accountability courts” arise. It starts with the SNAFU principle which in turn leads to task corruption.

SNAFU principle

Believed to arise from the US army in World War II the phrase SNAFU is commonly known as an acronym that is expanded out to Situation Normal, All Fouled Up – where “Fouled” is generally replaced with a more colloquial term. Interestingly, and as a pause to this diatribe, here’s a YouTube video of Private Snafu – a cartoon series made by the US armed services during World War II to educate the troops about important issues. You may recognise Mel Blanc’s voice.

However, the SNAFU principle gets closer to the problem. The principle is defined as

“True communication is possible only between equals, because inferiors are more consistently rewarded for telling their superiors pleasant lies than for telling the truth.”

This is illustrated nicely by the fable on this SNAFU principle page.

Can this be applied to innovation in higher education? Surely it wouldn’t happen? Findlow (2008) again

My own experience as a funded innovator, and the prevailing experience of my respondents, was that participation in a funded ‘scheme’ made authentic problematisation, and honest description of risk, difficult. Problematisation was inhibited by the necessary consideration given to funding body and institutional agendas in defining parameters for approval. Audit can be seen as a response to fear of risk, and audit-managerially governed schemes require parameters pre-determined, expected outcomes and costs known in advance. Respondents in this case related the reluctance of the scheme to provide for unanticipated needs as they arose, without which effective innovation was much harder.

Task corruption

Task corruption can be defined as

is where either an institution or individual, conciously or unconsciously, adopts a process or an approach to a primary task that either avoids or destroys the task.

It can arise when the nature of the system encourages people to comply through a number of different mechanisms. Findlow (2008) reports on one as applied to innovation

The discussion groups of new academics unanimously recounted a feeling of implicit pressure not to acknowledge problems. They all said they had quickly learned to avoid mention of ‘problems’, that if necessary the word ‘issues’ was preferable, but that these ‘issues’ should be presented concisely and as if they had already been dealt with. While their formal institutional training programme emphasised the importance of honestly addressing shortcomings, their informal exposure to management culture conveyed a very different message. They had learned, they said, that to get on in academia you had to protect yourself and the institution, separate rhetoric from reality, strategy from truth – that authentic problematisation was non-productive and potentially dangerous.

Findlow goes on to reference Trowler’s (1998) term “coping strategies” and the phrase “work to rule”. Findlow gives examples, such as innovators have to lie about a particular aspect of their innovation in the formal documents required by an “accountability court” in order to fulfill requirements. Even thought the rationale was accepted by senior adminstrators.

Academics start to work the system. This creates a less than stellar confidence in the nature of the system and subsequently reduce the chances of innovation. Findlow (2008) again

Allen’s (2003) study of institutional change found that innovation was facilitated by the confidence that comes with secure working environments. Where change was judged by staff to be successful, it tended to emerge from university environments where holistic and humanistic views of scholarship and systems of implicit trust were embedded. These gave academics the confidence to take risks. Allen found that insecure environments created what Power (1994, 13) describes as ‘the very distrust that [they were] meant to address’, removed the expectation and obligation for genuinely responsible academic accountability (Giri 2000, 174), and made staff reluctant to devote time, signpost problems or try something that might not work and could reflect negatively on their career portfolios.

A solution?

The last quote from Findlow (2008) seems to provide a possible suggestion in “university environments where holistic and humanistic views of scholarship and systems of implicit trust were embedded”. Perhaps such an environment would embody level 3 knowledge of how to improve design of courses. Such an environment might allow academics to enage in Reflective Problematisation.

Such an environment might focus on some of the features of this process.

References

Biggs, J. and C. Tang (2007). Teaching for Quality Learning. Maidenhead, England, Open University Press.

Findlow, S. (2008). “Accountability and innovation in higher education: a disabling tension?” Studies in Higher Education 33(3): 313-329.

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7 thoughts on ““Blame the teacher” and its negative impact on learning and e-learning

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