The road not taken

A recent post of mine continued the trend of reflecting on the impacts – in my mind negative impacts – of a top-down, compliance driven culture in higher education. This bit has been encouraged by
a comment on that post which makes a number of interesting points, at least in terms of encouraging some additional thinking on my part. It’s also serindipitously coincided with some recent local events.

My interpretation

I’ve interpreted the post as suggesting that no oversight can lead to a proliferation of chaos or bad practice. In terms of talking about teaching and learning within a university I tend to agree – more on this below. There’s also a point about moving academics beyond some of their existing practices and the suggestion that the top-down chain of command isn’t really a solution. It closes with something sparked this post

Yes, this means we have to sell, not try to dictate. Long road.

Free-for-all, top-down compliance and chaos

“Chaos” or complexity is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I do except that an organisation – like a university – does generally have to do something to ensure that the quality of its teaching and learning is improving. (Note: one of my principles is “It’s not how bad you start, but how quickly you get better”. I don’t believe in “being good” as a goal, it’s an on-going process.) At the very least I think a university taking public funds has to demonstrate that it is using those funds somewhat effectively.

This is why in the post that started this thread I proposed that the first stage of improving learning and teaching (i.e. what the teacher is) is not way to achieve this. In that stage, each academic is left to their own devices. What they do is up to them and their preferences and capabilities. There is little or no support. In my experience with this stage, there are some examples of very good teaching, but the vast majority is somewhat lacking.

This is where the process/quality/teaching nazis appear. These include consultants, government, educational researchers, senior management, IT folk etc. Each of these folk have the solution. The quality of teaching would be wonderful within the organisation if only every academic used process Y, product X. If every course had mapped its graduate attributes and had a course site that met a minimum service standard, then the quality of teaching would be wonderful. So, let’s set up a project team, specify the outcomes, implement them and then report success. Typically the aim is something along the lines of “Develop a systemic University-wide approach to learning and teaching” or perhaps even worse prove efficiency and control by aiming to “Centralise the strategic planning and managing of funds for learning and teaching support, activities and initiatives”.

In my experience these approaches never work. Mainly because the decisions made by the centralised, systemic University approach to learning and teaching are informed by experiences far removed from the realities of the teaching academics. The people making the decisions are generally senior managers who have either no recent teaching experience or only very narrow teaching experiences. Instead, the experience of these folk quickly becomes limited to the “systemic university-wide approach to learning and teaching”. That is, the initiatives they identify as important (e.g. mapping graduate attributes) become their main experience. Everything they think and do arises from that project. Their experience limits what decisions they can make.

What’s worse, the current management environment in Australian university encourages short-term (5 year) contracts for senior managers. In order to keep their job or move onto a new one, these managers have to prove their “ability to lead”. This means that they have to have successfully “led” completed projects which they can put on their CV. What’s worse, those projects have to fit within the current fads within higher education. The priority of these managers is not improving the experience of coal-face teaching academics, it’s about achieving the successful implementation of “systemic University-wide” projects.

This is why senior management can be so confident saying that Project X is a great success, when the coal-face teaching academics will be telling a very different story. This is what Chris Argyris (1990) termed organisational defensive routines and model 1 behaviour in organisations – discussed in this post.

So, in the second way, which I describe as “what management does”, the decisions about how to improve learning and teaching are being made by people who have limited experience of coal-face teaching and who also have significant motivating factors to have successful projects. Is it any surprise that this approach doesn’t create long-term sustainable change?

Rather than create the “proof” of effectiveness required by those providing the funds, this approach creates compliance and task corruption. i.e. the KPIs are met, but by ticking the boxes, not in outcome. For example, I know of an institution that has developed a “checklist” for course websites. It’s a long list of requirements that a minimum course site is expected to fulfill. The idea is that academics that build these sites, and their colleagues of moderate the course and course site, will work their way through the checklist ensuring that each requirement is fulfilled. In reality, a significant number of academics are asking “Is you’re site ready?” and then ticking all the boxes.

The road not taken

My argument is that there is a third way that promises better outcomes, but it’s continuing to the road not taken. Which is somewhat surprising for my current institution given that it’s strategic plan includes the following in its vision

We strive to understand their environment and situation, their
circumstances and goals, so we can help them achieve what they want to achieve and be who and what they want to be, one person at a time.

This is a brilliant summation of what I’m trying to get at with the “third way”. My post from yesterday gives some background into the origins of this perspective (more to come).

In terms of the third way, I should have mentioned Dave Snowden’s “how to manage a birthday party story” (the video is below) which also fits nicely with the three ways I’ve expressed. Here’s the connection I make:

  • chaotic system == what the teacher is.
  • ordered system == what management does.
  • complex system == what the teacher does.

References

Argyris, C. (1990). Overcoming Organisational Defenses: Facilitating Organisational Learning, Prentice Hall.

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