Running with Scissors

or: The Problem of MicroManaging Study.

At first we thought we would have a time-table, but we have given it up. We have a programme, and the hours are fixed for all big events like dinner, sleep, play and work, but our play and work lost so much force and interest by being snipped into little sections that after some hesitation we gave up the snipping altogether, and allowed ourselves to be interested in things.

Margaret McMillan “The Nursery School,” Chapter 9, pp 83-84

The McMillan project of care and education is exemplified in this book, well worth a read by those who would confine Early Years to a rather expensive version of baby farming, and describes the Nursery School as a place for refuge for children living in awful conditions and whose health suffers from lack of healthy provision – cleanliness, good food, plenty of fresh air all… ordered and fairand the health of the children perfect. They were models for educators, for families, foundation for the children, and a nurture centre where miserable children flourished. There was direct instruction in all sorts of curriculum areas, but Nursery Schools in the early C20th were not hothouses but lighthouses: beacons of good practice. The model of childhood was really one combining the child-in-need-of-rescue with a vision of a child with a right to full nurture. Note, however, that this is not a place of total do-as-you-please: there is identified need, purpose, resource: Art lessons, dance, reading, mathematics….

In the same way, a University as an institution fostering learning has identified need, purpose, resource. I looked at this fairly recently in a goodbye to this year’s Education Studies students by examining our Guiding Principles at Oxford Brookes. The model of the learner here: someone capable of learning by doing; an institution with confidence in its staff and students.

I wonder, however, whether the confusions about lines of accountability leads institutions to show a lack of confidence in its members. What are we accountable for? To whom? Let’s look at this as being accountable for student learning, and for promoting behaviours that aid that learning. Here are some of the books I might suggest my students read, for example, depending on the context. It strikes me that this (purposefully odd) selection underlines the importance of the tutor not as arbiter but guide: to nudge, not judge. You wouldn’t get a degree if you read these – unless that reading were informed by wider reading, discussion, synthesis, evaluation. Quotation alone does not make an essay, although I do recall looking at a portfolio (at another institution) where the student had been told to “put in the quote about Vygotsky to show us you read that chapter.” The dependent thinker.

I’m zipping around here, going from 1919 to the present day, and then back a bit. Cut through the noise of managementspeak, and McGregor’s model from 1966 (here, from The Human Side of Enterprise) of how one might view workers in a team is still of use here. Theory X suggests that it is management that actively drives the project by directing the workers, and

The average man is by nature indolent—he works as little as possible

He lacks ambition, dislikes responsibility, prefers to be led

Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise

Micromanaging a student experience starts from here, and it doesn’t take too many clicks to find opinions about lazy students – particularly first years. By nature indolent.

If we start, however, from McGregor’s Theory Y that

…motivation, the potential for development, the capacity for assuming responsibility, the readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are all present in people

Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise

then learning and teaching become a different set of activities altogether. Riskier, perhaps for all concerned – but actually more worthwhile than the over-planned, micromanaged but beautifully accountable syllabus.

Students in Higher Education are not employees any more than they are customers, of course; the shifting sands of ideology put them closer to one end of the spectrum in some time periods and at others closer to the other end. Thus, it might in some contexts seem desirable to say to a student “This course requires you to set aside some ninety hours for your own reading” but the tone is quite authoritarian: what do we mean by “this course requires”? That also sounds a lot, although over, for example, the Brookes twelve week semester it’s seven and a half hours a week (since I’m referring explicitly to the Brookes system here, it is worth remembering that an undergraduate very often takes four modules at a time, so that is almost a full-time job: with classes to attend, it really is a full-time job!). Did I manage that in the 70s? Yes, sometimes – very often – I did: pastoral crises aside, I was reading Homer (very badly) for a weekly translation class at a rate of three books a week for eight weeks, and I regularly saw very little sleep. If I disliked the pace of work set, too bad.

But this is not a valid argument: the “I was unhappy so you should be too” approach to course design has, it seems to me, at its heart a misdirected desire for revenge. Far better to revenge oneself by turning up at a tutor’s hour reciting The Catalogue of the Ships at three in the morning1. But why do tutors set work – reading specifically – for undergraduates? What do we hope in doing this?

The pictures in this blog are partly there to identify the disciplinary shift I had to learn to manage when I moved from being, in effect, an ex-Classicist (or “lapsed Medievalist,” as I described myself) where text was the lead, to looking at educational practice where ideas and practical application are at the forefront. And yet there has always been in my work with education students, my desire to “get them reading.” Is this the change we seek? To make readers? What does Higher Education aim to do? And in a time where the norms of classes and library time are disrupted, what, at heart, are the aims of education? My first thought is to dive for a classic text:

Applications in Education. There is nothing peculiar about educational aims. They are just like aims in any directed occupation. The educator, like the farmer, has certain things to do, certain resources with which to do, and certain obstacles with which to contend. The conditions with which the farmer deals, whether as obstacles or resources, have their own structure and operation independently of any purpose of his…

It is the same with the educator, whether parent or teacher. It is as absurd for the latter to set up his “own” aims as the proper objects of the growth of the children as it would be for the farmer to set up an ideal of farming irrespective of conditions. Aims mean acceptance of responsibility for the observations, anticipations, and arrangements required in carrying on a function — whether farming or educating. Any aim is of value so far as it assists observation, choice, and planning in carrying on activity from moment to moment and hour to hour; if it gets in the way of the individual’s own common sense (as it will surely do if imposed from without or accepted on authority) it does harm.

John Dewey Democracy in Education, Ch 8 “The Aims in Education”

So why the quirky title? I have used it with University students if I have had to leave the room just as a jokey reminder of the need to stay on task; it also belongs in the death scene in Muppet Treasure Island, where Billy Bones with his last breath warns against running with scissors2. Of course it belongs first of all in the Early Years classroom where, supervised or not, running with scissors is generally frowned upon; there is risk and there is risk.

And there is risk in learning. The independence of using scissors on your own might be an early step in education, but there are others, as outdoor learning sometimes emphasises. “Even” in everyday learning and teaching, as Dewey has it, we have an acceptance of responsibility to cope with in different contexts than our usual ones. We have (Dewey again) to let go of our own aims or at least to question them seriously through reevaluation of our observation, choice, and planning in carrying on activity from moment to moment and hour to hour. The shibboleth is about “going outside the comfort zone” and perhaps the conditions for teaching and learning have been so different of late that we are very far outside that comfort zone – and seek a firm foothold in managing the student experience and recording how we manage it. Do we (Higher Education lecturers, tutors, administrators and managers of the nebulous stuff that is Quality Assurance) ourselves run a risk here: not letting the students make mistakes? Make their own choices? Not letting the students find their own way? “Read this – then this – then this” is an easy way to put together a programme of study, but a difficult habit to break when the time is right. Snipping learning into little sections (to return to Margaret McMillan) and not letting students or ourselves (McMillan) to be interested in things? After all, being interested wasn’t one of the learning outcomes. Was it?

It was and it wasn’t. The trivial round, the common task dominate our thinking. Lecture timetables, assessment deadlines. Dave Aldridge’s article (yes, go and read the original) puts it very clearly:

The descriptive understanding… leaves the materiality of university life untouched: those involved continue to memorise, recall, rehearse, assess, and implicate themselves in those activities associated with the accountability that encroaches on educational experience. Students attend or miss lectures, work part time, stay up late, participate in or shun their university’s union, and form and break relationships. Tutors struggle to find time for their research and the energy to resist institutional bureaucracy.

David Aldridge (2019) “Reading, Engagement and Higher Education.” Higher Education Reserach and Development, 38:1:47 http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/17145

The “materiality” of higher education is currently in a sort of ideological and procedural Limbo that reminds me sharply of CS Lewis miserable opening to The Great Divorce:

Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. And just as the evening never advanced to night, so my walking had never brought me to the better parts of the town.

and like the characters in The Great Divorce, escape from this is only possible by risking something: the letting-go of worn habits of affection (or lack of it). I would suggest that “getting students to read” is another worn habit, and is part of a bigger picture foisted on Higher Education by a false accountability: students, at least the ones I have had off-the-cuff conversations with, seem to me to want to be asked to join the dance, not to know their tutors can account for every hour of the module’s learning. Again, it is Dave Aldridge who sees this as courtship, the tutor’s task being to see the student’s learning with the attentiveness of the lover.

So this certainly doesn’t mean a chaotic “pick the bones out of that” model of teaching. As Julie Fisher (yes, of one her books is in that first photo) has said Independent learning is not abandoned learning. I want students to read, I will propose work for them that will require them to look at and analyse texts from the role of therapy dog through to John Dewey, not simply so that they will read (as if that on its own will cure some ill-named ignorance, a Very Hungry Caterpillar transformation of Take-It-All-And-You-Will-Emerge-A-Butterfly), but so that the ideas they encounter will encourage them to take a risk – to think for themselves, to apply what they read about to the educational questions of why we do what we do. Systems and accountability will not suffice: we are back at the challenge of Margaret McMillan in her 1919 Nursery School: being allowed to be interested.

And if the everydayness of Higher Education is lost at the moment, we still have that as a challenge for tutor and student alike.

*

1: Actually, don’t even think of it. And certainly do not turn up at my house at any point day or night to discuss the place-language of Robert Macfarlane or to recite Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. At least, not without an invite.

2: Although if we meet in the pub and you can sing the Professional Pirate song I will be impressed.

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