This blogpost was first published by Dave Nicholls on 26 July 2011 via www.crticalphysio.me.
Since 2007 I’ve been involved in a comprehensive curriculum review project. We’ve delivered the first year of the programme once now and this year (2011) we’ve moved on to year 2. Naturally, we’re arrived at the point where we need to think about some of the minutiae of what is being taught. Some of the staff in our team are concerned that some of the content of the old curriculum could have been lost or postponed in the move to the new curriculum; leaving us with an excessively heavy third year or worse still, a curriculum that doesn’t ‘train’ physiotherapists fit-for-practice. So, on the prompting of one of the staff from our Centre for Learning and Teaching, we undertook an exercise to map out what had been taught and what needed to be planned for.
The exercise prompted some interesting reflections that I want to unpack a little here.
In the exercise, we moved to one of the teaching rooms which had double whiteboards. We dedicated the left hand board was to what had been covered already in the first and second year papers, and the right hand board was to be for the still-to-come third year papers. Each board was subdivided by vertical lines, leaving a space for each of the paper leaders to map out what each of their papers included. The paper leaders were not told what to include or how to present their papers; each set out the information they wanted to give about the paper in their own way. What they subsequently presented became quite interesting.
Some paper leaders sketched out the broad themes of the paper detailing, for instance, key learning points or principles. Another paper leader, however, went into complex detail about every subject covered in her paper. The paper was one of our ‘pure science’ papers. These used to be front-loaded in our old curriculum, but have been integrated into other papers and spread throughout the curriculum (not without a great deal of angst its fair to say). The paper has a history of being very content heavy and emphasizing rote learning, and it had suffered in recent years from cuts to student contact time. Further, the paper team have been staunch advocates for percentage-based marking, and are opponents of the Standards-Based Assessment processes adopted throughout our Faculty.
Interestingly if not unsurprisingly, as the paper leaders began to sketch out their papers on the whiteboard, the paper leader for this paper mapped out a seemingly vast array of content supposedly covered during the semester. I won’t go into details here – because the nature of the paper or its teaching team are not the focus of this piece – suffice to say though that each piece of content that was being outlined would have been enough to make a paper on its own.
I’ve had an antipathy to the principles espoused in papers like this for a long time, and watching the paper leader sketch out the enormous field of content supposedly covered by the students made me reflect on what it was I disliked about it. There are some obvious things to say first:
- I dislike the idea the ‘absolutist’ dogma espoused by these forms of knowledge – as if knowledge of the body’s workings was uncontested
- I dislike how, by extension, these forms of knowledge are privileged over other forms of more contestable knowledge, particularly in health science curricula
- I dislike the idea that this kind of (fundamental) knowledge should always precede other forms of (applied) knowledge – i.e. being ‘fundamental’ building blocks they should necessarily come first
- And I profoundly disagree that this knowledge is ‘simpler’ – a necessary feature if it is to be ‘foundational’ – than other forms of knowledge. In my experience, there is nothing at all simple about rote learning pages of latin vocabulary.
But, on reflection, I began to see that my antipathy stemmed from something deeper than these pedagogical points. In contrasting this paper with others that were being written up on the whiteboard, I noticed that it was those that set out broad principles that appealed to me. My dislike for the overly deterministic papers was contrasted by papers that appeared to offer broad principles within which people could bring their own ideas. I liked the idea that there is some space within a paper; some freedom of movement and a degree of contestability and applicability to the knowledge being generated.
After giving this contrast some thought, I came up with the analogy of a closed box to explain how the contrast between the papers that I liked and disliked worked, and to help me think about what this might mean in practice. I will try to explain the analogy below.
The closed box
The paper I dislike works like a closed box. The paper leader defines the box’s contents absolutely. The box is constructed and handed to the student in its entirety. The students role is to take the box, receive its contents and regurgitate them at the appropriate time. The role of the teacher is dictatorial and bureaucratic. The teacher actively designs the walls of the box (by defining the absolute limits of the paper) and constructs elaborate mechanisms to police the boundaries and discipline transgressions. Thus, it is not uncommon in papers like this to find detailed prescriptions for how assessed work should be completed (down to the font size of the written work) and tight regulations about conduct.
Because the metaphorical box has rigid walls, it is impermeable. Nothing leaks in or out. The contents are learnt by the student but because there is little ‘leakage’ there is little translational value to things outside the box (like any future clinical learning), and things learnt inside the bod only exist as facts in themselves. Equally, the box allows nothing in, so the student’s personal experience has no bearing on the box’s contents. When the box becomes overstuffed with content (as it frequently does, because there is always more ‘stuff’ for the students to learn), the teaching team look look to design a bigger box.
There are clearly real and substantial limits to this kind of thinking and there are few educational models that would argue that approaches like this hold any value in the complex world of health care education. Unfortunately, because of the perceived objectivity of this kind of ‘scientific’ knowledge, approaches of this sort are all too common in undergraduate health (and particularly physiotherapy) programmes.
If papers/modules of this sort are like closed boxes, then what would be preferable?
The permeable box
Firstly, let me say that I am nervous of even thinking about this alternative as a box, carrying, as it does, connotations of fixed external walls and constraints. But with this reservation in place, and no better analogy to draw on at this time, I would take you back to what I said earlier about the papers that appealed to me as they were sketched on the whiteboard. Remember that I said I was drawn to the papers that were sketched in broad outline; identifying key principles rather than masses of specific content? Well if we look at these papers we see the opposite of the closed box. We see, instead, a permeable box or possibly more accurately, a permeable ‘space’ – more amoeboid and amorphous.
This space is permeable both from inside and out. From the inside, the paper leader defines principles important in the paper, but as with all amorphous forms, the exact structure of the knowledge that emerges is undefined and morphs depending on the way the student engages with it. Thus, the student’s own experiences and needs are central to the paper and give it shape. Similarly, the student is encouraged, nay compelled to relate that experience to their future learning. The osmosis of knowledge beyond the confines of the permeable wall of the ‘box’ make translational, life-long learning possible.
Now to me, this is a much more desirable way of learning than the closed box idea. It addresses some fundamental questions in higher education about the transferability of knowledge; it allows us to concentrate our curricula less on volumes of ‘stuff’ and more on the threshold principles that students need to translate if they are to become effective learners and practitioners. What is more, it encourages a reflective, inquiry-based approach to learning where every moment requires an engagement with uncertainty. And where there is uncertainty, there is creativity.
Clearly, there are problems with the permeability of learning like this, not least for lecturers who want to retain control not only of the content they control (and by doing so reduce the risk of direct challenge to their authority), but for curriculum designers who are forced to contemplate a much more complex model of learning. For myself, I would love us to be able to grapple with questions of this sort, but in truth we are some way off this kind of discussion at the moment.
This ‘essay’ is the first part of a three-part discussion that originated from the whiteboard exercise. I’ll talk more about the other two parts (which are mercifully briefer) in subsequent posts.
As always though…thoughts and comments are very welcome.