slides: partnership, co-operation and dismantling the curriculum in HE

I’m keynoting the Newcastle College HE staff CPD event today. My slides are appended below.

I have amended my keynote at Radical Pedagogies for this talk. However, the notes from that talk are still relevant.

Participants at the talk collated six questions. My responses are posted herewith.


ONE. How do we balance the fact that students spend significant amounts of money on their studies, but at the same time we want them to work for and with us in developing a curriculum and being active participants in the design and implementation of HE?

Money tends to mediate our relationships for us, so our work with our students risks forcing us to view them in terms of value-for-money. Where we exist inside institutions that have to maximise their income from fees, our classroom choices get squeezed because being taught or teaching intensity are perceived as enabling us to manage the risks around student progression. In part, this is defined through policies that situate students and their families as purchasers or consumers, and in part through fear or anxiety-based institutional cultures that situate views of students-as-partners, in terms of their access to curriculum content or specific services. One problem is where this becomes mutually reinforcing to the point where academics and teachers feel that they cannot innovate.

Having worked in several institutions, I have never seen a quality assurance department (or any department responsible for course/programme validation or periodic review) that has stymied curriculum innovation. However, trying to do this in isolation is problematic. Where you are the only teacher or teaching team that is focusing upon student-as-producer, or on co-creation, this can be isolating and high-risk. In part, this is because in that moment, co-creation appears abnormal. That said, I think we are all trying to get our students to co-create or to produce with us and for themselves, through project work, personalised assessments and so on, even where there are regulatory bodies involved.

So, I guess I would see the balance emerging from faith in your own practice, and your ability, in your teams, to discuss the value of student-as-producer or co-creation with the students. This means an open discussion with those students about: first, the explicit value that will be generated for them, in terms of employability and their ability to pay down their debts (NB there is another question here about whether you believe that is possible) – whether the focus is upon community work, employability, whatever; second, the importance of being able to self-manage rather than having to rely explicitly on others (such as a teacher) as a fundamental step towards self-actualisation; third, what this means for staff-student relations and what it means for students to teach themselves rather than being taught – where the role of the teacher changes but remains active; and fourth, the values that underpin this, in terms of mutuality (and mutual support), co-operation, authenticity and so on. There is something important here about the classroom experience moving towards independent learning (there can still be some teacher-focused/teacher-led work), including access to engagements with other communities (of students, in libraries and so on).


TWO. How can the ‘whiteness’ of curriculums be addressed given the lack of diversity in many HEIs?

This is really difficult. It is an ingrained cultural problem, which operates structurally and also subconsciously. As an entitled white, male professor my focus is on constantly questioning my privilege, and determining to enable a plurality of voices across the contexts in which I work. This is intensely problematic because individuals are coming from different spaces and places, with different preconceptions and amounts of intellectual/social capital. The spaces in which I work are also filled with power.

One of the problems of a lack of diversity in many institutions is that those individuals classed as representatives of minoritised groups can end-up picking up more emotional labour, in-part because BAME students see themselves reflected more appropriately in those members of staff and gravitate towards them. Also, those staff may be seen as exceptional cases, or they may have to develop a double or false consciousness, in order to survive and pass through the walls that Ahmed describes. The diversity agenda can also be a threat to some white staff and white students, who need to check their own privilege both inside and outside the institution.

There are a range of innovation projects, such as those on the attainment gap, which are attempting to address the curricula impacts of this, some with a focus on critical race theory. In other spaces there are direct challenges to dominant curriculum narratives, such as in the Black Studies undergraduate degree at Birmingham City University. There is also radical, student-led work, such as Rhodes Must Fall and the Why Is My Curriculum White? Collective. One key issue at the level of the sector is how to develop these initiatives into a movement that questions hierarchy and power.

At the level of the curriculum, I think this works through questions about the way in which the established curriculum and its content, delivery methods, voices and assessments, enable us to meet crises and to support the creation of another world. This means opening up with students about those voices inside the curriculum that are currently heard/silenced and what might be done differently – it is part of a democratic engagement with students about the of governance, structure, content and assessment of the curriculum. What narratives can we engage with in our teaching and how can we critique those in terms of perspectives?

If decolonising the curriculum is important to us then it is important to listen to activists like Angela Davies, Sara Ahmed, Lola Olufemi. The latter’s open letter to the Cambridge English department is particularly useful in decoding the curriculum from a perspective that has been marginalised. She talks about curriculum content, but also operational stuff like the location of books in Library stacks and whether the voices of the colonised are easy to locate. She also talks about who has a voice or is silenced in conversations, and who feels able to have a voice given the attitudes of some staff. She talks about everyday micro-aggressions in conversations, emails, feedback and so on. This connects to Ahmed’s work on working with students to question norms of conduct, and working with them to ask ethical questions about living better in an unequal world as a precursor to creating more equal relationships. This is why she is focused upon being courageous in supporting those who are made marginal or whose engagement with the institution is difficult because of specific barriers.


THREE. What examples are there of a curriculum being successfully ‘reimagined’ for a different or specific social purpose?

See the curriculum work of:

The Social Science Centre

Black Studies at BCU

Work by the Cambridge English Department on decolonisation

Student-as-producer case studies at Lincoln

Papers by: Goodson and Deakin Crick; Phillips et al.

It would also be worthwhile searching for “critical pedagogy in the classroom”.

See also the resources from the recent radical pedagogies symposium at Kent.

On research-engaged teaching, as a precursor to reimagining the curriculum:

Burgum, S., and Stoakes, G. (2016). What does research informed teaching look like? The Higher Education Academy/University alliance. Available at: http://bit.ly/2h2JLke

Healey, M., Flint, A., and Harrington, K. (2014). Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. The Higher Education Academy. Available at: http://bit.ly/2s5UYbF

Healey, M., Jordan, F., Pell, B. and Short, C. (2010) The research-teaching nexus: A case study of students’ awareness, experiences and perceptions of research. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 47 (2). pp. 235-246. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14703291003718968

McLinden, M. et al. (2015). Strengthening the Links Between Research and Teaching. Education in Practice, 2(1), pp. 24-29.

Neary, M., & Winn, J. (2009). The student as producer: Reinventing the student experience in higher education. In L. Bell, H. Stevenson & M. Neary (Eds.), The future of higher education: Policy, pedagogy and the student experience. London: Continuum.

Lincoln University (2013). Student as Producer. Available at: http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk/

Neary, M. (2010). Student as producer: a pedagogy for the avant-garde? Learning Exchange, 1 (1), p. 2.

Neary, M. (2016). Student as Producer: The Struggle for the Idea of the University. Other Education: The Journal of Educational Alternatives, 5 (1), p. 90.


FOUR. How can the challenges of the ‘traditional classroom’ be overcome when students have such traditional and conservative perspectives of what education is and how it should be delivered?

I understand concerns around students being conservative and potentially wishing only to consume the curriculum for their learning/employability/positional gain, and that this emerges from a highly-assessed and relatively rigid school-based curriculum. However, preparing students for uncertainty requires an ongoing conversation with them about the value of the co-creation or co-production of the world. It would be awful if we used perceptions of students being conservative as a reason for doing nothing. Moreover, sometimes I think we reinforce that perception as a reality because we make assumptions about students not wishing to be more engaged and so we create our classroom environments in that image.

I think we just have to keep on attempting to question preconceptions (and we all have preconceptions that feel safe or enable us to feel safe in the world), and this needs to be done on a departmental or institutional scale. So the bottom line for me is that we need to be courageous in the conversations that we have and to base those on mutuality and solidarity. This is about attempting to enable students to own their own lives and we need to be clear with them about that from our opening conversations with them, before they arrive on campus.


FIVE. In what ways can student input inform and influence the construction of a curriculum?

SIX. Who is qualified to determine what social agenda should be at the heart of a curriculum? Should this be student-led, teacher-led, administrator-led?

We lead it as a community. It is part of an ongoing negotiation. However, the minute it is imposed it loses its veracity. The idea of co-creation or student-as-producer can be situated at the level of the organisation, but what happens inside the classroom has to be negotiated inside that classroom and be based upon agreed, humane values. It may be that the teacher takes more of a role in facilitating that conversation because she is more qualified to facilitate. I wonder whether anyone is qualified to determine specific social agendas at the heart of the curriculum, and therefore my focus would always be upon democratic co-creation, as much as that is possible. I recognise that there are problems with this, in terms of power, student voice, cultures, student experience/expertise, and staff ability to facilitate the curriculum in this way. I think we define our qualification to do this collectively.

So, student input can inform and influence the construction of a curriculum however you and they want it to, from the definition of activities, to the production of content, from peer-review and collaborative project work, to peer-assessment. Ideally this work emerges at the level of individual and social transformation, because we wish to reproduce a less-alienating world. To do so we need to out privilege and power. Here the practices of critical pedagogy offer hope. This may look different for different cohorts, or for students at different levels of study, but the starting point is in negotiation with them about the value of what it is you are trying to do, and what this entails for both your and their responsibilities in the curriculum. Clearly, this may be different for different students and that then becomes a problem, but focus upon a more authentic experience starts from the students.


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