Thursday, 13 November 2014

What does a graduate look like?

Why do companies hire graduates? Why is a graduate something different to someone who has worked their way up in the company? Why is there graduate level entry into most professions? Graduates have to be something different to those without a degree but what is it?

It isn't about knowledge.

There is no reason why a graduate should no more than a non-graduate. The same facts and information are available to both of them. A non-graduate can read a book or an article as well as a graduate. A non-graduate can look up the answer using wikipedia or Google as well as a graduate. I can often get the same degree of training whether I am a graduate or not a graduate. So why are graduates so desirable? 

It might be about expertise.

There is a difference between knowledge and expertise. You can fake knowledge, but you cannot fake being an expert. Perhaps the best description of this difference is by Harry Collins in his book "Are we all scientific experts now?" Where he describes how he has become a pseudo-expert in the sciences he follows as a sociologist/philosopher trying to understand how science develops. Although he can hold a conversation like an expert, he is not an expert because he does not actively contribute to the field. This is the same core argument in all the "Bluffer's guide to ..." and I have to admit that this has been one of my personal attributes. It is hard for me to determine if I am an expert in any particular field but I am a pseudo-expert in several fields. That is the problem of being multi-disciplinary. So by writing this do I go from being pseudo-expert in academic policy to a real contributing expert? Other examples are popular science writers whose expertise is in communication, not in science. 

Everyone says it is about "Critical Thinking".

The only problem with this is defining what critical thinking is. 

I was just asked to write a reference for a student and the first question they ask is, "Is the applicant capable of independent thought and learning?" Sadly too often I am starting to write no. Not because the students never had that ability, but because it has been beaten out of them by years of secondary education and the expectations imposed by £9000 a year fees. Students go from the wonder and exploration and flexibility of primary learning to the passive dependence of secondary education where teacher's salaries and jobs depend on league table positions and results. Then they go to university and want more of the same. Only better as now they are paying £9000 a year for that knowledge and those skills to be given to them while they passively wait for it to appear.

Critical thinkers are the students who can shake off this passive expectation. They are the students that realise that the £9000 a year is there to make them independent thinkers, confident in their own viewpoints and their own abilities. They realise that the future will not have jobs for life and that we all have to be flexible in what we do and that lifelong learning is going to be essential to their employability. Marcia Baxter-Magolda has written a lot about this process of students finding their own way and starting to author their own knowledge but this is not widely disseminated amongst the higher education community. 

Impacts on Higher Education.

For those who work in higher education the pressures on funding and work-load often come from research more than teaching, and research often where academics find most purpose in their careers. From a cynical viewpoint this leads to one of two approaches:

1) Select the students who are natural critical thinkers. These are the brightest and the best who can learn independently from the start and who would get the same results if you taught them nothing at university (see Academically Adrift for a survey of US universities showing that this actually happens). This gives you more time for research and teaching doesn't really matter. This is the preferred approach of the interview and A* entrance approaches.

2) Be less selective at entrance levels but then teach in the same passive and dependent way that they have been taught for the last 5 years to keep them happy and not rock the boat. Some students will find there own way to being critical thinkers and everyone else 

Both of these are appalling views, and they certainly exist even if they are not universal. Academics reading this know if they are following one of the two approaches although they will all deny it.

In truth there is a better way that is good for students, good for academics and good for research.

The better way.

Go back to primary school learning. Go back to exploration and play. Ditch a large part of the lectures and factual curriculum and focus on the skills that you need to be able to access those facts and that knowledge. The focus has to be on the threshold concepts that prevent students understanding at a higher level. Forget the fine details they are irrelevant in an information cheap age. Teaching should be research led and students should be research involved. Academics have to trust in student's ability. There are plenty of diamonds in the rough who had poor grades at A-level who can shine if you give them the right environment. There are also plenty of students with A*s who struggle to be independent critical thinkers. 

Students of all standards need to be treated equally in their expected outcomes. If you have the same high expectations for all students then they will push for those targets. If you set the barriers low, especially for independent thinking, you will get poor performance. If you think the students can't do it, then you are pushing them into failure. Until you try it out you don't know. Even from one year to the next there is more variation than you can predict. You have to give them a chance to succeed but also the possibility of failure and you have to put into place assessment that helps students to learn. It cannot be a one shot if you fail you fail approach. Students have to be able to fail without desperate consequences so that they can learn and get feedback and improve. 

When students need support then they should have it, but the need is not when they feel they need it, it is when the tutor feels that they need it.  To enable this successfully all academics need to be reflective practitioners and to explore what works and what does not. But this does not mean that as an academic your judgement should not over-ride that of the students. For now you are the expert and they are learning and sometimes students do not appreciate what you know is good for them.

To do this academics have to feel the same commitment and purpose in teaching as they do in investigation and teaching must not be undermined in terms of progression, as it is in some institutions. An academic's legacy should not be just judged on the volume of papers written, but also on the quality of the students taught.