Student learning in a turbulent age

View towards the Mersey

View towards the Royal Liver Building and the Mersey from the 5th floor of the Redmonds Building, Liverpool John Moores University.

This week I have been privileged to hear Professor Ronald Barnett speak at Liverpool John Moores University, where he was the keynote speaker on the second day of their teaching and learning conference. The title of his talk was:

A University for Learning: considering the present and glimpsing the future.

The theme for the conference as a whole was ‘Locations for learning: where does the learning take place?’ so Ron Barnett started his keynote with the question ’What kind of spaces are we trying to open up for students – how much space?’ He told us that the university has been with us for 900 years or longer and will be with us for a very long time. Many of today’s students will be alive in the 22nd century. At the very least we should try to answer questions such as: What is student learning the 21st century? What is it to be a graduate in the 21st century? What might we hope for from our students? What might they want of themselves?

He pointed out that we live in a turbulent environment and that our students are learning in a turbulent age where the higher education mantras of knowledge, skills and employability are no longer adequate. Neither knowledge nor skills may be adequate for tomorrow and we know that there is no guarantee of employability. The world is changing and there is a world beyond work.

He told us that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty and that we don’t only have to think in terms of complexity, but of supercomplexity. In the Abstract for his book ‘Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity’, this is discussed as follows:

The university is faced with supercomplexity, in which our very frames of understanding, action and self-identity are all continually challenged. In such a world, the university has explicitly to take on a dual role: firstly, of compounding supercomplexity, so making the world ever more challenging; and secondly, of enabling us to live effectively in this chaotic world. Internally, too, the university has to become a new kind of organization, adept at fulfilling this dual role. The university has to live by the uncertainty principle: it has to generate uncertainty, to help us live with uncertainty, and even to revel in our uncertainty.

It is interesting to note that this was written 15 years ago!

So in this world of ever increasing diversity, differentiation and complexity, is there anything that should bind us together? What aspects of Higher Education are universal across the globe? To answer this question he said we need to ‘reclaim’ the student as persons who can develop the capacity to benefit the world in wise ways. Higher Education should therefore be more than satisfying students as consumers or viewing them in terms of pound notes.

In this world of uncertainty and supercomplexity, Barnett suggested that learning is often ‘scary’, involving becoming more than you are, becoming other than you were. Knowledge and skills are not enough; they require engagement to become a human being of a certain kind. Individuals must continually give of themselves, must continually remake themselves. The curriculum is not as important as pedagogy, i.e. the student/teacher relationship. We need to open up pedagogical space for our students and search for spaces of possibility. We should support our students in developing the dispositions needed for a world of challenge. Dispositions of

  • A will to learn
  • A will to engage
  • A preparedness to listen
  • A preparedness to explore
  • A willingness to hold oneself open to experience
  • A determination to keep going forward

Barnett then suggested that these dispositions should bind us across institutions. These are the dispositions that would help students to develop the qualities required for a world of challenge, qualities that will enable them to become global citizens who will help to bring about a better world.

He also suggested that to do this we have to understand ourselves as human beings in relation to the world and for this we need an ‘ecological curriculum’ which promotes being in the world, sensitivity to its global/local, personal/professional, systems/persons interconnectedness, engagement in its sustainability and improvement, active empathy and caring for the world.

Ron Barnett spoke with a passion that it is not possible to convey in a blog post and it was this passion that made the keynote so effective and, judging by the tweets and the comments I overheard in the following coffee break, inspired so many in the audience.

At the end of the keynote a question raised was whether these ideas were ‘pie in the sky’. These were not the words of the questioner, but the words that Ron Barnett used in responding to the question. On reflection about the keynote, despite finding it the highlight of the conference and well worth travelling to Liverpool for, I am left with a sense that we were treated to a passionate exploration of a glimpse into the future of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of Higher Education, but it’s the ‘how’ that remains open.

We were left with the question of how an ecological curriculum which contains spaces for critical self-reflection, spaces for engagement with self, society and the world, spaces for multidisciplinary demanding experiences, can be introduced into a 21st century Higher Education institution. How will these ideas impact on Higher Education? How will they be realised in practice?

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