It is widely appreciated that anyone proposing a change to the status quo ante is first regarded as mad then, if he persists, as bad – with intent to destroy all that is finest about current activity. Finally, when the innovation has been incorporated successfully, the innovator’s status declines to someone who merely stated the obvious. Recognising that this is likely to be the fate of anyone still reading this book – you must have found something to agree with to get this far – I offer in this chapter some practical suggestions for encouraging change, and also some ideas which at present would probably get us branded as mad or bad. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that one has a duty to try to change the world for the better, and the only world I know much about is that of higher education. So, in order of increasing difficulty, let us consider changing the behaviour of students, staff and university systems.
Students are usually quite conservative, but we currently have a couple of huge advantages. Despite prolific efforts at publicity by HEIs, and energetic social networking among students, most incoming students are rather badly informed about the programme they have entered, but they are on the whole prepared to believe that university will be different from school (and it certainly should be!).
The consequence of these advantages is that teachers have one opportunity, at the beginning of each student’s programme, to set standards and encourage behaviours which are different from those which went before. If we wish to establish student ownership of their own learning, independent attitudes to study and the beginnings of professional behaviour we have to encourage (or even demand) these from the first day. The content of the first year syllabus and the choice of teaching and learning methods is paramount in establishing habits of study and professionalism which have to last not just four years, but a lifetime.
I would like an engineering education to demonstrate some of the attitudes which my son encountered when he went to music college: He was expected to act as a professional musician from the day he entered the door. He had to have a good instrument (his responsibility, not the college’s), turn up for all activities (especially orchestral rehearsals and performances – for which he would have to arrange a substitute if he was ill or injured) and dress appropriately for performances (owning his own dress clothes). He did these things for two key reasons; Because he keenly wanted to be a musician and because it was expected by the staff who taught him. I can see no reason why we should not and could not have a similar set of expectations of engineering students. They need a computer (not a trombone), they need to attend or arrange replacements (for their team and group work) and they need the appropriate dress (safety gear rather than a dinner jacket). These are probably less onerous requirements than those imposed on music students, so why don’t we impose them?
- Talk, and listen, to your students;
- Tell them you expect them to be engaged, and explain what you are prepared to do to help them;
- Set and maintain high standards.
I realise that I have not said anything about taking student views into account when proposing change. I suppose that there are two principal reasons for this: Firstly my experience is that it has been difficult to persuade students to think deeply about the education which their successors should receive, so I am not strongly motivated to ask them. Secondly, and more conventionally, I still hold to the non-PC view that young students (those who have yet to experience engineering employment) are poorly qualified to comment on the usefulness (and even quality) of their own recent education. Therefore, while I would welcome student comments I am not optimistic about getting them and pessimistic about their value. I would rather consult graduates five years after graduation.
Read on … (but first please add a comment)