Category: Professional practice
|Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]|
John Davis, Peter Devereux, Brad Pettitt and Dora Marinova
Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy (ISTP)
An informal curriculum review conducted as collaborative reflection, produced an innovative unit which addresses perceived short-comings in the professional skills of graduating development practitioners. The success of the new unit offers lessons on the value of embodied experiential and student-centred learning for community development and interdisciplinary students. Introducing students to complexity of contested subject areas increases their appreciation of ambiguity in the real-world context of future work. Learning settings which enable students to experience complexity and ambiguity of community or interdisciplinary work increase capacity for tacit learning, and capacity of practitioners to sit with messy, confusing problems that defy technical solution. Alignment of unit objectives with learning activities, materials and assessment enables teacher and students to gauge the extent to which the objectives have been achieved.
In 2004, as a result of discussions about careers in international development, teaching staff and postgraduate students with some overseas or cross-cultural development experience in the ISTP reviewed the Sustainable Development and related programs at Murdoch University, with particular focus on the capacity of the curriculum to equip graduates for work in international development settings. The curriculum overview identified a common gap in these programs, namely a unit that linked current discourse and theories in development studies with basic methods and practice: a unit that would give students a good understanding of what it means to commence work as a critically reflective development practitioner.
Murdoch University's MA in Development Studies "enables students to approach the complex issues related to contemporary processes of globalisation, economic and social development from an interdisciplinary perspective" (Murdoch University, 2005). Similarly the Master of Arts in Ecologically Sustainable Development explores "the policies, issues and processes of ecologically sustainable development (ESD)" through study of "the current status, the history and the value bases of sustainable development, together with the policy approaches that are emerging for sustainability" (Murdoch University, 2005). In common with similar programs in Flinders and LaTrobe Universities (which similarly to Murdoch are also members of Innovative Research Universities Australia) and Curtin University, Development Studies have been offered in the liberal education tradition of providing a general theoretical framework and equipping graduates with generic attributes, but not necessarily acquainting students with the particular skills used by development practitioners. In fact, in Australia only Deakin University offers a substantial skills component in Development Studies (in this case in an MA).
The lack of some of the practical professional skills required by development professionals is exacerbated by a gap between theories of development and what actually happens on the ground. This gap between theory and practice has been widely recognised in the development studies literature over the past two decades following Michael Edwards' influential articles "The irrelevance of development studies" (Edwards, 1989) and "Does the doormat influence the boot?" (Edwards, 1993). He describes it in the following way:
Generalisations produced by researchers may seem hopelessly abstract when compared to the mess of life "on the ground", yet so much of what is practiced on the ground may fail because it is de-linked from the broader economic and political forces which macro-level research can illuminate (Edwards, 1997, p.4)This gap between development studies and practice was also a common observation of experienced staff and postgraduate development or sustainability practitioners in ISTP. For example, lecturer Brad Pettitt, despite recently completing his PhD in international development, found much of his research lacking relevance to the problems and challenges he faced working in the field with Oxfam in Cambodia and later at a policy level for the Australian government's overseas aid agency AusAID in Canberra. Similarly, PhD candidates John Davis and Peter Devereux (with over 30 years combined experience in many developing countries), could see that lessons they had learnt through practical experience could be introduced and linked to theoretical concepts and discourses in at university, but rarely found a propitious environment to do so. Natalie McGrath's experience with indigenous communities suggested that community participatory approaches need greater emphasis in these courses (McGrath, Marinova and Anda, 2005).
To improve the curriculum at Murdoch University, a Special Topic unit was developed to improve the capacity of graduates to both find and succeed in a range of opportunities in the international development field. The unit was designed so that graduates who sought work or other involvement in international development would have the benefit of at least some exposure to key dilemmas in development, and learn essential basic skills related to project management or development intervention. Its objective is to build the professional capacity of graduates by challenging assumptions about development using contact with development practitioners, and workshops where students have to grapple with practical and philosophical constraints while completing work or plans as would be required of development practitioners.
This unit had very high level of enrolment, was regarded very highly by the students, but there were intense reactions to some of the activities. Subsequently from 2006 it has become a regular unit. This paper discusses how the unit came into existence through a collaborative reflective process, embodied experiential student-centred learning and what are the lessons for interdisciplinary learning.
One aspect common to similar units at LaTrobe and Deakin Universities is exposing and engaging students in key debates in current development thinking and at the same time providing contact and engagement with development practitioners who have recently worked in developing communities.
An innovative element in the unit design is to enable students to immediately use the tools with which they were being acquainted, and to do so in a critical way (see for example Win, 2004), grappling experientially with their importance and limitations. We wanted to engage students with the genuine practical difficulties and compromises required when working in overseas development. Students in Perth cannot experience the physical realities of the work location, but as Gilbert (2005) comments in relation to encouraging self-awareness in aid workers:
For [experiential learning] tasks to be effective for aid workers they would have to simulate relevant psychological issues and their interactions with practical responses. Tasks given in a lecture or training form are very limited in their capacity ... because they do not necessarily challenge... preconceptions, established structures of meaning, underlying assumptions and values (Gilbert, 2005, p.65)Participatory workshops are used to place the students in situations where they are asked in groups to identify a development project which they will design, plan a project evaluation and write a development project proposal. While recognising the limitations of a training context, the exercise tries to simulate some of the emotional and intellectual challenges faced in aid and development consultancies.
The unit materials introduce students to contemporary approaches to development and the debates surrounding aid and development assistance. They also include an introduction to projects and the project management cycle. The aim of materials is to provide a conceptual framework on which students will build their own knowledge, skills and values. A unit reader is comprised of diverse materials such as newspaper articles, journal articles, book chapters, institutional reports and program documents.
The assessment for this unit is closely aligned to its objectives and the primary assessment is based on a major learning activity. Participatory workshops help students prepare material for an assignment (worth 40% of unit assessment) that is integral to the learning process and attempted to elicit from the students a meld of the ideas and practices learnt in the unit (see Box 1).
A wealthy philanthropist has just contacted you and is willing to spend up to $1 million on any international development intervention that you recommend. S/he has asked that you provide a 2500 word project proposal to be considered. You will need to:
Work on the project described in Box 1 begins with the class (61 students in the inaugural class) having to form into groups, agree on a place or problem to research, a development project idea, and how to proceed. By working in groups the students were challenged to capitalise on or be divided by difference: in opinions, experience or discipline of study. Prior to the first workshop session, students have an introductory lecture on community participation. This provides a learning scaffold from which they need to explore how participatory practice needs to be written into their project, and also how they will manage their groups so that everyone has space to participate. For students, this closely resembles the "swamp" described by Schon (1987):
In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant... while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. (Schon, 1987 cited in Chambers, 1997, p.190)This major workshop task aims to increase student-centred or problem-based learning through which they develop their own learning goals and a stronger focus on what they are able to do, rather than on the content being covered (O'Neill and McMahon 2005, p.30).
The result is that the learning process becomes the combined responsibility of students and staff. It is intended that this increased responsibility on students for their own learning will increase the students' involvement and effort in the unit and therefore the likelihood of educational and personal returns (Cannon and Newble, 2000, p.16). A key strategy is a problem based learning approach that according to Cannon and Newble (2000, p.19) is "a way of seeing the curriculum as being focused on key problems that arise in professional practice and which requires students actively - independently or in groups - to learn from the problems".
This approach also draws on what Biggs calls deep learning (Biggs, 1999). In particular, the deep learning approach deployed in this unit presents problems and questions "rather than expound information" (Biggs, 1999, p.17). Assessment is focussed on "structure rather than independent facts" and the unit "uses teaching and assessment methods that support the explicit aims and objectives of the course" (Biggs, 1999, p.17). Graduates need not only to carry out tasks and perform in roles, but to be able to relate these to the wider significance of what is happening in a particular society and the world.
There was an atmosphere of excitement and enthusiasm from the students enrolled in the units. At least two thirds of the teaching time each week was dedicated to discussion and/or case studies and problems in international development.
The student-centred and deep learning approach adopted in the unit design caused some concern among students more used to a predominantly linear approach. Instead of prescriptive tasks and specified outputs, they were faced with a situation in which they had to find appropriate ways to facilitate participation of diverse team members and achieve the outcome they decided.
The most difficult learning experience for the students occurred in the first workshop where they had to form groups and decide what project and how to work towards the requirements of the project described in Box 1. The learning scaffolding for this phase was a one-page set of key questions to be considered. By the end of the session the tension and anxiety caused by this workshop was palpable as students experienced first hand the difficulties of gaining consensus around group tasks, process and outcomes. Presentations in the second week concluded the planning exercise. During the final session there was a sense of catharsis as students expressed their feelings about the process and their sense of achievement as they acknowledged they had embraced and endured the initial uncertainty of not knowing how they would proceed or whether they would succeed. Their relief was accompanied by a sense that the struggle had been worthwhile. A short de-briefing discussion after the presentations and another in the final class assist students to assess their experiences and examine what they learn. Of course learning is interactive, involving also staff. The de-briefing session highlights the fact that working in community development requires similar vulnerability and initial confusion to that faced in this workshop. In the debriefing session Schon's (1987) swamp was again cited.
|Overall I'm satisfied with the quality of teaching in this unit||28||68|
|Overall I was satisfied with the quality of this unit||31||66|
|Activities in this unit enhanced my knowledge and/or skills in the subject area||28||68|
|Assessment task tested my understanding of the subject area rather than just their memory||28||68|
|The teachers encourage me to be responsible for my own learning||56||43|
The Student Unit Survey was very positive and showed that the unit was successful in implementing many of the innovative, student-centred approaches outlined earlier in article. Some of the 97% of students who agreed that they were satisfied with the unit quality added comments such as:
This course [sic] is a great idea and much needed compliment to other ISTP (and non ISTP!) unitsStudents feel more knowledgeable and/or skilful from the unit and informal feedback suggests that basing learning around problem-solving activities enhanced that learning. The goal of developing critical discussion together with introducing specific tools met with both approval, and more nuanced responses. Some students wanted to learn more about project cycle management and other practical tools while others wanted less, preferring to have more "BIG PICTURE examination of trade/ finance/ aid/ debt".
A splendid unit combining the academic with the practical.
Several students wanted more guidance, clarification of the task and more structure in the participatory workshop process. Similarly the main assignment was considered by some to be too open ended. However there was general recognition that real world development situations are messy and even ambiguous with some similarity to the workshop experience.
We assumed (perhaps beyond reasonable warrant) that students had already sufficient background in sustainable development and/or development studies to support the deep learning approach of the unit. Biggs (1999, 19) comments that students who have "little prior knowledge of the topic will" most likely not be able to use a deep approach to learning. Some student work in the final examination indicated the approach in this inaugural class was biased towards those students with a greater prior exposure and knowledge of the issues, and less suitable to those who entered the unit with high interest and motivation, but less experience. This could be addressed by more clearly setting the context in the first weeks, as well as appropriately grouping participants during the workshops.
From student surveys, debriefing sessions and informal discussion we have learned that we need to ensure more structure and smaller groups for the "tutorial" discussions. For the workshops some additional guidance may be required, but we see value in retaining a simulation experience where, in a safe environment, students experience the raw edge of self doubt and their inability to offer glib answers to profound questions. Debriefing activities need to be a part of these sessions to enable students to deal with the emotional side of the experience. The swampy land analogy quoted from Schon (1987) as part of the introduction to the participation exercise still inspires us to take students beyond linear exposition of theory or stepwise building of skills into difficult learning experiences.
Many students commented that they had a greater understanding of the complexity of the subject of international aid and development. Although a couple are now less inclined to look for future involvement, many others expressed heightened interest and a desire to become personally involved in the field. By these statements we consider the unit to have achieved its aim. It can be improved by providing more "scaffolding" for students to get their own hands on the context and theories of development at the beginning, and to help them scope the major assessment project so that their efforts are commensurate with the value of this task in their overall workload. We will continue to find ways to lead them to the swamp of issues of greatest concern to humanity while equipping them with the best survival aids available.
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|Authors: John Davis worked in community development in rural Bangladesh for eight years. He was also a university lecturer in Indonesia for six years before returning to Perth, where he has been a casual teacher and postgraduate student in the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy since 2000.|
John Davis, Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, Murdoch University, South St, Murdoch Western Australia 6155. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Devereux worked in Nicaragua as an international volunteer university teacher and then NGO environmental adviser with his family between 1988 and 1995. From 1996 to 2003 he worked as Australian Volunteers' International State Manager. Peter is currently doing his PhD in ISTP on the work of international volunteers in community science for sustainability.
After completing his PhD on NGOs and development at ISTP, Brad Pettitt worked with Oxfam in Cambodia and then with the Australian Government Aid Program, AusAID, in Canberra. Since 2004 he returned to Murdoch University where he is a Lecturer in Sustainable Development in the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy.
Dora Marinova is an Associate Professor and Head of ISTP, Murdoch University where she teaches in the areas of demography and women and development. She is currently supervising 14 PhD students on topics related to sustainability. Her research interests cover technology policy and development, sustainable business and partnerships. She has published over 60 refereed journal articles and book chapters and has conducted research for Western Australian and Commonwealth Government departments.
Please cite as: Davis, J., Devereux, P., Pettitt, B. and Marinova, D. (2006). Embracing the "swamp": A reflective pedagogical approach for interdisciplinary practitioners. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/davis.html
Copyright 2006 John Davis, Peter Devereux, Brad Pettitt and Dora Marinova. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.