What counts as good teaching? Looking back and looking forward

2017 was a terrific year for learning more about collaboration in the classroom, and for understanding how good teachers start their first class on their first day, thanks to the generosity of 17 of Brisbane Grammar School’s best teachers. So as a reflection on the year, I have put a few of the recent papers I have sole-authored or written with my partner Peter Taylor. The first of the 4 papers deals with what is coming at us ‘over the horizon’. We can’t make a case for or against certain pedagogical moves without it. When I was asked by the Australian Catholic University to speak briefly to its graduates and their families on their graduation night, this is  what I said about ‘context’ and capability.

I recently asked a group of young people this question: ‘If you had a chance to look at your Facebook page in twenty years’ time, would you do it?’ Most thought they would, although a few changed their minds when I suggested they just might find an ‘R.I.P’ there instead of a mature, adult person. Of course, the future is not over the horizon waiting for us – it is something that we create – not a place to which we are inevitably going.

As a ‘creation’, the future is both exciting and demanding. It is exciting because so much is now possible beyond the bounds of time and place that kept our ancestors pretty much living and dying within a 10 kilometre radius of where they were born, doing for a living what their parents did, living small-scale lives in small, stable communities.  It is demanding because we are all now creating a living, learning and earning self in a VUCA world – a volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous global order of things. It is a world of opportunities that come wrapped in barbed wire.

So what does it mean to be prepared to live, learn and earn well in such a world?  Are you, as a graduate, in good shape?

Until recently we used to say that the ideal shape for a graduate was a T shape – broad skills on top with one deep skill or discipline below. Now very recent research[1] suggests that the most relevant shape for a VUCA world is a KEY shape – still broad skills on top but with a number of areas of expertise and interest below – deep, some, very deep, a bit of dabbling – this is the profile of individuals who are successfully creating their own jobs. They do so by building and maintaining close links to a variety of robust learning networks.

Why will you need to build and maintain robust learning networks?

Tyler Cowen, in his recent book ‘Average is over’[2], argues that the increasing productivity of smart machines is splitting modern economies into both very stagnant sectors, and very dynamic sectors. Individuals, like sectors of the economy, “will either rise to the top in terms of quality or make do with unimpressive results” (p.4). This cleaving of economic domains, and the identities and incomes that are produced within them, he says, will make for a “hyper-meritocracy” (p.xi) of two distinct social classes. The ‘winners’ will be the small number of highly self-motivated individuals who are willing and able to add value to a highly computerised and automated world of economic productivity. The ‘others’ will include those with ‘average’ performance and aspirations who will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their social position. They are more likely to be ‘slip slidin’ away’, to use Paul Simon’s familiar phrase, to join the growing ranks of the underemployed and unemployed. Put simply, automation “is a wave that will lift you or that will dump you” (p.6).

While we don’t have to buy Cowan’s thesis as a done deal, it is worth considering what “willing and able to add value to smart machines” might mean? In employability terms, it infers a skill-set that goes well beyond the literacies and numeracies developed through mainstream education. Social analyst James Bessen argues that “workers who have mastered those skills are mostly self-taught”, but “only a minority of workers have the talents required to learn in this fashion”,[3] that is, to function at the high level of cognitive curiosity and self-direction necessary to be ‘future-capable’.

It is too easy to limit our thinking about ‘value-adding’ to technical and/or site-specific skillsets. For me, one of the key ways university graduates can ‘add value’ to a VUCA world – in other words, one of necessary elements in the key graduate profile – is a capacity for moral and ethical deliberation of the sort that ‘higher’ learning makes possible, at institutions like the ACU. Higher learning (not necessarily synonymous with higher education), is now, according to British political scientist David Runciman, the fundamental divide of democracy.[4] Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US Presidential election is a symptom of the widening fault-line that education is producing. It is a gulf of (mis)understanding that is more significant in its implications than either race or class divides.  Many of us who are tertiary educated increasingly look to the shared values of global cosmopolitanism, eg, concerns for environmental sustainability, plurality of opinion and lifestyle –  for our cultural ‘life-scripts’. Others are increasingly suspicious of expert communities as self-serving elites: they are angry and fearful that universities are a troublesome source of liberal indoctrination.[5]  (Some of these are ex-graduates, so the distinction between higher education and higher learning is an important one!)

The resultant ‘us’ versus ‘them’ cultural divide is exacerbated by a social media that ensures people with these two different sets of world-views rarely if ever talk or meet. It is only when whole communities have to act together (for example, to vote), that each side of the divide is confronted by a worldview that is both alien and disturbing.

There is much work to do to span that divide – it is ethical work, it is complex and demanding work: it is the work of the ‘non-stupid’ optimist engaging across the social and cultural trenches. My wish for you, as you continue to build your key-shaped learning profile, is that among the many capabilities you share with your social network, there will be a strong sense of moral purpose. For it is moral purpose that is the most urgent ‘value-adding’ imperative in our VUCA times.

[1] See Bridgstock, R. (2016). The university and the knowledge network: A new educational model for 21st century learning and employability. In M. Tomlinson (Ed.), Graduate Employability in Context: Research, Theory and Debate. London: Palgrave-MacMillan.

[2] Cowen, T. (2013) Average is Over: Powering America beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. Dutton Adult.

[3] Bessen, J. No, technology isn’t going to destroy the middle class http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2013/10/21/no-technology-isnt-going-to-destroy-the-middle-class/, accessed 17 May, 2015

[4] Runciman, D. (2016) How democracy ends, Late Night Live with Phillip Adams on ABC Radio National, Thursday 1st Dec.www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/how-democracyends/8083118, accessed 2 Dec, 2016

[5] Runciman, D. (2016) How the education gap is tearing politics aparthttps://www.theguardian.com, 5 Oct, 2016, accessed 2 Dec, 2016.


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