Monday, 12 December 2011

Transformation (the unspoken Learning Outcome)

In response to the previous post on the subject of Threshold Concepts in fine art, AF made a comment questioning whether the “need for students to put the expectations of friends and family behind them” could be considered as a “maturation process” - as Lesley and I described it. This is an important question that deserves a more thorough reply than would ordinarily be available via the comments box.

“There are a series of transitions that art and design students must negotiate as they move between the compulsory and post compulsory education sector and between higher education and employment within the creative industries sector. These transitions are key points where gaps in expectations become evident and where we as educators need to undertake further work to support our students as they enter and exit further and higher education.” Vaughan et al: Mind the gap : expectations, ambiguity and pedagogy within art and design higher education” (2008) [my emphasis]

Whilst Vaughan et al.’s paper makes no direct reference to Threshold Concepts, there are several parallels that can be drawn, especially where shifts in ontological status are involved. In order to explore these implications it might be useful to look a little closer at both the real and perceived sources of expectation that play a role for students as they move through higher education.

This diagram outlines some of the major overlapping expectations that have a bearing both on the perceptions and aspirations of students. Every journey through education is obviously unique, and the influences and demands upon each student shift and change in relation to a multitude of complex factors. Some students begin higher education with far greater support from friends and family than others and therefore they find it much easier to settle-in than students who’s friends and family ignore or, worse still, resist their decision to pursue further study. For this reason there is often a vast disparity in terms of the background support (both financial and psychological) provided to students as they enter and continue through education. Many students from poorer backgrounds (and increasing numbers of students in general) often have to work to be able to afford their education, thereby creating further demands on their time that remove them from their studies. Local students often continue to live with their parents and whilst such preexistent social networks may provide a familiarity, immediacy and perspective that non-local students lack, it is equally likely that the consequent social demands distract from a more sustained focus on the subject of study. Responsibilities of work and family also make it much more difficult to commit to the social life that their peers take for granted that is often so vital to cultivating and reinforcing the social bonds that comprise any particular cohort of students.

These are just a few of the complex expectations and responsibilities that face students especially within their first few months of higher education. Very similar stresses and conflicting expectations also confront graduates when they leave education where they must negotiate their position within the world of work.

Presumably there are no Assessment Criteria or Learning Outcomes in any university that explicitly state that students should be prepared to reconstruct their social circle. But, as can be seen over and over again, students who struggle to fit-in socially, or to develop their own social circle, rarely make it to the end of a course without difficulty.

Universities are frequently perceived by prospective students as opportunities for self improvement and transformative experience. But it is not always the case that the transformations effected by education are universally welcome. The question then, is whether it is possible to achieve anything of significance in education without such transformation. If it is, then the institution presumably has a duty to support students to be able to achieve as much as possible without expecting transformation. If it isn’t, and transformation is indeed a necessary part of higher education, then universities should acknowledge this and make the expectation explicit whilst simultaneously ensuring that the process is made as painless and inclusive of each student’s existing social and professional commitments as possible.


Anonymous said...

I like to think that transformation is possible without having to develop such a selfish attitude!Art education shouldn't only be a playground for wealthy people who are willing to turn their backs on family or community responsibilities.If part of the 'maturation process'expected in of the 'art world' depends on a social life that belongs to people of a certain class and culture(usually involving alcohol and drugs)this would lead to even more people being excluded.

I hope this doesn't become consensus.Art educators themselves are products of this kind of individualism and need to put their own interests to one side and do their bit to remove obstacles to transformation and support students from different backgrounds in completing this journey.


J. Hamlyn said...

Does the artworld have expectations or do we form expectations of IT I wonder? The artworld is comprised of numerous communities, some are very exclusive, some are much less so, some are well established, some form quickly and endure and some form slowly and quickly wither. I don’t think exclusivity will ever be a consensus in such circumstances but yes it can feel exclusive especially to lone individuals without a sense of where to begin ‘fitting in’, I guess that’s very much my point and very much the reason why people go to university: in order to be initiated into the extended community.

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