A Constraining Idea of the University

I started to write a social media post about this but realised I couldn’t fit in what I needed to say in that format, even with Twitter’s 280 characters.

The Times Higher Education allows partner emails and a few days ago I got one about The University of Sydney’s new campaign on ‘unlearning’. Nice word, I use that a lot in the context of we need to unlearn our assumptions about the past to be able to engage with the future with an open mind.

So, I click on the links to see what it’s all about. I found some interesting stuff (technical term) but then I read  this “We’ve reimagined the Undergraduate Experience – the way we teach and the way you’ll learn…”. Finally my brain’s red flag system kicked in, but it took me a few minutes to work it out (it’s Sunday morning here).

I go back to the email and find this quote:

At the University of Sydney, we are doing just that – changing the way we teach and how our students learn to provide them with the skills, capabilities and resilience to thrive in a rapidly evolving world. 

It’s the stance – ‘we teach’ and ‘you learn’ – that raised the red flag. The way it’s been for centuries. The University of Sydney has made an admirable effort to change the way it does teaching to maintain social relevance and competitiveness, but it hasn’t changed its idea of teaching. Over time, we have separated the two, so that what a university does can change radically, but the underpinning assumptions about what a university is remain strong. Perhaps challenged, adapted or reframed, but some of those assumptions are so deeply embedded we don’t even recognise we hold them.

One of those is in this new University of Sydney campaign. We teach. You learn.

1024px-Laurentius_de_Voltolina_001
Source: Laurentius de Voltolina – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH

I heard this same assumption articulated at the OECD Higher Education Futures Conference a few years ago. A brief conversation about letting students into the curriculum development process was underway, including the idea that we should let students chose their own curriculum. A voice from the audience said something like: … ‘but how will students know what they need to know if we don’t tell them.’

We teach, you learn.

It’s a constraining idea, closing our minds to the multiple possible futures that the university has as a social institution. It holds an image of the future where the academic continues as expert and student as novice. Expert and novice may not be words used but the positioning is there. Not partners in learning, not collaborators, not in this together. The sage may no longer be on stage and instead in an immersive environment, but the ‘we teach, you learn’ stance remains.

To be fair, I didn’t read every word written about this shift, and the University of Sydney’s language is more inclusive is other places, for example:  Imagine what could be possible if we all learn to unlearn. But their focus is on where to learn and there’s still a teacher and a learner. They have changed how they do education, not education itself.

It may only be language, but language matters. It’s why my hackles rise when I hear the words ‘prediction’ or ‘futurism’. When we explore the future – something that does not yet exist – precise language matters if we are to be able to let go of the past to let the future emerge.

brick wall 1#

The future university does not yet exist but we have its beginnings here in the present. It is what we think and do today that is shaping it. Part of this is the language we use. If we continue to think that ‘we teach and you learn’ is right, acceptable and normal enough to keep framing learning initiatives in the present, then we close down possible futures for the university. We hit assumptions walls that make those possible futures impossible to imagine into existence.

Brick Wall

Breaking through assumptions walls is essential. New images are needed, new metaphors about what the the future university is, not only what it does, that allows us to stop reusing what worked in the past and let the future university emerge, whatever that might be. ‘Unlearning’ is indeed a newish image (the term has been around for a while), so maybe ‘unlearning together’ would work for example? That would start to shift the ‘we teach and you learn’ assumption as least in language, and it’s a way of opening up some minds just a little to the more enabling ideas of the future university that will surface if we let them.

2 thoughts on “A Constraining Idea of the University

Add yours

  1. Very nicely put. I like to think I try a little to get away from the “We teAch, you learn” stance.
    I teach Spanish. I ditched using text books which tell students what they need to learn first in Spanish.
    I stopped using the verb “ teach” to describe what I do , instead I insist on “help”.
    I need to study your article more thoroughly! Thank you. Regards. Marie

  2. Thanks Marie – I think there are many individuals, like you, who are working and thinking in new ways. It seems though that we don’t have a critical mass of individuals who think the same way, so organisations continue to ‘do’ in the same way they have done for years. One day perhaps?

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