Rob Watts - report on curriculum improvement


Rob Watts

Over the last two decades Australia has established a mass university system. Yet we have not had a robust debate about higher education in an era of mass universities. Equally too many of the teaching staff, to say nothing of the new caste of senior managers have failed to acknowledge this let alone rise to the challenge of this fact. In this report we argue that it is both possible and desirable to transform our universities into genuinely valuable public institutions engaging in mass higher education. We have written this report to develop the case for reconstructing teaching and learning in the age of the mass university.

In this report we describe a groundbreaking attempt to develop a framework of good learning and teaching practice in a school of social science at RMIT University.  This project acknowledges the practical challenge of engaging with unprecedented numbers of students in ways that equips them to do all the things long understood to constitute the ‘higher education’. This we frame as the ability to think well, read critically, write and speak effectively, inquire rationally and be gainfully employed in a range of professional practices.

In this report we discuss/describe:
(i) The context of a new mass university system;
(ii) The problems that confront us;
(iii) The ethical commitment to higher education in a mass university system
(iv) The idea and principles that mark out good learning and teaching understood here as a commitment to promote ‘deep learning’ within a framework of a learning-centered pedagogy
(v) The evolution of the curriculum project
(vi) An evaluation of successes and failures


Perhaps the defining feature of the history of Australia’s universities since 1945 has been the transformation of what once were institutions offering an education to a minority of the population -mostly elite males- into mass education institutions offering an unprecedented variety and diversity of undergraduate and postgraduate education.

The evidence for this first point is clear-cut. What once were small scale institutions offering an education to a minority of the population -mostly elite and middle class males- have become mass tertiary education institutions offering an unprecedented variety and diversity of undergraduate and postgraduate education. In  1946 there were just over 17,000 university students representing 2.3 per cent of the age group 17-22. By 1966 the number of universities had doubled and the student population had increased by 500% to 91,000 representing 7.8 per cent of the 17-22 cohort (Little 1970:3).  The next three decades saw no less significant increases. Between 1975 and 1996, the number of Australians in higher education rose from 273,137 (1975) to 631,025 (1996).  This increase meant that in terms of the participation rate in higher education, Australia which in 1975 was in the lowest quarter of OECD states had by 1995 moved into the top quarter of OECD states (See Marginson 1997: 186-7).  In 2006 there were over 900,000 university students.  NB: It is important to note that a significant number of overseas full-fee paying students are part of this cohort.  This reflects the fact that policy-makers and senior managers have driven this exercise as a solution to the cash crisis affecting all universities: the failure to address the educational issues attending the intake of these students, many without substantial English literacy capacity is one of the more squalid aspects of the modern university system.  Even allowing for the increased proportion of overseas students this shift to a mass tertiary education system is undoubtedly a central feature of the transformation of Australia’s universities.


There are many serious problems in Australian higher education that  arguably have not received the kind of practical attention they deserve.

One basic problem is that we have not sufficiently moved beyond the assumptions and practices that were grounded in the old elite university culture.

The result is that too many of our universities are mostly and actually wastelands blighted firstly by an overly teacher-centric view of education and knowledge. One consequence of this is that we still struggle to escape from an excessive regard for the transmission model of education, complete with examinations, short-answer tests and petty authoritarianism and to put it bluntly, by lots of bad teaching by teacher centric teachers. Our own university provides us with plenty of evidence. To speak plainly RMIT is a place where these problems are currently unavoidable. As the Good Universities Guide 2005 reminds us RMIT is just about at the bottom of the Australian university league ladder in terms of Course Evaluation Questionnaire (CEQ) data reporting on graduate evaluations/perceptions of the quality of their programs.

We do not doubt that one explanation for this, and a problem that is getting progressively worse, is the fact that universities like RMIT are reliant on an aging academic workforce whose practices and skill base have their origins in a period when Australian universities were smaller, more elite and less diverse institutions. It does not help that the bulk of academic staff are essentially untrained as teachers.  Many of these staff can only draw on their experiences as students of universities in the 1960s and 1970s, or on skills picked up on the run after they began teaching, to inform their practice as university teachers in a new context. It is no longer acceptable that this should continue to be the case.

This problem entails or sustains a second set of problems, namely  the gross inadequacy of the current induction of university students into the basic intellectual capabilities  which those who teach the social sciences or humanities rightly claim they want to promote on the part of their students -like careful and critical reading, rational and analytic thinking, effective and clear writing and speaking, and the ability to engage in a variety of modes of inquiry.

Too many university teachers fail to engage in a solid and persistent exercise in showing new students what these activities look like and how they too may engage in them, practice them and be skilful. We should make no complacent assumptions about the capacity of most students to read, to think, to engage in critical analysis or to begin to carry out research. There is nothing unusual or novel here.  Too many academics continue to assume against all of the evidence, that our secondary education system has already equipped our students with these abilities.

We have long had a university system that as Gerald Graff (2003) has argued has produced ‘clueless students’.  Pierre Bourdieu  (1994: 6-7) has said it all:
Defined by their lesser knowledge, students can do nothing which does not confirm the most pessimistic image that the professor, in his most professional character is willing to confess to: they understand nothing, ands they reduce the most brilliant theories to logical monstrosities or picturesque oddities as if their only role in life was to illustrate the vanity of the efforts which the professor squanders on them and which he will continue to squander despite everything out of professionals conscience  with a disabused lucidity which only redoubles his merit.  By definition the professor teaches as he ought to teach, and the meager results with which he is rewarded can only reinforce his certainty that the great majority of his students are unworthy of the efforts he bestows upon them.  Indeed the professor is as resigned to his students and their ‘natural’ incapacities as the ‘good colonist’ is to the ‘natives’, for he has no higher expectations  than they just be the way they are …

Another problem is the long-standing refusal of reflexivity by too many university teachers.  Pierre Bourdieu (1996: 6; 11) has well described the normal, if lamentable state of affairs in too many universities -both in France and here in Australia:
The whole system of education as a particular historical structure finds expression in the communication which takes place between teachers and students. Misunderstanding and the fiction that there is no misunderstanding, are inseparable phenomena.
He adds ironically that:
When we try to make teaching more effective by clarifying its goals and the conditions needed to improve its efficiency, we clash with the pedagogical philosophy of academics whose disdain for the elementary nature of reflexive pedagogy reflects the superior level of the education system which they occupy.

Like Gerald Graff (2003), Bourdieu points to the effect of that fear that Graff says too many academics walk about with, namely that sometime soon there will be an ‘outbreak of clarity’. Far better if students are kept in a perpetual ‘semantic fog’ which confirms their sense that they are naturally incompetent and their teachers’ belief that they are infinitely superior beings.

Finally there are the many problems to do with the need to work with the larger numbers of students that have flowed in to universities over the last decade in a national policy setting which has steadily reduced the funding level per EFTSU.

This leads too many academics to privilege the lecture model as if somehow by doing more lectures they can continue to believe they are in a real university. The economically driven need to fall back on large lecture classes exposes cruelly the inadequacy of a traditional and crass pedagogy of knowledge transmission. (It also exposes the lack of theatre and public speaking skills on the part of too many relatively introverted academics).

Large classes have also meant increasing reliance on grossly untrained and unqualified sessional or casual ‘teachers’ who work alongside full-time but untrained and unqualified academic teachers. (At RMIT to staff the small seminar classes (sometimes there are as many as 24-26 workshops we rely on a large number of young and/or ‘new’ sessional teaching staff –who are mostly post-graduate students to teach two-hour classes). The practice of staffing courses with sessional staff raises major issues here of teaching quality.

In such a setting  we cannot afford to be complacent.

Currently there is much about the current pedagogical culture that will obstruct our capacity to make universal higher education even remotely possible.

It has to be said that even at the start of the twenty first century there is far too much teaching and too little learning in our universities. (To avoid any accusation of over-generalising we are  of course only speaking of social science teaching).  There is an over-preoccupation with knowledge or content.  Too many academics continue to think that curriculum design is the arrangement typically in week-long bites of the knowledge they want somehow to transmit to students.

The preoccupation with ‘teaching’ (ie., as transmission of knowledge) sits alongside certain other aspects of university teaching. Currently there are no formal requirements on the part of university teachers that they actually be trained or be required to be trained as teachers. Most do not have any kind of teacher training, though many universities are now trying to make this a precondition of recruitment.  Most do not seek or get in-house training or go to skill enhancing workshops. I am told that many in-house  units set up to assist teachers with their professional development continue to languish in those universities that have not already got rid of them.   Most academics I know continue to resist a self-description as ‘teacher’ and prefer to call themselves whatever their profession or discipline is like  ‘sociologist’, ‘social worker’, psychologist, etc). Most have little if any experience or training in good curriculum design and endlessly confuse the knowledge content they want to transmit or teach with a curriculum.

It is not surprising that much curriculum design is appalling with no understanding of what it means to work out learning objectives learning activities, or assessment activities that actually align. This is not to deny the impact of some of the jargon that came out of the attempts in the 1990s to establish professional staff development  units. It is not surprising to find that though they will talk about ‘encouraging deep understanding’ many still eg., rely on two or three hour examinations.

Most contemporary academic staff have little familiarity with student-centred learning modes, theories or practices. Instead they rely on lectures and tutorials which work as mini-lectures. The advent of the ‘Powerpoint’ has sanctioned the appearance of technological gloss in the large lecture classes with horrendous results, as the teacher drones on reading, no longer from the proverbial yellowed pages of some ancient lecture notes, but from a smart looking set of overhead slides with many dot points to a stupefied audience. Don Watson (2003) has said all that needs to be said about the nullifying effects of the Powerpoint.   Too often academics continue to confuse the capacity to analyze arguments or to construct good arguments with the arcaneries of referencing.  This confusion has been if anything exaggerated by the recent ‘discovery’ that large numbers of students appear to be engaging in systematic plagiarism, a tendency apparently pronounced among the increasing numbers of full fee paying international students.    Others will stress the need for correct spelling at the expense of addressing the quality of reading, writing or critical thinking.

Given all this, it is not surprising that large numbers of students do the only thing they can: they stop coming to boring or unintelligible lectures or tutorials that conspicuously lack planning or purpose. The problem of ‘student engagement’ with campus-based academic culture has become a major problem since Craig McInnis (2000) began drawing attention to it in the late 1990s. Student evaluations such as those carried out in my school routinely reports that much of the teaching that goes on is sub-standard. (There is a huge defensiveness about the use of student evaluations and by and large they have failed to dislodge much of the truly bad teaching practices.)  This is especially though not exclusively associated with the increasing reliance on large numbers of sessional teachers still referred to as  ‘tutors’, many of them post graduate students. Such staff get perfunctory induction or training if at all and are paid an hourly rate on an effective hourly rate equivalent to the rate of pay for junior workers working in a fast food outlet.


There is much to say about the positive value of moving to a mass higher education system and what the practical principles of such a system higher education should look like.  Against conservative defenders of elite universities like Leys, Coady and Gaita, we begin with the elaboration of a ‘liberal arts’ tradition by foundational figures in western philosophy like Socrates (ca. 469-399 BCE) and Seneca (4BCE-65CE), as indicating why higher education has to be open to all citizens. This helps to define a central practical ie., ethical challenge.

We believe that modern university teachers ought  to give effect to one basic proposition about the universal character of higher education, drawing eg., as Martha Nussbaum does, on Socrates’ and Seneca’s account of the value of a  liberal education.

The consequent principle is simply stated: higher education is for everyone.  The practical challenge is how to make any university into a viable place for higher education.

Those contemporary conservatives (like Gaita, Coady and Leys) who defend an elitist conception of higher education have forgotten or misread the Socratic ethos: this is an odd, even surprising misprision given the intellectual base claimed by these philosophers!). Both Socrates and the Stoics understood that so vital is the need to cultivate humanity that this sort of education has to be available to everybody.  This kind of higher education is an essential part of every human being’s self-realization.   It means too that no-one should expect to be exempted from the pursuit of critical inquiry. Such an inquiry begins with the recognition that everyone’s humanity or what Gaita (1999) properly calls our ‘common humanity’, entails an equality of respect that in turn demands that each person be encouraged to develop their capacities by having access to higher education.

Such a conception of higher education is one marked by its commitment to a vital public culture in which people learn how to develop their capacities to think what they do, a task at once intellectual and ethical.  A human development practico-ethical framework grounded in that tradition, and represented in our time by Amartya Sen (1999; 2002) and Martha Nussbaum (1998; 2003), indicates precisely why we need higher education and why that higher education should be open to all.

Australia’s universities will continue to do what they have been doing since their inception, namely to equip people to be good doctors, teachers, social workers, accountants, engineers, nurses and even real estate salespeople. But what does being a good teacher, or a good doctor, or a good ’anything’ entail?

It certainly means being practical. To be practical means two things simultaneously. It means firstly having technical skill. We can never have enough good technique and we can never have enough people who are actually technically competent. Yet good practice involves more than a surgeon’s capacity to cut a straight line down an abdomen, or an accountant’s  capacity to add and subtract. Good practice is not just about skill or technique though it certainly includes it. Good practice is inclusively defined above all as an ethical capacity.  It means being thoughtful or reflective and having a strong ethical sense. It means being able to both do and think well. This means being a  ‘citizen of the world’.

What this also entails is that any institution like a university ought to have as one of its core objectives the securing of the conditions where by all who come to it will be further assisted to flourish. Two and a half thousand years ago, Pindar wrote movingly about what a young grape vine - and a young person - needs if it is to grow well. Pindar (cited in Nussbaum 2003: 1) says:
But human excellence grows like a vine tree, fed by the green dew, raised up among wise men and just, to the liquid sky.

Among the basic requirements needed to achieve this idea of human excellence (the Greeks called this Arete which in Latin becomes virtue), Pindar identifies a good heritage, fostering natural and social circumstances, the avoidance of catastrophe and/or good luck, and the ability to develop ‘confirming associations’ with other human beings. As Pindar insists, ‘We have all kinds of needs for those we love: most of all in hardships, but joy too, strains to track down eyes that it can trust’ (Cited  Nussbaum 2003: 1).

The idea of working to promote human excellence, to assist people to flourish has a great deal to commend it. It requires that we understand better the conditions and circumstances in which humans can both not live at all well and those in which they might flourish.

Nussbaum (2000) embellishes the powerful capability ethics of Amartya Sen (1999; 2002).  Sen’s work has strengthened certain traditional liberal ideas about freedom by both extending and grounding it. Nussbaum extends the idea of freedom by reminding us that freedom is not just about being ‘negatively free’. She (1988: 183) reminds us that:
Some policies of non-interference actually extinguish human freedom to choose what is valuable.
That is, someone can be free from external interference yet still be ‘radically unfree’ because of the absence of basic options in general (like food or water) or valuable options (like the  capacity to access higher education).

There is, says Nussbaum (1995: 81) a threshold of capability to function beneath which a life will be so impoverished that it will not be ‘human’ at all. There is another second threshold beneath which those characteristic functions and activities are available in such a reduced fashion, that though we judge the form of life a human one, we will not think it a good human life.  Nussbaum asks do we really want societies to allow their citizens only a capacity to live at the bare minimum? Was not Aristotle right when he suggested that a good political arrangement is one: In accordance with which anyone whatsoever might do well and live a flourishing life? (Nussbaum 1995: 81).

As Nussbaum argues, the move from ‘bare human life’ to ‘good human life’ involves quite complex judgments. In some cases as she notes, crossing of the thresholds needs to be addressed by being  ‘self-reliant’.  This is because the move from ‘bare’ to ‘good human life’ is supplied by the ‘citizen’s own powers of choice and self definition’. This might be the case in acquiring ‘practical reason’ via the provision of schooling.  Once social institutions permit a child to cross the first threshold its own choices will be central in raising it above the second.  Equally there may be other social circumstances like mindless or oppressive forms of work, or traditional gender relations, that requires public regulation to create the conditions for people to cross the second threshold. This will certainly be so in cases of bodily health and nutrition, even though, as she allows, there are complex issues of what the thresholds are for the good human life. She (1995: 83-6) goes on to argue for a list of some ten groups of complex human capabilities ranging from life expectancy, good health and nutrition, through the capacity to play, imagine, think critically, form good relations with others and with the natural world,  to being able to live one’s own life by being free to make choices about marriage, sexual expression or employment .

This formulation of the capabilities –as distinct from what people actually do- forces us to avoid false binaries like ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’. As Mary Midgley (2002:46-50) has forcefully reminded us  if we had no nature there would be nothing to nurture.  (Midgley also reminds us why this academic distinction is so stupid by suggesting that  if we were only the work of nurture,  pigs would fly with a few hours of nurturant pilot training).  In this regard addressing the conditions under which we can flourish begins with a robust recognition that all of us are born with diverse natural constitutions. We are all natural creatures who are constitutionally born short, fat, thin, tall, male, or female and all with different kinds of intelligences. We are not born as indeterminate creatures as if we really were the proverbial Lockean  blank sheet of paper.

Crocker (1995: 183: Sen 1989:77) also draws on Sen’s work when he argues  that:
The concept of positive freedom is important because it  marks out how a person is actually able to act, live, function or achieve Positive freedom is ‘what a person is actually able to do or to be’.
Crocker notes that positive freedom in this way  means freedom in the sense of  being able to determine or to control one’s life and so have a significant impact or effect  upon the direction of one’s own life and the circumstances under which one must live. Crocker draws on  Sen’s (Cited Crocler 1995:183) argument  that positive freedom:
… also includes the real availability of an array of options, and that freedom is increased to the extent  that the number  and goodness of these options are increased.
Crocker adds that positive freedom is enhanced when there is also an increase in the diversity or probability that options will actually be available.

This account of human capabilities forces us to ask whether interventions into others lives  -by individuals or governments- will help them to flourish or to wither.   Nussbaum insists that the capability of a person to choose depends not simply on our natural constitution like being born tall or short. It will also depend on social factors, like the kind of family one is born into, the kinds of state policy in place or what is made available by prevailing economic activities.  Finally it will also depend on whether the person has a developed power of choice. For example neither stones nor three day old babies can choose right now to do anything. Babies however, unlike stones will eventually acquire the power to make choices.

One purpose of good development says Nussbaum (Cited Crocker 1995:184) is to see that this power is ‘acquired by the young, maintained by the mature and restored - when possible - to those who lose it’. The point and task of good government especially via services like health care education and welfare systems, is to facilitate the formation of good capabilities, remove impediments to their exercise and provide the means for their use. This requires that all policies need to face in two directions simultaneously. They need to do this so as to ensure that more people are given the actual power to make choice, and secondly to ensure that there are real options made available so that they have that power and actually have real choices to make.

To enter into higher education is to begin to encounter the capacity of good thinking -or ‘reason’- to reconstruct not just the way we think or what we think but our very personality.  To engage in good thinking as Nussbaum (1999) argues, has the capacity to shape our ethical and emotional motivations as well as our logical capacities and what we know. As Seneca (1999) indicated in his famous letter on ‘liberal education’ (studia liberalia), the point of a free education is to enable people to take charge of their own thought and to conduct a critical examination of the norms and traditions at play in their own communities.  The task of such an education is to assist people to become responsible for themselves, to become people whose reasoning and emotions are under their own control.

This means developing on the part of students the requirement that we do not accept any belief as authoritative simply because it has been handed down by tradition or habit, or because it is currently fashionable.  We will be able to question all beliefs and accept only those that meet the criteria of rationality, consistency and justification.  This means being able to reason logically, to test what one reads or hears for consistency, correctness of fact and accuracy of judgment.

In such a mission there is no defence to be made of the idea that higher education is only about theoretical speculation by a privileged elite few.  This is a conception of mass democratic educational mission. It may well be objected that not everyone is constituted to take advantage of such an education or to be suited to such an education.  Such an objection may well rest on totally ill-thought out prejudices. It may also rely on unreflexive and grossly inadequate teaching practices.

Martha Nussbaum (1995: 97) eg., indicates what this entails when she argues that promoting universal access to higher education is at once an egalitarian value and a normative objective to be pursued. This means among many things that women as much as men should receive a higher education. This conclusion:
… rests on the  tacit premise that the presence in a creature of a basic untrained lower level capability to perform the functions in question, given suitable support and education exerts a claim on society that these capabilities should be  developed to the point at which the person is fully capable of choosing the functions in question.

If this suggests in somewhat abstracted fashion why we need higher education so as to secure the conditions of human flourishing we need to say more about what this actually commits us to doing. I think it commits us to teaching so as to ensure that students can  engage in good practice in all of the occupations for which universities now play an educational role, and so as ‘citizens of the world’.

Central to all of these ideas and practices is the idea that to acquire the capacity for deep thought and deep rationality is a core achievement that universities are well placed to promote. Alasdair MacIntyre (1990: 222) puts this proposition well:
When it is demanded of a university community that it justify itself by specifying what its peculiar and essential function is, that function which if it were not to exist, no other institution could discharge, the response of that community ought to be that universities are places where conceptions of, and standards of rational justification are elaborated, put to work in the detailed practices of enquiry, and themselves rationally evaluated, so that only from a university can the wider society  learn how to conduct its own debates, theoretical or practical in a rationally defensible way.

This we propose is the ethical basis for a vigorous promotion of the idea that higher education ought to be available to all.

We will come to a university and leave it well equipped when we become at once a good teacher, social worker, a nurse, or … and in Arendt’s terms, a ‘citizen of the world’ able and willing to engage in these kinds of debates.

Universities need to be able to equip people to lead the examined life. By this means we become a ‘world citizen’ by engaging in critical self-examination of oneself and of one’s own traditions.  A properly constituted university education will work towards developing the capacity to lead what Socrates called  ‘the examined life’ by developing the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions. This is another way of saying what Arendt (1959:13) meant when she said, ‘ the hardest thing we will ever do is to think what we do’.

If we take seriously this idea that higher education ought to be open to everyone then there is a challenge to some long-standing and no longer defensible ideas and practices.   What we need are practical steps to embrace the challenge of making higher education a reality.  Taking several core propositions seriously might begin to reinvigorate a contemporary practice of higher education.  University education must be suited to the student’s particular circumstances. Higher education should be pluralistic and concerned to elucidate different values and traditions. University education does not privilege books. Good teachers teach actively. They teach reading, writing and  thinking.

One initial and challenging idea is that a universal higher education system must take into account the need on the part of teachers to teach to student’s particular circumstances.  This proposition of taken seriously will help to prevent the premature judgement that ‘our’ students aren’t up to it. That is, good teaching starts by acknowledging what each student is actually able to do and what each person brings with them to the teaching and learning situation.  Good teachers need to be concerned with the current state of the student’s knowledge and beliefs, with the obstacles between that student and the attainment of self-scrutiny and intellectual freedom.

Adopting this a principal point of departure will also help to ensure that our curriculum is actually diverse. While there may a broad single objective to encourage each student to lead an ‘examined life’, this idea implies not a single set curriculum but a diverse, pluralistic and interesting curriculum that attempts to take into account the diversity of backgrounds and capacities among our students.   This is not a ‘one cap fits all heads’ model or approach to education or to curriculum design.


In this section of the report we spell out our understanding of what the ethical framework developed in the preceding section requires by way of good learning and teaching practice.

Well-equipped and effective university teachers are in essence highly skilled and deeply knowledgeable teachers who worry less about teaching and more about how to engage their students in deep learning. We need to move past the teacher-centered model of teaching towards an idea that teaching is only worth engaging in when there is active learning. Today’s effective university teachers have moved on from the older and still highly authoritative academic identity and status claims made by teacher centered teachers.

The teacher-centered model of teaching is easily identified. There is a persistent preoccupation with what the teacher knows.  This is because this approach privileges a knowledge-transmission model: i.e., teaching is the transmission of knowledge and it is what ‘they’ do: if ‘we’ tell them ‘stuff’  they have been ‘taught’.  It entails a preoccupation with displays of the teacher’s knowledge and how to display that knowledge. This is one -but only one reason- for the persistence of the lecture model whether in formal lectures or in smaller classes. This is also why traditional teachers rely on a narrow band of assessment activities designed to get the student to show what they know based on a regurgitation of facts, theorems and ‘knowledge stuff’ that the ‘lecture’ has presented. There is a marked narrative of disappointed expectation that draws on the myth of ‘the good old days’: once upon a time (typically when ‘we’ were students that students were well-prepared and highly motivated.  This segues quickly into a narrative of blame. There is a marked readiness to blame today’s students and the school system for the poor average quality of their students. Student’s deficiencies are endlessly pointed to: ‘they’ are lazy, under-motivated, lack the basic skills needed for success in that they don’t read well or don’t write well, are always likely to cheat or plagiarise. The secondary schooling system is also ripe for criticism.

It is time to move on. We need to challenge quite sharply the familiar if tiresome allegation/anxiety frequently made/expressed by teacher-centred teachers that a learning-centered pedagogy is an excuse to ‘dumb down’ the curriculum or a ploy to let teachers ‘off the hook’ in terms of what they need to know.

Good teachers know a lot at a deep level about their disciplines. They understand the deep principles and debates in their disciplines and both know the history of their discipline and often read outside their disciplines.

They know how to simplify and clarify complex matters and always aim at clarity. Recall Gerald Graaf’s savage observation that  ‘too many academics walk around in fear that one day there will be an outbreak of clarity’.

Effective teachers are active and enthusiastic about their own inquiry, research and writing, and this means they have worked out how inquiry and learning are coterminous activities with a stress on activity.

NB: Too much ‘academic’ teaching involves, even expects a substantial passivity for students. Knowledge is best got as a result of activities other than being ‘downloaded into’ hence the stimulus of questions to turn people on to inquiry as the normal activity.

Effective teachers because they engage in the activity of inquiry regularly and normally know how to learn by inquiry and they understand that deep learning is about permanent changes in our ability to think, feel and act.

Deep Learning

Effective teachers also know that changing the basic themata/basic conceptual maps is a VERY slow process and will be resisted.  This is why good teachers do not expect quick progress in terms of new ‘skills’ which require deep understanding and/or change of basic mind maps.

this point is well illustrated in the research of Halloun and Hestdene (1985) on ‘thin learning’: their work involved a detailed study of one cohort of physics students . As they discovered these students entered a first year physics course with a mix of Aristotelian and 14th century ideas about motion ie., pre-Newtonian let alone pre quantum physics.  Their research question was simple: Did a first year physics course change the commonsense ideas students brought with them about motion? Their answer was perhaps surprising: no it did not.

They found that after systematic and conventional exposure to four conventionally defined ‘good’ physics teachers and in spite of successful memorization of formulae, and operational manipulation of theorems and models, and after successfully passing the course involving use of examinations and a normal distribution of grades to confirm ‘quality’ and ‘rigor’, most students continued to hold to their pre-Newtonian ideas!!
Halloun and Hestdene interviewed students at end of subject to assess what they believed.  They got them to carry out experiments which disconfirmed their intuitive common sense. They found that:
As a rule students held firm to their mistaken beliefs even when confronted with phenomena that contradicted those  beliefs.
Even those with high grades performed all sorts of mental gymnastics to avoid confronting and revising the fundamental principles and understandings they had brought with them.

Deep learning involves a substantial challenge to both conventional teachers and many students both groups are used to playing the game, and seeking to not engage in deep learning. Bourdieu has made this point with his scathing assessment of the games of complicity played by academics and students in his account of the way academic discourse is practised.

They understand that they must first want to engage their students in deep learning. They understand how profoundly difficult it is to achieve deep learning which involves a project of mutual inquiry (ie by both teachers and students) into fundamental beliefs, feelings and moral frameworks.  These frameworks frequently involve our sense of identity, ie. the who we are and the sense we have of our place in the way things are.  Most of us are likely to not want to expose these matters to public inquiry or challenge.  Here allegations of political  correctness made by neo-conservatives has some salience. In the social sciences for example  ‘progressive teachers’ for example are delighted to find students who agree with them and are downcast or exasperated by evidence that many of their students are willfully conservative  and don’t like feminism or their ideas of social justice.  This response is unhelpful.  If a teacher is convinced that their perspective (involving a particular view of the world, and relevant moral and cognitive  abilities ) is a better one then they have to pay attention to engaging in a respectful kind of deep learning to persuade students. This will require them to think about how this might be done in ways that are respectful of difference.

This raises difficult questions of ethical practice for all teachers – and people involved in changing other peoples minds. These ethical issues go to the ethics of how well we encounter discover and value others.  We can, eg., says Todorov, ‘discover the other in ourselves, realize we are not a homogenous substance, radically alien to whatever is not us.’ But as he also says:
… ‘others’ are also  ‘I’s’, subjects just as I am, whom only my point of view –according to which all of them are out there and I am alone in here  separates and authentically distinguishes from myself.

Todorov means to spell out the dynamic at the heart of the socio-psychological dynamics of racism. Racism is a disposition which begins with the denial of:
… the existence of a human substance truly other, something incapable of  being not merely an imperfect state of oneself. These two elementary figures of the experience of alterity [or otherness] are both grounded in egocentrism, in the identification of our own values with values in general, or our I with the universe-in the conviction that the world is one (Todorov 1999: 42-3)
Granted the frequent way teachers draw on pastoral language and practices we surely need to  interrogate the values that lie at the heart of teaching as a pastoral practice:
Can we really love somebody if we know little or nothing of his identity; if we see in place of that identity a projection of ourselves or of our ideals? We know that such a thing is possible, even frequent in personal relations; but what happens in cultural confrontations? Doesn’t one culture risk trying to transform the other in its own name, and therefore risk subjugating it as well? How much is such love worth

The second deep insight about deep learning is the value of  giving students lots of time to practise, experiment and get and use feedback.  Broadly the control of the curriculum to date has seen breakneck galloping through a predetermined syllabus defined in units of time (weeks ) and ‘bits of knowledge (topics)  and then being perplexed about how little our students get of what we have said.

They understand the value of caring about what we do –and showing that we care in our own ways- if we are to do anything well, and so provide motivations for students to learn.  Good teachers use  transference, avoid the excessive use of grades as rewards, look for internal rewards, start subjects with promises of challenge and engagement with the world rather than with course requirements and grades, keep the questions that matter up front and narrate the rationale for the subject often   They also understand that people learn in different ways and for different reasons and are therefore flexible and ready to change syllabuses or experiment with the way they teach.  They also expect more of students by way of challenge and authenticity.  Finally t=he best teachers understand that good teaching is not a matter of personality style like being extroverted or theatrical: all sorts of people with all sorts of personality types can be good teachers.


Since 1997-8 the former School of Social Science and Planning (now called the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning) has developed  a number of elements of what we call here a curriculum improvement project. These aspects include

the restructure of eight  bachelor of Social Science degrees around a common course architecture with a strong focus on designating core subjects in the social sciences. The Degrees include degrees in social science, social work, youth work, environmental studies, psychology, legal and dispute studies, planning, and psychology/social work. The courses involved have included at various points across the decade communication studies, sociology, politics, sustainability, world history, social psychology, history of ideas, social research, economics, Australian social policy and social aspects of technology.

This common course architecture  framework is intended to provide a strong sense of the common intellectual  basis of all of the degrees  and is specifically designed to  enable students to develop  a foundation of knowledge and skill

The common course architecture  framework was also introduced to address issues of efficiency following the discovery after a  succession of school and departmental restructure of significant duplication of ‘courses’ eg., many degree programs running their own politics or sociology courses.  Over the decade the average size of first year course enrollments has risen past the 500+ mark creating the very circumstances of mass tertiary education.

Given the commitment to deep learning that was always envisaged as our goal the project has also involved an evolving even experimental process of trying to equip and support staff to develop thoughtful and highly effective  curriculum practices.  This is now  expressed in a number of ideas and policies .  Firstly  we set out to ensure that students encounter exciting, well planned, engaging  one hour long lectures (typically repeated twice weekly to accommodate the 500+ students).

We have also tried to accommodate and engage all students in  a smaller workshop class of no more than 20 people which is taught by people able to engage the program specific ideas and points of relevance eg., for a social work student or a planning students.  The expectation is that by creating active and relevant learning spaces we will have continuing high levels of student involvement. These workshops are carefully planned and largely staffed by sessional staff.

These sessional staff have since 2006 been selected after an audition process. (This innovation followed criticism of the quality of some of the sessional teachers. They also receive some induction and training support and are paid to attend weekly curriculum planning meetings.

A lot of horizontal planning and curriculum design work is set in place among the foundation courses in the first year of the CCA project to ensure consistent approaches to specifying graduate capabilities and key learning objectives, specifying and teaching to well designed and varied learning activities which are carefully aligned to well designed assessment activities.

Finally from the inception of the Common Course Architecture project and the special demands arising out of the large class enrolments of first year CCA courses the School of Social Science and Planning  employed a number of  ‘Senior tutors’ initially on a sessional basis and essentially as a  way of giving full time course coordinators a variety of forms of  administrative support.

For a number of years this approach ‘seemed’ to worked well enough, essentially because most of the staff involved in the CCA project refused to attend to the evidence of student dissatisfaction.

By 2003-04 it was clear that additional support of another kind was needed to address two kinds of issues. Key academic leaders in the School of Global Studies, Social Sciences and Planning (GSSSP) were aware that large enrolment numbers were producing student disengagement and poor quality learning experiences. It was also acknowledged that GSSSP had a very diverse student body, including many students from non-traditional backgrounds which meant that no assumptions could be made about the capacity of all students to engage in basic academic tasks like reading, writing or related intellectual tasks. These two considerations informed the view that there needed to be a decisive shift away from the traditional instructional model and movement towards a more learning centered paradigm.

Academics working in the instructional paradigm (Barr & Tagg, 1995) have typically focussed on the use of the lecture as a mode of transmission, privileged learning as memorisation, and shaped the curriculum and assessment protocols around the needs and interests of academics. The shift to a student-centred or constructivist model of learning and teaching  promotes a context in which  the student is actively engaged in their own learning, and where the environment and activities are increasingly learner-centred and learner-controlled.  A constructivist pedagogy is  an interactive pedagogy where students are expected to take on an active role in contributing to the knowledge base and in their own learning.  According to Barr & Tagg (1995:21) students ‘must be seen as active discoverers and constructors of their own knowledge.’  They add that this ‘knowledge consists of frameworks or wholes that are created or constructed by the learner…knowledge is not seen as cumulative and linear, like bricks in a wall, but as a nesting and interacting of frameworks’. Academics teaching in the foundational studies first year subjects have understood this as requiring they understand better how students make personal meanings and engage in what Brownlee (2004) calls ‘connected teaching’ requiring that students  are exposed to styles of teaching and learning where students can incorporate both the relational (their own experience) and the impersonal (the ‘experts’) ways of knowing.

To address these issues the then T & L Coordinator (Lisa Harris) recommended with the strong support of several senior staff, that the School trial the appointment and use of three level A positions to support the development of high quality curriculum and teaching and to support the induction and training of sessional teachers.  This trial began in July 2004.

This seemed to require  careful and sensitive managing of senior staff to engage in good learning-centric curriculum practices and to develop an effective culture of practice which link up all teaching staff  and tries to ensure that lots of talking and mutual accountability is set in motion. A number of people were offered Level A  contracts and now ongoing employment to address the quality issues. This decision was a response to the question of how to enable academic staff to make this  shift.
While course coordinators frequently had expert content knowledge, the reliance on an instructional model  was being exposed by the demands of large and complex classes indicated that support was needed to develop student-centered pedagogies appropriate to the kinds of educational needs, a case especially apparent when the course coordinators did not have professional training experience as teachers;2
Secondly the sheer number of sessional teachers needed to staff the first year classes indicated an additional need for induction and concurrent support for teams of teachers many of whom had little or not training or prior experience as teachers.
the development of the Common Course Architecture model was deemed in need of modification by the development of program specific workshops which again put pressure on the staff teams to meld the curriculum of the CCA courses with the needs of some nine undergraduate degree programs. foundational studies first year subjects across some nine degree programs which have a combined annual intake of well over 500 students.  These disciplines are as diverse as social work, psychology, youth work, social science, urban design planning, legal and dispute studies and environment studies.
This is an approach that tries  gently to undo or bypass  the older teacher centric  academic model which started with the premise  that the course coordinator owned the subject, was responsible alone for all decisions, and was accountable effectively to no-one, a stance typically defended by recourse to ideas of academic expertise and/or  academic freedom.3

NB: The creation of these positions was justified in part on budget grounds by allocating 12 hours of teaching to each of the incumbents.    It was also understood that the appointment of three staff to these positions  signified the  commitment of the School to lifting the quality of teaching and learning including the quality of curriculum design, more support for sessional teachers and quality assessment practices in the six CCA courses.

6. Successes and Failures

There is general agreement on the part of Program Coordinators and Discipline Leaders that the project has worked better than may hjave been expected. Equally there are still alarming failures.

This two-year project was designed to develop learning-centred curriculum design and teaching practice in the Common Course Architecture (CCA) first year courses. For several years the School of SS&P had been developing a learning-centered  paradigm in six subjects that made up a common foundation studies program in first year as part of the School’s commitment to a Common Course Architecture (CCA) involving nine undergraduate degree programs.   The School  identified the need to rethink the kinds of curriculum and teaching practices needed for success in an era of mass education and large class sizes, while acknowledging the importance of student engagement and an holistic, student-centred approach to teaching and learning.

Preliminary evidence points to some success in shifting the academic paradigm, resulting in a positive higher education experience for students and improved learning outcomes indicated eg., by improved retention rates and enhanced academic progress (Barr, 1999).

The appointment of the three Level A staff was designed to foster high quality teaching and learning by using a dispersed academic leadership (Ramsden 1998) model. It was designed to support teams of academics (ie., course co-ordinators and sessional staff)  who taught in the foundation studies program in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning to adopt and develop a discipline-specific, constructivist teaching paradigm who can then go on to work with other academic colleagues to develop and embellish this approach on a School-wide basis.

Ramsden (1998: 4) has defined the leadership model informing this project as ‘a practical and everyday process of supporting, managing, developing and inspiring academic colleagues’. This kind of leadership is best achieved through a combination of good processes, building knowledge about what works and why, and then resourcing academic teams to achieve good teaching and learning. This project has  established a more public, accountable and reflective development process designed to inspire, support and equip academics to engage in good learning and teaching.

Rather than deploying the traditional hierarchical model of academic leadership common to many universities, the Level A project has set loose a process of change coming from the ground up by supporting, resourcing and using a number of  academics. This involves the Level A staff working strategically to sustain and resource a dispersed leadership model aligned with a critical objective namely improving the quality of teaching and learning. the development of  leadership capacity by modelling well planned and resourced reflective professional practice development processes This has involved regular staff curriculum planning meetings which can also function as staff development workshops and seminars

Program co-ordinators, course co-ordinators, academic and other key learning support staff are all involved in the teaching and learning improvement processes and all play a range of  leadership roles to  assist the change process in ways that support on-going professional development.

The level A staff have played a major role in developing a student-centred, active learning approach, based on the premise that good learning is best secured  by an aligned curriculum design and a highly structured learning environment in the form of a two-hour workshop. However as most other universities have discovered the constraints of higher education budgets has seen GSSSP rely increasingly on a small army of poorly-trained, low paid sessional academics to provide much of the small class teaching in the foundational studies year. The School’s senior staff acknowledged that this group of sessional teachers would require a set of comprehensively aligned set of skills in order to work within the constructivist learning paradigm embedded in the foundational studies first year subjects.  This redesigned learning environment required leadership in academic training which frames learning as holistic and student-centred.

The  project so far has been focussed firstly on giving students a coherent  first year experience of positive learning while  ensuring they acquire essential academic skills.  This has required significant curriculum redesign, better integration of course content and aligning assessment to provide a more coherent student experience. Secondly it has required significant resourcing of the large numbers of sessional staff involved in running the many small workshops. This has required the development of a large body of academic support material,  the running or regular staff development meetings and a lot of administrative support.

The next stage of the project involves a series of strategic steps to both document the results of the innovations to date and to diffuse the learning achieved to date as well as promote a dispersed leadership process  develop forums where leaders from within the School work with the teams of teachers to become reflective communities of practice to adopt this learning centered teaching paradigm.


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