• Theorising the place of generic attributes in the curriculum

    Anna Jones 
    University of Melbourne

    Research paper

    Themes: skills development

    Tuesday 2 September 2008, 10.10-11.10 in the Senior Common Room


    This paper sets out to examine the situated nature of teaching through theorising generic attributes within their disciplinary context. There has been considerable work in the area of generic attributes and yet there is still significant uncertainty, particularly in the area of the integration of generic attributes into the curriculum. This paper builds on my earlier work (Jones, 2007a, 2007b) by examining the reasons behind the significant variation in interpretation of generic attributes, providing a more theoretical analysis of the situated nature of teaching and the implications this has for policy and academic development.

    This paper uses activity systems theory (Engeström, 1999) to explore teaching through examining the ways in which generic attributes are conceptualised. In exploring the situated nature of teaching generic attributes, it provides a way to conceptualise teaching that acknowledges the significance of disciplinary practices.


    This paper is located within a qualitative methodology that investigated teaching in a disciplinary context in two Australian universities and is based around the assumptions of naturalistic inquiry (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) . It uses interviews with academic staff across five disciplines (physics, history, economics, medicine and law) and focuses on academics’ accounts of their discipline, their understandings of generic attributes and influences on their teaching of generic attributes. Analysis of the data was emergent and themes and patterns were identified and cross-checked across all data.


    This study found that contextual factors such as conceptual frameworks and language, technology, physical settings, social structures and communities of practice have a significant influence upon teaching, as do individual beliefs about knowledge and teaching and thus teaching is at a nexus of a complex of factors. It argues that teaching itself is not a ‘generic skill’ but embedded in local meanings.

    Theoretical and educational significance

    The paper examines the influences on teaching practice, including epistemology, the scholarly community and pedagogical traditions. It conceptualises teaching as shaped by what is being taught and the environment in which teaching occurs. This does not imply an absence of principles that are educationally sound across many contexts, nor does it suggest disciplinary isolationism but rather this paper proposes an examination of what is to be taught (in either its disciplinary or interdisciplinary context) and an examination of teachers’ accounts of their teaching and an acknowledgement of what is important in their scholarly, research and professional communities. If teaching is to become more learning-centred, it is necessary to understand the influences which shape teaching practice and this paper is one step in this direction.


    • Engeström, Y. (1999). Activity theory and individual and social transformation. In Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen & R. L. Punamaki-Gitai (Eds.), Perspectives on activity theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Jones, A. (2007a). Generic skills as espoused theory. ISSOTL Conference, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2nd-5th July.
    • Jones, A. (2007b). Re-disciplining generic attributes. Paper presented as part of the symposium 'Re-examining disciplinary specificity in university teaching and learning' EARLI conference, Budapest 28th August-1st September.
    • Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.