Ray Land

  • The role that student concerns play within the curriculum in establishing identity and securing engagement: the theoretical perspective of critical realism

    Peter Kahn
    University of Liverpool

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: problem-based learning and enquiry-based learning, global citizenship, the student experience and learning, employability, skills development

    Tuesday 2 September 2008, 16.10-17.10 in Teasdale

    Student engagement remains an ongoing challenge in higher education, with difficulties over student retention and the need to respond to the emerging market in fees and new patterns of technology usage. It is thus important to consider how major curricular trends affect student engagement. The curriculum is now a site of contestation, where new foci, including e-learning, employability, skills and sustainable development, all compete for attention amongst themselves and against established disciplinary notions. These new foci typically reflect the growing tendency that Barnett et al identify (2001) towards instrumental rationality in the curriculum: a prioritisation of the uses for academic knowledge over its value as truth. But how does an increasing emphasis on the uses of knowledge affect student engagement? Barnett et al (2001) further point out that the curriculum has remained tightly prescribed.

    I n this conceptual paper we apply a major theoretical paradigm from social theory, critical realism, to assist in an exploration of these issues. This non-reductive paradigm is characterised by realist ontology and by epistemological relativism, while also arguing for the possibility of the comparative evaluation of arguments. Archer, in particular, argues (2003) that, through patterns of reflexive deliberation, individuals choose to pursue sets of concerns, which are subjectively experienced in relation to natural, practical and social realms. These concerns lead agents to undertake projects, and thus to establish practices; as set within structural and cultural contexts that objectively constrain and enable action. This paradigm, which has hitherto received scarce attention within the field of higher education, nonetheless crosses the divide between social and cognitive constructivism.

    We see that the curriculum itself may encourage or discourage a focus on student concerns, whether pre-existing or generated within the educational settings, determining also those concerns, projects and practices that are admissible. A rcher (2003) argues that instrumental concerns, focused as these are typically on employment, are the dominant foci for only one group within society. She identifies a further pattern of mediation between agency and social structure that depends on concerns held in relation to social ideals; and that characterises a further group within society. We consider ways in which the curriculum might offer space to students for whom agency is primarily determined by such societal concerns, considering issues pertinent to both standard and distinctive curricula, including service learning and those based on collaborative negotiation. Given the links between an individual’s concerns and their identity, we thus see in critical realism a theoretical perspective that allows us to address in a practical fashion the call from Dall’Alba and Barnacle (2007) for higher education to take an ontological turn.


    • Archer, M. (2003) Structure, agency and the internal conversation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
    • Barnett, R., Parry, G. and Coate, K. (2001) Conceptualising curriculum change, Teaching in Higher Education, 6(4), 435-449
    • Dall’Alba, G. And Barnacle, R. (2007) An ontological turn for higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 32(6), 679-691