James Atherton

  • Accountability, assessment, and anxiety; curricular structures to help students engage with troublesome knowledge

    James Atherton and Peter Hadfield
    University of Bedfordshire

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: assessment as learning, the student experience and learning

    Wednesday 3 September 2008, 09.00-10.00 in Bayley

    With particular reference to programmes leading to professional accreditation, this paper will try to promote discussion and discovery among participants by exploring the intersection and interaction of competing principles at two levels in the curriculum;

    • quality assurance, compliance and standardisation versus open-ness, variation and creativity - at the institutional and policy level
    • security versus risk - at the personal level for
      • staff and
      • students

    and will suggest tools for the deconstruction of the curriculum which may be adopted to explore these issues.

    The authors have long-standing acquaintance with programmes leading to professional accreditation; directly in relation to teaching and social work, and indirectly in relation to law, medicine, nursing, and a wide range of vocational areas in the post-compulsory sector. This session draws both on their experience of attempting to devise and evaluate curricula which both satisfy accrediting bodies and nevertheless promote the development of their students, and of teaching the resulting courses which engender both safe and scary experiences for those students.

    Key to the whole process of preparation for professional practice is the management of anxiety; which remains the emotional component behind both accountability and assessment. It motivates accrediting bodies, in their concern to demonstrate that their standards ensure safe practice; teaching staff, concerned about granting a "licence to practice" to an individual; and students, concerned both about their ability to pass the course requirements and to cope in practice. It is a major element in the constitution of "troublesome knowledge" (Perkins, 1999).

    The inhibited response to this of course is defensive practice, as classically explored in Menzies (1965). That creates a culture of compliance which inhibits both criticality and creativity, replacing them with regimented "training", which can not only stall progress at the macro-level, but also frustrate some gifted practitioners at the micro-level.

    So how, in practice, does one devise a curriculum which is institutionally both safe and encourages innovation? Which encourages staff to go beyond the stipulated requirements? And which enables students not merely to "do it their way" (they have always done that, just not told us about it) but to share their way, and to learn from its critique?

    Drawing on examples from the experience of the authors and their students, it will be suggested that the way forward lies not in static compromise, but in dynamic and shifting curricula which support students in adapting their viewpoints and operational (rather than fundamental) values to accommodate these changing demands. These have implications for programme information, time-tabling, support systems, assessment and even furniture.

    This session will draw on the theoretical insights of Bion (1965), Menzies-Lyth (1965, 1988) and Lawrence (1982) within the psycho-analytic tradition, in conjunction with Perkins (1999) and Meyer and Land (2006), and Atherton (1999, 2000) to produce a syncretic framework which may account in some measure both for the success or failure of existing curricula, and provide some principles to take into account in future programme design.