Is teaching systemically frail in universities and if so what can we do about it?

Joy Jarvis, University of Hertfordshire



This article explores the idea of ‘pedagogic frailty’ in relation to teaching systems in higher education. Using a model developed by Kinchin (2015) it explores four interconnected concepts: regulative discourse around teaching; pedagogy and discipline connections; research and teaching links; and locus of control of teaching. The concepts are looked at in terms of how and why they might contribute to pedagogic frailty and alternatively how they could contribute to creating a pedagogic system that is not frail. The article suggests that currently teaching systems are frail in relation to preparing students and staff for the future and that more effective pedagogy could be developed by changes in the structure and content of each of the four dimensions,

Setting the Context

There has been increased focus on teaching at UK universities in recent years, in part due to the positioning of students as consumers and to the increase in the numbers entering higher education with a pressure on resources and the necessity of meeting the needs of wider and more diverse cohorts of students (Bathmaker, 2003; Browne Report, 2010). Initiatives such as the National Student Survey of student satisfaction and more recently the Teaching Excellence Framework have focused university attention on teaching (HEFCE, 2017). There is a UK Professional Standards Framework (2011) for teaching and supporting learning in higher education and an increasing number of academic staff are gaining qualifications in terms of a Higher Education Academy (HEA) fellowship or a Post Graduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (HESA, 2017) and academic developers have become increasingly involved in implementing cross-university strategic policies for raising the quality of teaching (Peseta, 2014).

It might seem surprising, therefore, that the first international symposium to discuss ‘pedagogic frailty’ in relation to university teaching systems was held in the UK last year. Pedagogy can be described as ‘the relationship between teaching and learning and how together they lead to growth in knowledge and understanding through meaningful practice' (Loughran, 2006:2). Pedagogy is about practice and what happens in learning contexts, but also includes the thinking underpinning all aspects of the educational process. This thinking and practice may be influenced by individuals, but are effectively defined and organised by the institution and the systems, structures, learning spaces, narratives and procedures it uses, or indeed by their absence.

Frailty in this context is related to terms such as ‘decline’, ‘vulnerability’, and ‘loss of adaptive capacity’ (Kinchin et al., 2016:3), leading to institutions’ teaching approaches lacking ‘resilience to deal with change’ (Winstone, 2017:34). If institutionally pedagogy is frail then this will reveal itself in lack of creativity in teaching and reluctance of individuals or teaching teams to take risks, leading to problems responding appropriately to rapidly changing contexts. These contexts include changing government agendas in relation to higher education and increasingly complex challenges that graduates need to be prepared for. Students leaving university have to be able to work within a complex, multi-disciplinary, rapidly changing, inter-connected world and equipping them to do this requires the creation and use of appropriate pedagogies. Rapid growth of disciplinary and professional knowledge means institutions require the capacity to foreground ways of teaching that will enable graduates to engage with lifelong learning. Pedagogy needs to be strong, robust and proactive.

Kinchin (2017) identified the concept of pedagogic frailty in relation to higher education institutional teaching systems. He notes that the term will be challenging to the current positive presentation of what universities offer and that ‘…engagement with the concept of pedagogic frailty may require academics to engage with a period of discomfort to encourage the generation of new perspectives’ (Kinchin, 2017:4). Bengtsen and Barnett (2017:114-115) in a recent article entitled ‘Confronting the Dark Side of Higher Education’ also argue that the current focus in relation to a marketised agenda, where institutions need to ‘sell’ themselves, ‘is on the visible, evident and “bright” dimensions of higher education’ and that we need to explore the hidden assumptions and processes of learning and teaching which are less easy to articulate in current ‘alignment–strategies and learning taxonomies’. These authors do not use the term ‘dark’ as synonymous with bad, rather they argue that exploring more hidden aspects of educational practice can open up opportunities for growth and change.

Kinchin, working with a number of colleagues (Kinchin et al., 2016), has developed a model, based on interviews with academics in higher education and an exploration of literature, to clarify and connect dimensions of practice that he argues are central to pedagogic frailty. The model enables us to critique these concepts and to consider how they are related. While the model may develop and change in light of further research and critique, in its current form it serves as a series of connected lenses through which we can examine current practice in teaching in higher education. In addition it offers us the opportunity of ‘flipping’ the model and asking what it would look like from the alternative view – pedagogy that is not frail.

It is important to note that this model is not used in relation to individuals’ learning or teaching or to different pedagogical approaches. Rather, it enables a way of analysing the systemic procedures, language and assumptions that underpin the way that teaching is perceived and undertaken in universities.

A model of pedagogic frailty

The concept map below shows the current model of pedagogic frailty identifying four interconnected dimensions. Each of these concepts will be discussed; first, in relation to evidence for why it might lead to frailty and second, in relation to ways of lessening this frailty.

Model of Pedagogy Frailty

Figure 1. Model of Pedagogy Frailty (copyright Kinchin, I. Reproduced with permission)

Regulative Discourse – frailty

The first of the dimensions to be discussed is that of regulative discourse. Kinchin and colleagues draw on Bernstein’s work on power and framing in pedagogy. Bernstein (2000) identifies two discourses around learning and teaching: one of underpinning values, labelled regulative discourse; and within that, instructional discourse, which relates to procedures. The model above (Fig. 1) suggests that where there is lack of explicit and shared regulative discourse pedagogy may be frail. This may be because instructional discourse around the detail of course content and its quality assurance may be the focus of visible work such as meetings, policies and documentation. The regulative discourse may be implicit and not discussed. It is always there, however, and will be understood in various ways by staff and students from the instructional discourse experienced in the institution. Furthermore there are sector level regulative discourses which will occupy any space not purposefully filled by an institution. For example, Blackie (2017) argues that positioning the student as a consumer and marketing a university education as a product can be a regulative discourse that leads students and staff to act in response to this. These responses may be aligned or in conflict with the unspoken framing of values. Working in a context where practices are not aligned to their values can lead staff and students to use practices that are ‘inauthentic’ and to cope rather than thrive. Blackie (2017:51) argues that ‘the stress experienced … will foster pedagogic frailty’.

A disconnect between values and expected practice may lead to limited personal investment in the educational endeavour and lack of perceived agency to contribute to change. Emphasis on instructional discourse without discussion of values and purposes of education can lead to staff perceiving teaching to be about procedures and regulations and following rules prescribed by others. A Higher Education Academy funded study of 11 universities (Stevenson et al., 2014) suggested that there was a disconnect between the language used in university documentation and by some senior leaders about teaching and the notion of ‘teaching ‘excellence’, compared to that used by teaching staff - the former taking a more performative approach to what constitutes excellence and the latter expressing an understanding based on student transformation through learning. The authors of the report suggest that: ‘The espousal of performative modes of assessing teaching excellence, by some senior academics, potentially precludes deeper consideration of pedagogical issues so that teaching risks becoming technicist and performative rather than critical and transformative’ (Stevenson et al., 2014:5). This would be an example of pedagogic frailty as the resulting pedagogy would not be fit for the future. Nixon (2012:149), exploring the future university, argues that students need to develop ‘…the capacity for living and working together in uncertainty, indeterminacy and irreducible complexity’ in order to both benefit and contribute to society in the future. This requires staff to work together to explore the regulatory discourse which can underpin practice designed to meet these ends.

Course and module development is a key area where regulatory and instructional discourses need to come together to create effective provision based on underpinning values and principles. Procedures are designed by institutions to support this process and can indeed do so. However, in a recent in-depth study of module development Binns (2017) identified that sometimes the procedures and documentation designed to be enabling were inhibiting development, often because requirements to produce materials for committees focused attention away from their aims and because time-constraints limited opportunities for collaboration and reflection. Her research participants noted that factors stopping them from changing aspects of a module when they thought they should do so related to ‘the amount of paperwork required, and a lack of time’ (Binns, 2017:128).

Instructional discourse and an accountability and audit context can lead to increased staff time used for procedural tasks which leaves less time for focusing on developing teaching. There has been a recognised growth in administrative tasks for academic staff. As Tight (2010:214) notes, ‘…paradoxically, the increasing time spent on [administration] threatens the quality of the teaching and the research that it is meant to protect’. Creating effective teaching practice takes time and energy and if this is not available then practice may fossilise. A university system that is not building on the capacity of its staff is likely to be frail.

Regulative Discourse – strength

Discussion across the university regarding the values and purposes underpinning teaching can enable greater shared understanding of this endeavour and create instructional discourse in line with this. Leaders need to be clear about the external pressures and audit agendas and how these need to be met, but clarify this as something that needs to be done, not as how the university will focus its energy in terms of teaching development. In the HEA report on university stratification and pedagogy (Stephenson et al., 2014: 6) the first recommendation is that ‘Institutions should think beyond the buzzwords of ‘teaching excellence’ and ‘student experience’ to engage with deeper issues of pedagogy; this necessitates genuine engagement and dialogue with teaching staff.’ The report further suggests that ‘Senior academics need to create opportunities in higher education for all academic staff (including themselves) to engage in critical reflections on teaching, in order to critique and deconstruct neoliberal discourse and to develop richer, more inclusive and critical pedagogical understanding.’ This should lead to an understanding of teaching as a complex intellectual activity which requires appropriate priority and support structures. It can lead to an awareness that a university’s regulative discourse is being framed by national agendas and that the institution can create opportunities to make choices about future directions.

Leaders could enable staff to critique procedures designed to support the development of quality teaching to ensure they are enablers not inhibitors. Time for collaboration on procedures needs to be allocated and protected. It would be interesting to explore whether universities that provide professional administration for programmes and courses are more efficient and also give more time to teaching staff for planning and teaching. Do those universities who have technical and professional colleagues working with academic staff to create online resources have more effective online learning spaces and teachers with more time to plan for teaching?

A regulative discourse that acknowledges the challenge of enabling students to learn within a discipline, as will be discussed in the next section, can lead to more appropriate provision.

Pedagogy and Discipline - frailty

Academic staff who are going to teach are appointed to universities due to their knowledge in a particular discipline, profession or industry. They bring with them a wealth of expertise in a particular area which is often seen as the source of their identity (Trowler et al., 2012). The model in Fig1. proposes that frailty increases with lack of embeddedness between the discipline and pedagogy. This could be anticipated as students need to learn ways of thinking, bodies of knowledge, skills, practices, discourses and ethical approaches within their disciplinary or professional context. Students learn their specific and generic skills within a particular field in which their teacher is an expert. The discipline or profession provides a lens through which to view problems in a specialist way. As Kreber (2009:11) notes it is not just ‘the subject we look at’ that students are learning, but also ‘what is looked through and with’. This requires staff who are embedded in their discipline to enable students to do this in relation to their own discipline and to then help them to identify how they can use this lens to look at multi-disciplinary problems. In addition students need to be able to understand that they have a particular way of seeing and how this relates to other disciplinary approaches.

When members of staff first join a university they are not generally skilled and experienced in teaching their discipline or professional field. To do this requires significant pedagogical content knowledge – ‘subject knowledge for teaching’ (Shulman, 2014: 203 emphasis in original). This includes … ‘the ways of representing and formulating the subject that makes it comprehensible to others’ (Shulman, 2014: 203) and involves a range of knowledge and understanding about the structure of the discipline or field, the key concepts and how they can be learned and how processes and practices can be made explicit. Teachers also need knowledge of students’ starting points and how they can be built on, as well as potential misconceptions in the area and ways they can be addressed. More general teaching approaches such as engaging with the students, challenging assumptions, communicating effectively and encouraging participation are all realised in a particular context and in the language and literacy traditions of a particular field. As Kreber (2009: 28) notes ‘Reflection on pedagogical content knowledge encourages faculty to explore why, within their own departments, teaching is approached in a particular way’.

A disconnect between pedagogy and discipline can come about if there is no explicit ongoing professional learning in relation to disciplinary/professional teaching. Staff need to learn from experienced colleagues, who are scholars of disciplinary teaching, who can help them to identify underpinning principles in relation to teaching in a particular field. They also need to ‘unpack’ their own knowledge, assumptions, values and ways of acting that have become part of who they are as a disciplinary expert or professional and much of which may be held tacitly (Eraut, 1994) This requires time to think about their teaching with colleagues outside their discipline who can help them to surface this tacit knowledge which can then be made explicit to students (Schön, 1987).

Unfortunately, many universities would be unable to offer new academic staff disciplinary teaching focused support, partly due to priority given to disciplinary research over teaching, as will be discussed in the next dimension of frailty, but also due to conceptions of teaching that position it as straightforward, simple and that subject knowledge is sufficient to enable one to teach. Developing rich, innovative, experiential learning approaches within a discipline requires developing significant knowledge and skills, together with time to work with others to share and develop practice. If this is not part of a department’s or university’s approach then it will not be well positioned for creating innovative disciplinary pedagogies.

Another issue has been change in the nature of academic development in terms of staff developers working with colleagues on teaching development. The change has been away from local support to implementing institutional initiatives and will be discussed later in the section related to locus of control. This can mean that staff developers may have limited opportunities to support subject specific teaching approaches.

Disciplinary teaching can be frail if staff are teaching outside their expertise or as part of a course involving a number of contributors where the ways in which students will connect their knowledge and understanding has not been thought through and planned for (Stephenson et al., 2014 and Kinchin et al., 2008). Students may learn material at a surface level and not make links to uncover connections and ways of thinking in the discipline. Material may be successfully repeated in an exam, but the students’ thinking may not have been changed. This connects to the regulative discourse which, as the model shows, informs the links between pedagogy and the discipline. If the focus is on instructional aspects such as procedures for short term progression this is, perhaps, inevitable. Alternatively if the regulative discourse is about creating transformative learning opportunities, involving the students in perspective change, this requires significant time for collaborative planning in order to create innovative curriculum, teaching and assessment approaches. This would be provided by a pedagogy that makes strong connections with the disciplines.

Pedagogy and Discipline – strength

Connecting the discipline and pedagogy so that effective learning takes place requires opportunities for academic staff to grow as teachers in their disciplines. This is enabled by a culture that has moved beyond the ideas of ‘folk pedagogy’ which Bruner (1996) has identified as the deeply entrenched assumptions about teaching that are held by those beginning to teach. These include the notions that teaching is straightforward, can be learned by copying others, particularly their own teachers, and is based on knowledge transmission. Joram and Gabriele (1998) demonstrated how difficult these ideas are to change but that it is possible with carefully structured experiences on a course for new teachers. Strong disciplinary teaching is based on a new staff course that addresses these issues, in addition to exploring a range of planning, teaching and quality assurance approaches relevant to particular university contexts. Encouraging staff to take an ‘inquiry stance’ (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 2009) to their own practice could be centred on teaching their own discipline, where they are encouraged to unpack their own knowledge of thinking and practising to make it available for teaching. For example, Kinchin et al. (2008) demonstrate how concept mapping can be used by staff in uncovering tacit knowledge which is part of expertise and which needs to be shared with students. Identifying ‘threshold concepts’ (Meyer et al., 2010), key concepts that need to be understood in order to progress in a discipline, is another way of exploring disciplinary knowledge for teaching. Carefully structured interviews to explore how experienced and new staff understand their disciplines have been part of the ‘Decoding the Disciplines’ projects (Pace and Middendorf, 2004; 2017), while longitudinal projects have collected data from both academic staff and students to identify how thinking is framed and developed within different disciplines (Donald, 2002). This work can then lead to the development of ‘signature pedagogies’ (Gurung et al., 2009) in relation to a particular disciplinary and local context, which can be shared with students and new colleagues and adapted in the light of new insights.

A context providing a strong link between disciplines and pedagogy would give time and opportunities for some staff within disciplines to have a particular focus on teaching and to develop the expertise to work with staff developers to support new staff. Funding for disciplinary scholarship and research in the field and opportunities for working with teams to share and develop practice, together with other continuing professional learning opportunities, could also make the system more robust.

Priority and time given for team planning and opportunities for team teaching could enable the development of disciplinary pedagogy within contexts. In addition disciplinary colleagues will need access to colleagues with expertise in other disciplines partly to enable the surfacing of tacit professional and disciplinary knowledge so that it can be made available for teaching and discussion with students. Schön (1987: 25) argues that while aspects of expert practitioners’ judgements may be automatic it is possible ‘…to make a description of the tacit knowledge implicit in them’. One way of achieving this is for disciplinary colleagues to work with a staff developer who can ask questions to reveal the knowledge and make it available for teaching.

Curriculum design that includes processes of learning as well as subject content is key for developing effective learning and a system that enables time for designing curricula and discussions with colleagues inside and outside the local institution would be more likely to produce effective teaching approaches. These approaches would need to include opportunities for students to use their knowledge and develop disciplinary ways of thinking through inquiry or similar ways of learning. Additionally, working with students from other subject areas would both build their understanding of their own discipline and enable appreciation of other modes of thinking. A robust teaching system would create student and staff time for developing innovative, collaborative learning experiences that would help to fit graduates for future challenges.

Research-Teaching Nexus – frailty

Issues around research and teaching in relation to pedagogic frailty will be considered in relation to two areas: the priority given to research which leads to less value being placed on teaching and which limits the time available for staff to develop teaching in higher education; and the extent to which research and teaching are connected in relation to students’ education.

There is significant evidence showing the priority in terms of recognition and reward given to research and the devaluing of teaching as an intellectual, academic activity (Locke, 2014). The Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the response to this by universities has led to significant pressure on staff to prioritise research and writing. The response to the REF has also led to the creation of ‘teaching–only’ contracts for staff in some universities so that their publications do not need to be included in a university’s submission. This could be seen as a way of strengthening teaching, as individuals can focus on this area, but they are lower status contracts with limited opportunities for career progression and often little or no time allocated for scholarship or research in the field. Academics on these contracts have a very high administrative load in terms of the procedures around teaching. These contracts are therefore not attractive to many academics and contribute to lowering the status of teaching (Locke, 2014).

Contributing to the evidence base of teaching through research can be problematic for academic staff who may have good knowledge and skills in relation to research processes in their own discipline but have limited understanding of educational research (Cleaver et al., 2014). Mentoring would be needed for those focusing on educational research and this is unlikely to be supported within departments where disciplinary based research is the focus. Limited funding and research opportunities in research into higher education mean that most education research submitted to the REF is related to the schools sector (Cotton, et al., 2017). This both limits the strengthening of teaching in universities through research and limits opportunities for those who would like to engage in this field.

There is much emphasis in universities on the provision of ‘research-informed’ teaching in higher education, although what this means in practice is contested (Brew, 2006; Jenkins et al., 2007; Bage, 2017). The importance of students taking a research approach to their discipline and professional work is seen as a vital part of their preparation to engage in a rapidly changing world as they ‘…learn the forms of inquiry by which competent practitioners reason…’ (Schön, 1987:39). Graduates will be facing a range of new challenges and problems and to be able to research, identify and solve problems is essential. Neary and Winn (2009: 127) argue that ‘Teaching and research in universities must be inseparable if tuition is not to lag behind changing needs, the demands of society and advances in scientific knowledge’. They put forward a ‘student as producer’ model which involves students and academics working together to create new knowledge. However this is perceived to be difficult to do in practice, particularly in a context of large student numbers and a performative education culture.

Ovens (2011) charts the process of an inquiry module newly embedded into the first year of an undergraduate degree and the development time both beforehand and on a weekly basis that was needed by the staff team. They also had to face resistance from many of the students who were challenged by a different learning approach. This continued throughout the module and into another module in the second year which involved group research projects and it was only towards the end of their final year that the students were able to appreciate their learning and the progress they had made as independent learners. As Dobozy (2011:23) argues, ‘The discrepancy in expectations of what is perceived to be good teaching presents real obstacles and increases anxiety levels of many students who encounter inquiry learning …[as teaching] in many parts of the Western world, is still dominated largely by transmission-style lecturing’. The context of immediate student satisfaction can make it difficult to sustain similar practice developments as will be discussed in the section on ‘locus of control’.

Research-Teaching Nexus – strength

One way of demonstrating the importance of educational research is to use, and to be seen to use, research findings in institutional decision making, for example when a new cross-university teaching or professional development strategy is considered. Another approach is to appoint leaders in disciplinary educational research who can mentor colleagues inquiring into practice and who can help to connect staff to the wider field.

Ongoing professional development, including doctorates in education in disciplines, could enable practice to be developed in connection with research findings. Inquiry approaches to teaching can be encouraged through continuing professional learning. For example, academics’ understanding of how teaching and research relate to learning could be an important factor in the way they teach. Light and Calkins (2015) undertook a study to explore the understanding of learning in relation to research and to teaching of 39 early career, research active academics. They identified five different conceptions ranging from not seeing the learning in the two contexts as similar in any way, to seeing it as being the same. Academics who saw teaching and research as disconnected identified themselves as active learners but students as passive receivers of information, while those who saw the two practices as connected ‘encourage students to think and learn like researchers and scholars in the discipline’ (Light and Calkins, 2015:356). Supporting academics to reflect on their own ways of learning when they undertake research and then to consider how this relates to the ways in which students could be encouraged to learn could enable staff to consider how to engage students in inquiry based learning at different stages.

The time taken to engage in creating new approaches to teaching is summed up by a colleague in a study by Bell (2001:38) looking at the impact of professional learning: ‘The problem for me in using these teaching innovations is that they require a certain amount of time, thought and creativity. Unfortunately I rarely have time to devote to improving my teaching skills…’ A system that is not frail would provide development time for new teaching initiatives and collaboration opportunities to enhance ideas and skills. It would also use technology to create effective ways of providing information that students could use and self-check their learning out of class. These resources could be created by academics in collaboration with technical colleagues, or where appropriate, students. This team work towards a common teaching goal requires alignment of values, and therefore would be the opposite of a frail system where an information lecture is repeated every year because teaching staff have not the time or opportunities to do otherwise. This links to the final concept – who makes the decisions about teaching and teaching development?

Locus of Control – frailty

The locus of control in relation to teaching has moved increasingly from the individual academic or team within a disciplinary context towards the central university. This has happened in relation to course structure, procedures for course and module design and review, regulations around content and assessment and approaches to the evaluation of teaching and teachers (Gibbs, 2012). As with other professions in an age where audit and accountability is replacing trust and professional standards, there is an emphasis on eternal control and monitoring of professional practice (Solbrekke and Sugrue, (2011). Standardisation of practice across universities has aimed to offer students choice and flexibility and within universities it aims to give a guarantee of quality and fairness. Teaching staff will be expected to embed aspects such as: ‘graduate attributes’; particular ways of posting online material; assessment and feedback timetables; and sometimes institutional pedagogies. Quality assurance processes will be embedded across the university with the aim of protecting students and ensuring that all courses are structured in line with regulations (Binns, 2017). In parallel to this, academic development teams who may have worked with individuals and teams to develop local practice are now expected to implement central strategic plans.

Some of this central activity has come about due to marketisation, particularly league tables and the importance of student responses to the National Student Survey. Institutions not at the top of student satisfaction league tables are likely to take increasing control of activities that used to be undertaken at local level as a way of standardising and improving audit results. While this might seem an understandable approach it may result in a focus on the audit and not the practice that the audit is aiming to enhance (Ball, 2003).

Both staff and students may become caught in a controlled context where anxiety about audit results can lead to over assessment where students have limited opportunities to explore personal areas of interest or to take risks in their learning. Sharar (2016:112) undertook an in-depth study of a number of teachers’ approach to pedagogy in three UK universities. One participant noted: ‘I couldn’t say that students have become more instrumental because it’s hard to judge that but what I can say is that pedagogy has become more instrumental’. An example given is the over-specific assignment briefs designed to support students’ understanding of their task that can lead to over-prescription and lack of student initiative.

The impact of the audit approach to accountability can lead to academics taking less responsibility in relation to their teaching as they may feel they lack agency to do this. Top-down change initiatives may be introduced, which Fahghanel (2009:205) suggests can lead to ‘compliance rather than reflective adoption of change’. Institutional student satisfaction audits can limit academics’ perception that they could undertake other forms of monitoring of how their students are progressing. What is audited institutionally is seen as what is important. This may limit teacher led change. As noted in an earlier LINK article (Jarvis, 2015) ‘performativity and creativity are positioned in opposition to each other and … expectations of university leaders that staff will spend time leading exciting new approaches to teaching may be unrealistic in a context of control and conformity’.

As noted earlier, most academics do not come to their first post with teaching experience. Moving from a concept of teaching as being about transmission and about what they do in sessions, towards focusing on how students are going to learn, is a transformation and one that can lead to significant change in practice (Ho, 2000). This may, as McWillian (2008) suggests, require ‘unlearning’ of previous ideas and is supported by opportunities to reflect with others and to respond to challenge in a psychologically safe place (Hadar and Brody, 2017). Current contexts where individuals are rewarded or sanctioned in response to institutional student satisfaction ratings are not safe spaces for taking risks in teaching and are likely to lead to new academics ‘playing safe’. They may not work to explore and evaluate their own teaching for, as noted by Diaz-Mendez and Gummesson (2012), some universities equate lecture quality with student satisfaction so there may be limited motivation to go beyond this notion. The opportunity to engage in wide exploration of module design, learning spaces and pedagogies may become lost in a ‘blame culture’ which focuses on individual competence. This may result in pedagogic frailty as staff do not develop the motivation to engage in personal pedagogical inquiry and the expertise to work collaboratively to create effective learning opportunities for students. Lacking these opportunities may lead to universities may becoming ‘centres of non-learning’ (Kinchin et al., 2008:89) where teaching is by transmission and where surface learning is tested and rewarded.

Locus of Control – strength

One of the key recommendations made by a recent HEA report (Stephenson et al., 2014:6) was that ‘Institutions should ensure that managerialism and/or marketisation practices do not inhibit the aspirations and commitments of staff working to provide empowering, transformative pedagogical spaces’. One way of working towards this is to acknowledge the limits of satisfaction ratings and encourage students and staff to explore learning approaches together. There is a need to identify the struggle that is part of transformative learning and how working through this struggle can be best facilitated (Meyer et al., 2010). Another approach is to move towards recognising the collaborative nature of teaching and the importance of the staff team, including technical, professional and academic staff, including those with roles for timetabling and the development of learning spaces. This moves away from rewarding or penalising individuals which can inhibit innovation. Pedagogy in university needs to embrace the use of technology and its affordances. Currently its use is often within a transmission model of pedagogy rather than an approach which can lead to more personalisation of learning, greater opportunities for participation and for knowledge generation (McLoughlan and Lee, 2008).

The importance of ongoing learning opportunities for all staff cannot be overemphasised as this supports the knowledge and skills necessary if teaching staff are to take more local control of teaching decisions. This needs to include staff-led opportunities where staff work with colleagues and develop new ideas together. This requires trust between teaching staff, and between management and teaching staff, and it needs space. Finding time for staff to work collaboratively on teaching is very difficult and ways of prioritising and preserving space needs to be explored. At the same time the opportunity for staff to influence strategic decision making needs to be created as in a hierarchical management context they may be unable to do this (Jarvis et al., 2017). Enabling more local decision making in teaching and giving staff more potential influence over institutional approaches could help move the locus of control of aspects of teaching towards those engaged in the teaching. It could enable more personalisation of learning, greater responsiveness to student groups and more creative pedagogies.

As Diaz-Mendez and Gummesson (2012) note, educational institutions’ concept of providing ‘value’ is based on out-dated marketing approaches. A more recent concept is about co-creation of value, which links to student-staff partnership working in higher education. This is where students and staff work together sharing their different skills and perspectives to generate learning materials and approaches (Healey et al., 2014). Co-creation of modules involves great student responsibility for their learning and greater staff flexibility and responsiveness to current contexts and issues which can result in transformative learning (Willis and Gregory, 2016). A recent Leadership Foundation paper suggests that …’university leaders should begin with the question of ‘why not co-creation?’ rather than ‘why?’ (Willis and Gregory 2016:30) and that ‘Co-creation represents a commitment by universities to equip students with the learning they need to cope with the complexity of the modern world’ (McLoughlan and Lee, 2016:62). It is not a simple approach and requires the involvement and commitment of multiple stakeholders, careful planning and an instructional discourse that enables and supports it, but it can, Bovill (2017) suggests, lead to pedagogic flexibility rather than pedagogic frailty. This approach also opens up the discourse around teaching to include students as well as staff, so that rather than responding as passive customers they are engaging in building the regulative discourse that shapes the institution.


The model explored in this article offers a useful way to explore key aspects of the organisation and management of teaching and the messages given about ‘what counts’ in relation to individual and institutional success. Currently in many universities the way in which the four key concepts in the model are positioned, and how they interact, leads to pedagogic fragility. The positive message is that once this has been identified it can be addressed. The changes that need to be made are fundamental in terms of discourse and priorities. At the same time they are simple in terms of idea. Most universities have spent a great deal of money updating and improving buildings and learning spaces. Many have invested significantly in student support and co-curricular activities. Now is the time to focus on the context where much student transformation and growth should occur: in the learning spaces and opportunities offered, and in the programmes designed by teams with disciplinary and teaching expertise. This requires a culture that recognises the complexity of teaching, which focuses on student learning not student satisfaction, and which gives staff opportunities to work with a range of colleagues focusing on curriculum design and pedagogy. Protected time is needed to enable staff to work in teams to create, plan and evaluate programmes, teaching approaches and guided learning activities for students. If universities are to move forward in creating cultures and systems to underpin effective teaching then the current focus on individual lecturer performance and accountability needs to be replaced by strengthening practice in each of the four areas of this model. In this way teaching in universities could become systemically strong and fit for the future.

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