Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A New Home...

Peace, one and all...
Please note that this blog has moved to the following address: Please update your bookmarks, etc.
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Confidence in Education

Peace, one and all...
In a recent post I referred to the fundamental importance of perspective. So, before I begin this blog, I feel it's important to set out mine. As a Muslim, my religious beliefs obviously have a great impact on the ways in which I approach life in general, and teaching in particular. Although this is not the place to debate such things (stop by The Corner for an account of my religious/spiritual views), it is worth pointing out that Islam posits a belief in an Absolute (Allah or God), Who Alone defines Truth, all other 'truths' being equivocal, relative and limited. This stands in stark contrast to current postmodernist thought. In other words, within an educational context, I believe that there is a fundamental point of orientation. Anyway, to proceed...
Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim wa al-salatu wa al-salamu `ala rasul illah.
(In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful and may prayers and blessings fall upon the Messenger of God)
Confidence in Education
In one form or another, I have been a teacher/tutor for approximately four or five years. This teaching experience has been developed in a number of settings and contexts: class-based teaching, seminar teaching, one-to-one tutoring, informal question and answer sessions, as well as formal large-group lectures. Although I certainly have much to learn (when does that ever stop?), I have come to understand a few key issues. My thoughts on these matters can be followed on this blog, as well as others. Today, though, I'd like to explore one issue in particular, namely, student confidence.
A student's ability to learn effectively is dependent upon a large number of factors. These include (but are not limited to):
  • Financial Pressures
  • Educational Background
  • Ability
  • Application
  • Family Commitments
  • Socio-economic group (or, 'class', to use old-fashioned parlance)
  • Ethnicity/Cultural Issues
  • Disability (including dyslexia)
Indeed, you'll often find these kinds of issues discussed in educational policy documents, degree programme specifications, and other such official material. However, confidence is far less commonly addressed, and it is this issue I'd like to explore here.
Before we begin, though, it's important that we understand what we are actually referring to. In other words, what do I mean by 'confidence'? I'm sure that many useful definitions exist and a useful project for another day would be to explore these in greater detail. However, what do I mean (after all, this is my blog)?
For me, as a Muslim and an educator, confidence refers to a healthy belief that you are worthy of learning (or, more broadly, of living). Having confidence in yourself doesn't equate with arrogance, but rather to a broader sense of humility. That is, realising that you're unique (as is everyone else) and thus worthy of respect and thus effort. In some ways, this sounds like idealistic nonsense (and can sometime degenerate into a kind of 'edu-cheese'). But that is not what I mean.
With regards to education, confidence is a crucial factor. After all, if you don't believe in yourself how can you develop yourself effectively? During my time as Year One Tutor, I have come to see that confidence related issues lie behind virtually every instance of poor student engagement and performance.
A student with self-esteem issues will often not be able to access the learning opportunities available to them. This may manifest itself in non-attendance. It may also manifest itself in persistent lateness. These are often (subconscious) pleas for help, which tutors and teachers ignore at their peril (though this assumes that tutors have time to devote to such matters, which is increasingly not the case).
Low confidence can also manifest itself in an inability to engage. I remember one case in which a student didn't feel able to ask questions in anything than an individual forum. This obviously meant that their ability to effectively access learning was drastically reduced.
These issues are obviously deeply personal and deeply individual and there is no one-stop solution (and no quick fix). Ultimately, as confidence relates to all-round personal growth, there is a real limit to what a tutor/teacher/lecturer can achieve (not that this absolves us of responsibility). This leads us into the idea that education is a spiritual exercise. I've explored this elsewhere.
Student-centred learning, andragogy, lifelong learning and other such educational theories/paradigms all appear to me to be attempts at addressing these issues. But, when such ideals become mere policy constructs (with other objectives built into them) they can lose their way. In other words, the ideals of today often seem to degenerate into the buzz words of tomorrow (and thus the restrictive, outmoded concepts of yesterday). The inner core of a particular theory seems to die out when the intention behind its application changes. Intention is absolutely fundamental here (as it is in all areas of life).
If the motives behind current policy initiatives do not seem to be about strictly educational factors, then there is surely going to be a knock-on effect on the design of courses, etc. Staff do not produce their best work in conditions of stress. Is it any wonder, therefore, that a lot of our curriculum materials often fail to address the student as they are.
To conclude, I don't think this absolves us of responsibility, which returns us to the cardinal point: how can we help our students in developing their confidence? The answer to this question is beyond us here. However, I think real progress can be made if we understand the central significance of a student's self-esteem. In other words, we need to understand (in actuality) that it is about 'educating the whole person'.
Wa akhiru da'wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.
(And our last prayer is in praise of God, Lord of all the Worlds)
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

New Material on Family Explorations

Peace, one and all...
I've just posted some reflections on the study of family history on my latest blog, Family Explorations. I've added a link here because the material is of relevance to my educational interests.
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Perspective in Higher Education

Peace, one and all...
Here's another re-posted essay (I don't have time to post a link to the original page on The Corner at present). Enjoy!
Perspective in Higher Education
In his account of the early history of Islam, Muhammad ibn Sirin, a scholar of the mid-eighth century CE, commented on the growth of source criticism amongst Muslims:
‘They did not ask about the isnad[1], but when civil war … broke they said, ‘Name to us your men’; those who belong to the Ahl al-Sunna[2], their traditions were accepted and those who were innovators their traditions were neglected’
(quoted in A’zami, 1978, 213).
Such questions arose from a desire to ensure the accuracy and purity of religious doctrine, history and law. In other words, the isnad system marks the beginnings of a systematic development of three key concepts: evidence, analysis and ultimately, perspective. That this is so is reflected in another remark of ibn Sirin: ‘This knowledge is the religion, therefore, look to see from whom you are taking your religion’ (quoted in Zarabozo, 2000, 188).
In this journal, I want to offer some reflections on these three key concepts. In particular, I want to discuss two main points: the relationship of these ideas to each other and how I am trying to utilise such reflections in my teaching and course design.

However, before we begin, I feel it is important to properly set out the context of this discussion. As discussed previously, I am currently the Lifelong Learning Co-ordinator for my department. Amongst other things, this means that I am responsible for helping to develop new Religious Studies courses. As a new (and enthusiastic) teacher, I am also trying to develop new courses myself. I am now in the process of planning a course on Islamic History, due to start in January 2006. This course is aimed at Level 1 (the first year of an undergraduate degree) and will attempt to survey the early history of Islam – with a particular focus on historiography and the issues surrounding it. As such, I have been reading around the topic and although it is not my intention to offer a survey of contemporary literature, I seem to be repeatedly circling around three key questions. Namely, how should we assess evidence; how should we conduct our analysis; how does our own perspective colour our research?

Reflecting on my experiences throughout the PGCE, I am struck by the consideration that I keep returning to the question of perspective. I have repeatedly found myself looking at how a particular vantage point affects individual thought, action and learning. People have different personalities and hence, have different viewpoints. Necessarily, therefore, they also have different likes and dislikes – different learning styles in other words. Again, the roles of both teacher and student create their own peculiar perspectives. Educational institutions work within a certain framework and thus also have their own structural perspectives. Indeed, the more I reflect the more clearly I begin to see the pervasive influence of perspective.

To begin our examination of these key terms, it is helpful to try and understand them a little more clearly. Although not an exhaustive or even necessarily correct definition, the dictionary is a useful starting point. The Collins English Dictionary defines each term as follows:

Evidence: ‘ground for belief or disbelief; data on which to base proof or to establish truth or falsehood’

Analysis: ‘the division of a physical or abstract whole into its constituent parts to examine or determine their relationship or value’

Perspective: ‘a way of regarding situations, facts, etc., and judging their relative importance’

All three terms refer thus refer to assessing the strengths and weaknesses of particular claims and as such, all three closely relate to the intellectual skills of discrimination and judgement. Indeed, all three are deeply inter-related and cannot adequately be separated off from each other. It is methodologically dangerous (if not actually impossible) to refer to evidence before understanding your own perspective and the analytical processes which have led you to that standpoint. In other words, in order to construct effective analysis, you need to understand the ways in which your own view point affects your acceptance (and hence rejection) of evidence.

‘Look to see from whom you are taking your religion’: the Teacher as Participant
As even our cursory exploration has demonstrated, evidence, analysis and perspective are deeply and intimately connected. If this is true within text-based historical research, then it must also be the case in the field of teaching. Indeed, the teacher’s perspectives, and hence analysis and views of acceptable evidence, lie at the core of their work.

If education is a dialogue, then the teacher must accept and account for their particular perspective. Not that perspective should be seen as a necessarily negative quality. The fact that we all have different views means that we all have something unique to offer, something valuable to contribute. Teaching could thus be described as educational conversation – a discussion in which view points are exchanged and ideas expressed.

In reflecting upon my own development as a teacher, I find the idea of perspective both exciting and challenging. This is an exciting area of reflection because it forces me to think along new lines. I am forced to consider my own personal development, as well as that of my students. I am also forced to respond to the structural perspectives of the institution (and society) within which I teach. I find this a challenging thought too. This is because educational growth is not always (or perhaps is never) easy: I am forced to face my own limitations, fears and personality faults. I am also forced to closely investigate my own beliefs, values and assumptions. I suppose that I am referring here to my own development as a person, rather than in the artificial role of ‘teacher’.

Encouraging Thinking Skills
Given these insights, how then am I to help my students develop the intellectual skills they will need to work out their own views on evidence, analysis and perspective? Or, to refer to questions raised above, how should we assess evidence, how should we conduct our analysis and how does our own perspective shape our research?

As I have discovered through the PGCE, there are a wealth of models to assist teachers in developing these skills. Here, however, I am less concerned with such concrete practicalities. Rather, I would like to focus on a number of desirable qualities – the kinds of qualities I would personally associate with intellectual rigour.

Openness: by this I mean an openness to new ideas and perspectives, an open-minded approach to learning

Enthusiasm: or, an eagerness to learn – both in terms of substantive subject content and in methods of learning. In other words, the quality of actively enjoying learning.

Lateral thinking: the ability to look at problems from different and often neglected angles

Confidence: sufficient self-confidence to be able to communicate effectively and, perhaps more importantly, to highlight areas where further work is required

Valuing alternatives: the ability to respect and tolerate different opinions. However, more than a merely passive acceptance, I would argue that the value inherent in different opinions (in so far as they help us to look at old issues in new ways) needs to be actively valued.

How, then, can I encourage the development of these skills in my students? Firstly, I think it is vital that as a teacher, I display these qualities myself. Although, of course, no one is perfect, it is important that a teacher practice what they preach. How could I encourage openness if all I did was merely close down alternative approaches? Indeed, if teaching is an educational conversation then we need to be speaking the same language. Secondly, it is absolutely essential to develop the student’s confidence. Only confident learners can be fully engaged learners; only confident learners can be truly independent learners. This point again hints at the broader social development needed to successfully undertake higher learning.

The more I reflect, the more I come to realise that education is (or should be) about dialogue. The act of teaching and that of learning are conversations. The aim of these dialogues is to ensure that the information (conceived in its widest sense) that passes between teacher and student is as accurate and effective as possible. Indeed, problems start to occur when one side either does not understand what the other is saying, or when what is said is not fully understood. The task then seems to be to make our educational communication (whether that be verbal or non-verbal) as clear as possible. This is not to neglect the real issues connected with classroom power (and their social construction). Rather, it is to attempt to find ways to overcome such limitations, so that we can converse more freely and more fully.


A’zami, M M (1978), Studies in Early Hadith Literature, Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust

Zarabozo, J (2000), The Authority and Importance of the Sunnah, Denver: Al-Basheer Publishing

[1] Isnad literally means ‘chain’. However, it came to describe the chain of narrators of historical and religious knowledge.
[2] Ahl al-Sunna literally means ‘the people of the customary/correct path’ and is used within Sunni Islam to describe the ‘orthodox’ community.

Reflective Practice beyond the PGCE

Peace, one and all...
Here's another PGCE paper.
Seminar Paper: Reflective Practice beyond the PGCE

One of the key means by which this PGCE course has sought to develop our professional teaching abilities has been reflective practice. Throughout the course, we have been asked to reflect upon our own teaching experiences and then to relate them to a range of wider educational contexts. We have been asked to undertake such reflection in our journal writing and in our various assignment commentaries.

The importance given to reflection during the PGCE demonstrates its importance in the wider educational world. Since Dewey first suggested the concept in the early twentieth century, reflective practice has developed into a full-blown shift in the educational paradigm, particularly since the publication of Schon’s Reflective Practioner in 1983 (Richardson, 1990, 3-4). The significance of reflective practice in contemporary education should be clear in that it represents the now dominant theory of teacher training.

But to what extent is reflective practice a function of structured initiatives and programmes? In other words, can we only undertake reflection within a clearly defined programme? I suppose a simple answer is no. Reflection forms a part of our everyday world; as we react to our environments, we reflect and contemplate our responses on an almost continuous basis. But, is such contemplation really reflective practice?

Whilst the answer to this question is probably beyond us here, I would argue that truly reflective practice is more than just informal thinking (although this is certainly not to devalue such contemplative thinking which underpins reflective practice). As has become clear to me during the PGCE, true reflection can only take place within a structure. That is, the structure appears to be a necessary means of provoking and sustaining the critical analysis required by reflective practice.

Given this, in this seminar, I would like to pose one central question: namely, how can we continue to use reflective practice in our continuing professional development? In other words, if structure is really as significant as I have argued, how can we maintain ourselves as reflective practitioners after the conclusion of the PGCE?

As reflective practice becomes increasingly widely applied, one possible avenue might be found within reflective supervisory systems. Various performance measuring systems now take reflection as an axiomatic starting point. If we are fortunate to be a part of such a review programme then we might usefully use this framework as a means to continuously reflect on our progress as teachers. However, this presupposes that we work within such an environment, which is not always the case.

Furthermore, reflective practice, as I have come to understand it, is more about our own personal response than it is about external stimuli. In other words, our reflections are our own and not our line managers. The central issue is, then, how we can continue to utilise critical reflection ourselves.

As I have discovered during the PGCE, written work is a particularly effective means of developing reflective practice. There are a number of reasons why this is so. Firstly, written reflection is, as Ross says, a useful way to ‘preserve critical analysis’ (Ross, 1990, 103). As we have seen ourselves, written work allows the practitioner to look back and chart their own development. Secondly, writing offers the institutions in which we work the opportunity to ‘challenge and support…reflective thinking’ (Ross, 1990, 104). Thirdly, it offers a useful structure in which we can develop our own ideas.

Having highlighted its usefulness, how can we make use of written reflective practice in our own professional development? Again, I feel that there needs to be a structure of some kind to make such practice truly reflective: but what kinds of structures are available?

Some degree of written reflective practice may already be incorporated into our annual review procedures. If so, then this offers the opportunity (albeit on a limited scale) to continue with written reflection. However, I would suggest that this is a rather limited opportunity: to be effective, reflection needs to be an ongoing and not merely annual activity.

Another possibility is that of informal reflective practice. If reflection is supposed to be our own response, then surely it is our own responsibility. By continuing to write reflectively (as time and other pressures allow), we are taking control of our own professional development. Nevertheless, given the intrusion of other pressures, it will undoubtedly be difficult to maintain such practice for long. On the other hand, this is certainly true of development in a more general sense. If, then, we are to develop we have to find creative ways to continuously develop ourselves.

Discussion Questions

1. How can we continue to use reflective practice after the conclusion of the PGCE?

2. What techniques can we use to foster and encourage such reflective practice?


Clift, R T et al., (eds., 1990), Encouraging Reflective Practice in Education, London: Teachers College Press

Richardson, V (1990), ‘The Evolution of Reflective Teaching and Teacher Education’ in in Clift, R T et al., (eds., 1990), Encouraging Reflective Practice in Education, London: Teachers College Press, pp. 3 - 19.

Ross, D D (1990), ‘Programmatic Structures for the Preparation of Reflective Teachers’ in Clift, R T et al., (eds., 1990), Encouraging Reflective Practice in Education, London: Teachers College Press, pp. 97-118.

Learning Technology

Peace, one and all...
Here's paper 4! Once I figure out the technology, I intend (insha Allah) to post powerpoint presentations and other such material. For now, enjoy!
Learning Technology: Dealing with Bibliographies: an Interactive Guide
Teacher’s Notes

Context & Aim
Dealing with Bibliographies: an Interactive Guide is an interactive PowerPoint presentation aimed at improving the bibliographical skills of undergraduate students in Religious and Theological Studies. It is particularly aimed at first year students, as well as those with underdeveloped referencing skills. No prior knowledge of bibliographies is therefore assumed or necessary. Nevertheless, the guide can also be used by students in a wide range of disciplines.

This guide is part of a wider study skills and tutorial programme within the School and aims to complement and not replace other forms of learning. The guide exists within a framework of in-course embedded study skills support.

The guide’s stated aim is:

To introduce students to the purposes, format and construction of an academic bibliography

Learning Objectives
Once students have worked through the guide, they should be able to:

• Understand the purpose of bibliographies in academic writing
• Recognise some of the main features of an accurate bibliography
• Begin compiling bibliographies according to set criteria

The guide is broken down into component sections in order to facilitate these objectives. The overarching objective of the guide is to promote student independence. The guide aims to provide a means whereby students can develop their referencing skills at their own pace and in their own time.

The guide has been designed as an aid to self study. As such, it is envisioned that students will either use the guide in University libraries and computer centres, or else will download it onto their home computers. It can, however, be used as an in-class aid by teachers. With minimal adaptation, the guide could be converted into a PowerPoint lesson on bibliographical skills.

The guide is divided into a number of discrete sections. Each section aims to build on the previous one. These sections are as follows:

Basic Features
Referencing Styles
Primary Sources
Journals, etc
Edited Volumes
The Internet
Difficult Material
Further Help

The guide can be used in a number of different ways. Students can use the guide sequentially and take each module in turn. This method is recommended for first time users. By using the guide in this manner, students will develop a holistic understanding of bibliographies, why they are useful and the practical steps in generating them. More advanced students can navigate through the guide and take individual modules as appropriate. Indeed, the guide has also been designed to act as an aide memoire. After an initial sequential use, it is anticipated that students will keep the guide on their home computers and refer to individual sections as necessary.

Operating Considerations
To successfully run the guide, students require access to a computer with Microsoft PowerPoint (most commonly found as part of the wider Microsoft Office Suite). Although the programme may well run on older versions, the guide will run best on PowerPoint 2003. The ability to store the presentation on a local hard drive is also essential, as one of the guide’s key aims is to provide an ongoing aide memoire.

Project Evaluation

In this section, I would like to offer an evaluation of my ICT guide. In particular, I want to address the following questions: is it a good learning tool; does it promote student development; does it extend classroom practice effectively; and finally, does it achieve its stated aims and objectives? A second major aim of this evaluation is to include some examples of student feedback. In other words, in assessing the usefulness of this ICT project it is essential that we find out what the actual users themselves thought of it.

Why Use ICT?
In order to contextualise our evaluation of the project effectively, it is useful to have a broad understanding of some of the key uses of ICT in contemporary education. This will be especially significant here, as understanding the aims of the guide is crucial to evaluating its performance.

Although an in-depth examination of the use of ICT in education is beyond our scope here, it is worth drawing our attention to some of the key reasons. Meadows & Leask (2000, 1-19) have identified five major factors:

Political Reasons: the Government has increasingly placed the development of ICT skills at the heart of education, hence there is ‘political’ value in using such learning technologies (Meadows & Leask, 2000, 3-4)

Personal/Professional: as teachers in contemporary society, we make heavy use of ICT. Familiarity with ICT has thus helped inform our broader teaching. (ibid, 4-5)

Professional/Pupils’ Needs: changes in the social and political regard of ICT has led to a dramatic increase in its use (ibid, 5)

Professional/Curriculum: new curriculum developments are increasingly distributed through the medium of ICT, increasingly the educational dependence on such technologies (ibid, 5-6)

Professional/Educational Theory: of arguably greater significance are the ways in which ICT appears to be allowing a wider range of teaching and learning strategies. ICT seems to be particularly adept at strengthening a range of skills, whilst also encouraging greater learner autonomy (ibid, 7-10)

Design Issues
Heppell (quoted in Bruntlett 1999, 73) suggests that there are three broad stages in designing a multimedia educational aide:

A ‘Narrative’ stage in which learners watch and note
An ‘Interactive’ stage where learners can choose and do
A ‘Participative’ stage in which learners can contribute and create (adapted from Bruntlett, 1999, 73).

In designing this guide, I attempted to focus more closely on the first two stages. This was a conscious decision and reflected the guide’s aim as a first level bibliographical aide. As such, I focused on providing ‘narrative’ and in a limited sense, interaction. With hindsight, I could have usefully included more interaction. I also intended the guide as a complementary learning tool. That is, it was not intended to replace classroom teaching in any way.

In evaluating the guide, it is important to first have an accurate understanding of its avowed learning aims and objectives. In other words, in deciding whether the project was a success we need to assess the extent to which it achieved its objectives. The aim of the guide was:

• To introduce students to the purposes, format and construction of an academic bibliography

I attempted to achieve this aim through making the guide a potentially downloadable resource. On the whole, I feel that the project achieved this aim well. Bibliographical skills are arguably not the most exciting of subjects. As such, to address this challenge effectively it was important to stress two points. Firstly, a modular design was required. This was so that users could tackle small bite-sized units in an easy to absorb manner. Secondly, it was important to design a guide that could be used to explore specific topics quickly and easily. Against these criteria, I feel that the guide was a success. Users are easily able to delve into small sections as required, as well as being able to get the whole picture.

It is also important to bear in mind that this guide was intended as an interactive aide memoire. As such, I feel that it achieved this aim well. Nevertheless, to improve the guide in the future, I would attempt to make it more interactive. That is, I would attempt to build more tasks into the programme.

The guide’s objectives were:

• Understand the purpose of bibliographies in academic writing
• Recognise some of the main features of an accurate bibliography
• Begin compiling your own bibliographies according to set criteria

As such, I feel the guide met these learning objectives very successfully. The lesson was, I feel, structured logically and effectively. I was particularly pleased by the modular element of the programme. I was very concerned to make this learning tool modular and I feel I was successful.

Peer Feedback
My peer feedback was almost entirely positive. The other group members commented on its logical structure and the fact that it could be navigated in either sequential or modular fashion. The ability to download, use and keep the guide for later reference was also seen to be a strong point. The main improvement that was suggested was the possible inclusion of more tasks to make the guide more interactive.

User Feedback
The final section of this evaluation is, arguably, the most important. In assessing the strengths and weaknesses of my guide it is essential to get the feedback of actual users. I piloted this guide with two students on a number of occasions. Both students required extra study skills support and were thus ideal candidates. Although I did not issue questionnaires to each participant, I questioned them closely on how they found the guide.

In general, both students found referencing and bibliographical skills difficult. This seems to have been a result of the ‘dryness’ of the topic, as well as its traditional means of presentation. Both students found the guide an extremely useful means of covering the subject. Moreover, both liked the somewhat alternative nature of the guide’s format. The ability to download and store the guide on a local PC for later perusal was also felt to be an extremely useful function. Given the problems that both students had had with particular, involved aspects of referencing, such a format was especially useful. Both students have kept versions of the guide to use as later required. This indicates that they found it useful; it also demonstrates that the guide met one of its key aims.

Both learners suggested improvements. One suggested that it would be useful to have more assigned tasks. Upon reflection, I feel that this is a fair comment; indeed, it is one I had thought of myself. The other user suggested breaking the guide down into smaller components. Upon reflection, I am unconvinced of the usefulness of such an approach. The aim was to provide an easy introduction to the whole topic. Breaking the guide into smaller chunks would have gone against this aim.

In conclusion, I was pleased with my first serious effort at designing computer-based learning tools. It was an enjoyable challenge and provided with a new angle from which to consider effective teaching and learning.


Bruntlett, S. (1999), ‘Selecting, Using and Producing Classroom-based Multimedia’, in Leask, M. & Pachler, N. (1999, eds.), Learning to Teach Using ICT in the Secondary School, London: Routledge, pp. 51-70

Leask, M. & Meadows, J. (2000, eds.), Teaching and Learning with ICT in the Primary School, London: Routledge Falmer

Leask, M. & Pachler, N. (1999, eds.), Learning to Teach Using ICT in the Secondary School, London: Routledge

Meadows, J. & Leask, M. (2000), ‘Why Use ICT?’, in Leask, M. & Meadows, J. (2000, eds.), Teaching and Learning with ICT in the Primary School, London: Routledge Falmer, pp. 1-19

Curriculum Planning & Issues

Peace, one and all...
Here's paper no. 3!
Curriculum Planning and Issues: Summary
This paper aims to discuss the relationships between the theory and practice of curriculum development. In particular, we will be discussing the interplay of these relationships within the framework of a group presentation.

Although an exhaustive commentary is well beyond the scope of this work, it is important that we first understand the aim, structure and content of both presentation and evaluation.

My group presentation (delivered with XXXXX) focused on the design of a staff development course centred on promoting physical access, within the framework of new disability legislation (DDA 1995; SENDA 2001). The course had two main aims. Firstly, it sought to promote awareness of new legislative requirements. Secondly, it sought to develop an empathetic understanding of physical access and its impact upon education.

Theoretical Models
In designing our course we drew upon a number of theoretical models. Our selections were based on two main factors. Firstly, we drew on our understanding of their apparent usefulness. In other words, we took something of a utilitarian approach, selecting from other models as appropriate. Secondly, we drew on our understandings of their theoretical structure. That is, we felt it important to use models which reflected and supported a problem-based learning approach.

As such, our course was designed using a number of different models. We were both keen to focus on the following areas: course content, educational process and situational context. Thus we attempted to look at what we were trying to teach, how we were attempting to teach it and crucially, the framework within which our course would be delivered (Armitage et al, 1999, 170-171; Cannon & Newble, 2000, 143).

Philosophical Issues
Rather than focusing on a single philosophical approach, our course planning drew on a number of ideological perspectives. Our purpose in this regard was twofold. Firstly, we hoped to draw on the strengths of a wide range of different understandings and thereby to promote useful reflection and growth. Secondly, we hoped to develop our awareness of how theory informs practice. In other words, we wanted to begin constructing our own philosophical models. Although I am at the beginning of my own teaching career, I felt it important to be developing my own understanding of how education moves and takes place.

Given the nature of our course (in that it sought to contribute to attitudinal change), Reconstructionism was an important influence. This philosophy holds that the purpose of education is to change society (Armitage et al, 1999, 177). Although such beliefs have been used negatively by totalitarian governments, our understanding was based far more on promoting the re-evaluation of contemporary attitudes. We also drew on ideas of Progressivism, especially in as far as we consciously sought to promote social integration (Armitage et al, 1999, 176).

However, arguably the most important philosophical influence was Liberal Humanism. This broad philosophy holds that education should be about improving the individual. As such, the promotion of personal growth and hence learner autonomy are crucial.

Addressing the ‘Hidden Curriculum’
Curriculum planning does not take place in a vacuum and is rarely a solo affair (Cannon & Newble, 2000, 143-144). Moreover, the values, prejudices, assumptions and beliefs of course designers form an implicit part of curriculum design. In developing new curricula, it is therefore vital to understand the significance of such ‘hidden’ factors. Acknowledging the ‘hidden curriculum’ is not an easy task and requires a radical shift in perspective.

Understanding the impact of these forces and then accounting for them, is difficult, though essential. If education is a dialogue (in which both teacher and learner communicate) then the key function of that conversation is to describe and discuss perspective. Indeed, the paradigm shift in education of the last few decades has largely been the product of an increasing awareness of the significance of perspective. Postmodernist critiques of contemporary cultures have arguably been the most important generator of such changes (Slattery, 1995, passim). Furthermore, if the task of education is transformation through learning then curriculum should also attempt to challenge inequality through such means (Slatter, 1995, 67-68).

Within the context of curriculum development, focus needs to be given to designing courses which both meet the multifarious needs of contemporary learners and challenge easy (and hence limiting) assumptions. We sought to address these issues firstly through communication. By attempting to discuss our vision of how the course should develop, we hoped to bring potentially ‘hidden’ areas to light. We both felt that the more we analysed the issues at hand, the more we would be able to address them. We also hoped to tackle these issues by focusing upon attitudinal change. The aim of our course was to challenge prejudices and to broaden the learners’ perspectives. Moreover, we hoped to address these issues and develop a holistic approach by bringing a range of staff from various areas of Higher Education (including support and secretarial staff).

The central aim of our planning was to address exclusion on a number of different levels. Firstly, we sought to address the issue of physical access for students and staff with disabilities. We consciously sought to look at how we could design a course which improved students’ ability to access Higher Education. Secondly, we sought to look at attitudinal exclusion. That is, we attempted to promote attitudinal change within those attending the course. This was why we chose to deliver our course through problem-based learning. On the whole, we were successful. The encouraging thing is that we both understood that there is a long way to go and that, for my part, I am keen to continue developing.


Armitage, A. et al. (1999), Teaching and Training in Post-Compulsory Education, Buckingham:
Open University Press

Cannon, R. & Newble, D. (2000, 4th Edition), A Handbook for Teachers in Universities and
Colleges, London: Kogan Page.

Neary, M. (2002), Curriculum Studies in Post-compulsory and Adult Education, Cheltenham:
Nelson Thornes

Slattery, P. (1995), Curriculum Development in the Postmodern Era, London: Garland Publishing

Stephenson, J. & Yorke, M. (1998), Capability and Quality in Higher Education, London: Kogan

Alternative Learning Strategies

Peace, one and all...
Here's another of my PGCE assignments. Insha Allah, I intend to expand some of them into more connected essays/narratives when I have some free time. But, for now, enjoy!
Alternative Learning Strategies: Problem-Based Learning: Commentary & Evaluation

The aim of this paper is to offer a reflective commentary on my ET07 group presentation on Problem-Based Learning (henceforth referred to as PBL). In particular, I aim to explore PBL theory and how my group utilised it in designing an alternative learning strategy. I will also examine the dynamics of my group and the actual structure of our strategy, before turning to an evaluation of our performance and that of my peers.

In a recent journal, I examined PBL and some its wider educational implications. In this commentary, I hope to take this exploration further by reflecting on my practical experiences.

Presentation Subject & Group Structure
Before we look more closely at PBL, it is important to understand both the subject of our presentation and the make up of our group.

My group consisted of myself and XXXXXXX (name omitted). We are both currently working in Higher Education institutions. XXXXXXX (name omitted) is involved in Environmental Science, whilst I work in the field of Religious Studies. Given such subject differences, we were keen to find areas that we could both use effectively. Moreover, we wanted to find a topic that would include two areas:

Applicability in different teaching environments
A strong focus on skills development

Furthermore, we were keen to link our work on alternative learning strategies with our ET08 curriculum project. We wanted to take a holistic approach to the development of curricula and the teaching strategies to be used within them. Given these requirements, we decided to develop learning strategies specifically related to access for people with disabilities. This topic met our requirements and also our interests: we are both interested in and involved with Disability related issues. As such, our project focused on staff training regarding recent disability legislation (DDA 1995; SENDA 2001) and was entitled: ‘Equality of Access: A Problem-based Learning Approach’.

Our learning strategy was designed as part of a half day staff awareness/development course, in which a wide range of Higher Education staff (both academic and non-academic) were introduced to the new legislation. However, we were very keen to avoid merely giving the group an unwieldy mass of information (which would soon be forgotten). Moreover, we were particularly eager to focus on attitudinal change. That is, we wanted to change staff attitudes towards disabled access and especially staff perceptions of related issues.

Understanding Problem-Based Learning
Before we can look at application of PBL, we must first clearly understand what it is. Thus, in this section, we will briefly examine the theory, philosophy and history of Problem-Based Learning.

Learning through the solving of problems has a very long history. Socrates set his students problems to solve by asking them questions, whilst Aristotle believed that a philosopher should start by looking for contradictions within explanations (Savin-Baden, 2000, 3; see also Engels, 1997, 18).

Despite this longer tradition, modern PBL arose in the American medical profession during the 1970s and 1980s (Boud & Feletti, 1997, 2-4; Engel, ibid). The search for new teaching methods came about as medical trainers found themselves under increasing financial pressure. Also, there were concerns that doctors were graduating without key skills:
‘What emerges are physicians without enquiring minds, physicians who bring to the bedside not curiosity and a desire to understand, but a set of reflexes that allows them to earn a handsome living’
(Bishop, 1983, quoted in Engel, 1997, 18).
PBL thus aimed to address these twin issues of limited resources and lack of skills development.

How, then, does PBL work? Although it seems an obvious comment, the essence of PBL is clearly apparent. That is, it aims to help people learn more effectively through the setting of problems. Instead of focusing upon lesson content, students are given minimal information and are then set a problem to solve. Within such approaches, the teacher’s role is that of a facilitator. The teacher provides students with assistance and support, as well as with a clear idea of the tasks limits/rules. The PBL model therefore requires that teachers spend a lot of time preparing tasks (rather than subject content). PBL theory holds that by getting students to utilise their learning practically, greater and faster access to higher order thinking skills can be gained (Savin-Baden, 2000, 68-84; Hegarty, 2000a, 9-11).

For example, undergraduates at Manchester University were asked to produce presentations addressing the difficulties of faith-based schools, as a means of getting inside Religious Studies (Hegarty, 2000a, 40-43; 2000b, passim). The aim here was to provide access to key debates through experience, rather than to initiate students into an otherwise arcane field of knowledge.

PBL should be clearly distinguished from problem-solving techniques, in which students are asked to prepare from a set text and then asked questions. As Savin-Baden makes clear, the focus of PBL is ‘in organizing the curricular content around problem scenarios rather than subjects or disciplines’ (Savin-Baden, 2000, 3).

As such, PBL seeks to develop the student’s competence and confidence. It addresses competence by helping the student to utilise their learning in a practical context. It inspires confidence in students because it shows them that their learning can be used and as we have seen, it is particularly good at drawing out all-important higher order thinking skills.

Applicability: Why Use PBL Here?
We had a number of considerations when deciding which alternative learning strategy to use. We wanted a strategy which met the following needs:

Strong focus upon skills development
Emphasis upon swift development of higher order thinking and valuing skills
Ability to work within limited financial and time constraints
Clear student-centred focus
Alternative to current teaching methods
Ability to address difficulties related to teaching to knowledge

As seen above, the PBL model was designed to meet similar objectives within the medical profession. As such, we felt that it was an eminently suitable method for our project, particularly as both group members face similar challenges in their own teaching.

Our Project: Aims, Objectives & Design
We wanted our course to have a number of aims:

• To increase awareness among Higher Education staff of the recent changes to Disability legislation and their impact in the education sector
• To develop a broad range of empathetic skills among staff and to encourage critical reflection on the implications of discriminatory practices
• To promote understanding of Disability & Access-related issues in a cost-effective manner
• To promote equality of opportunity for all

To meet these aims (within the context of a 30 minute presentation), we designed two different PBL tasks, of increasing complexity. There were a number of factors within this decision. Firstly, we wanted to stimulate engagement as quickly as possible. Secondly, we were keen to develop the students’ skill and confidence through a gradual approach; we hoped to show them in a steady, measured fashion that they could deal with these challenges.

Task One
In this initial task, we wanted to focus on the problem of disability access in as concrete and practical a manner as possible. We were especially concerned to show the group (through a PBL approach) that inability to access buildings properly, quickly and easily had a dramatic impact on ability and willingness to learn, as well as on responses to learning.

For this task, the class was split into three groups. Each group was given a map of a fictional Higher Education building. The map gave details about the physical nature of the building layout, with emphasis upon defects. Each group was asked to navigate to a specified room (in order to attend a fictional lecture). Each group was asked to cope with a different disability (Visual Impairment, Wheelchair Use and Dyslexia). During the task, the group were asked to consider the following questions:

How does the journey to the lecture room impact on your readiness to learn?
What things have made your efforts harder?
What things have made your efforts easier?
What would you change?
What would you leave as it is?

After the task, we drew out the key points in a short question and answer session.

Task Two
In this task, we aimed to extend the group’s learning by looking at the structural factors behind improving access. In this task, we wanted to get the group thinking about the problem of access from an institutional standpoint (the course being aimed at staff development).

As previously, the class was split into three groups. Each group was asked to look at a different aspect of the problem:

• Group 1: Adapting the Built Environment
• Group 2: Adapting Roles
• Group 3: Understanding Need

As part of the exercise, each group were given a limited amount of resources. We deliberately underestimated the resources available, because we felt that, as in the real world, some problems do not have ultimate, tidy solutions.

Evaluating Our Performance: Strengths & Weaknesses
On the whole, I was very pleased with our performance. I felt happy with the level of our project planning and felt that we had tackled the main issues. We had correctly identified a topic which would work well with a PBL approach.

I was especially pleased with our performance in relation to attitudinal change. Our strategy drew out a wide range of interesting and useful responses, some of which we had not anticipated. I felt that this showed two key successes. Firstly, we made use of a very suitable alternative learning strategy. PBL is very good at quickly shifting to higher order skills – and in drawing out the concomitant confidence which accompanies success. Secondly, by using a PBL approach we created a lot of student engagement. From previous experience, how well the group engages with the material is a good way of measuring a learning strategy’s effectiveness. In this case, I was pleased with the level of response and attention.

It is also important to realise that this was a first attempt; it was certainly the first time I had used PBL. As such, I feel we made good progress. In subsequent teaching, there are a number of areas in which we could improve our teaching. These include:

Greater experience: by gaining more experience with PBL, we will be able to understand its subtleties and strengths more clearly
Planning: as an approach, PBL requires a high degree of problem planning. In future, improvements could be made in the design and structure of PBL sessions.
Appropriateness: by understanding where we can use PBL effectively and where we cannot, vast improvements could be made.
Materials/Resources: with further experience, greater use could be made of a wider range of learning resources.
Time Planning: a more fully developed understanding of PBL will enable us to utilise time more effectively

There were also a number of areas in which our project was less well developed. As indicated above, I feel that these were largely the result of experience. For both members of my group, PBL is a very new and very alternative strategy. Consequently, this meant that we were not fully aware of PBL’s limitations and potential. Moreover, a more experienced PBL practitioner would have been able to plan this strategy more effectively (which, I suppose, would have meant that it was not as ‘alternative’)!

Experience was also a factor in a second area of weakness. The first session overran and because it had produced good results, we were reluctant to step in. Within such a limited framework we were unable therefore to really get to grips with task two. Indeed, we were only able to outline our ideas. Trying to do too much in too short a space of time is a feature of my teaching and one of which I am aware. As I have indicated elsewhere, this springs from experience and planning – especially so given the alternative nature of the strategy.

Evaluating My Peers
In what remains of this paper I would like to evaluate the performance of my peers. In particular, I would like to discuss the ways in which different groups did or did not use suitable strategies. Before I begin, it is important to note that, given the constraints of space, I will not attempt a group by group analysis. Rather, I would like to focus on a number of key themes. These themes have been drawn from literature provided by the tutors and include the following:

How ‘alternative’ did it feel?
Promoting Learner Autonomy
Promoting Participation
Could I Use It?
Theoretical Base
Develop Group & Communication Skills

How ‘alternative’ did it feel?
In general, I think that all of the group presentations were ‘alternative’. That is, on the whole, they offered a wide range of alternative learning strategies – or, at least, strategies that I was myself unfamiliar with. It was clear that a lot of thought and effort had gone into each presentation. However, with some groups, I was not really convinced that the strategies employed were alternative to them. In other words, I felt that some groups were probably utilising these strategies in their everyday work – which left me wondering how ‘alternative’ they really were. Despite this, there were two that really caught my attention. One group employed role play. Although this is a fairly mainstream approach, they made use of blindfolds and other props to drive home a direct, physical message. This had applicability for our own situation and worked well. Another group used story telling. I had not previously considered such an approach and felt it looked at the topic in a very fresh and engaging manner.

Most strategies were appropriate to their particular context. A lot of careful thought had obviously gone into producing these sessions and in making them relevant. I thought the first group, who had the class build egg-protecting machines, had designed a very appropriate session. It aimed to tackle team building skills and it did so very well. The story telling was also useful – it was a very appropriate method for helping students to construct their own knowledge. By contrast, I felt that the session dealing with grammar could have been structured more clearly.

Promoting Learner Autonomy, Participation & Skills Development
All of the strategies employed promoted learner participation and autonomy, to greater and lesser degrees. On the whole, the groups were successful. Having said that, I felt that those groups who had greater teaching experience were more successful in this regard. This is because developing autonomy is also a function of teaching style. That said, those sessions which used group work (particularly the session involving hair) had great success – the ability to work in smaller groups promotes active learning. Each session focused upon developing skills, which worked generally well. However, those sessions which required further planning could have been more effective in this regard.

Could I Use It?
I feel confident that I could make effective use of all of the strategies on offer here. They could all, with appropriate adjustment, form part of a well-balanced teaching strategy (success in this area being as much about delivery and personal performance as strategy). However, the health professions presentation was particularly relevant and could have been of immediate use in my own project.

The groups had all thought clearly and well about their use of resources and this generally showed through. A couple of sessions were practically based and hence resources were a major feature. Where this was the case, the results were successful. One group used cards to illustrate grammar. Although I feel that it could have been planned more effectively, I did feel that it utilised resources well. The session which attempted to build egg machines also used physical resources well. Other sessions (including my own) made heavier use of ICT.

Theoretical Base
Offering a full evaluation of each theory is well beyond our ability here. Instead, I will concentrate upon some key areas. In general, each group had clearly thought through the major implications of its chosen learning strategy. It is indeed difficult to strictly adhere to unfamiliar methods and models (as I found myself) and, on the whole, the groups managed it well. I was particularly impressed by the story telling method. The group using this approach had thought through their project clearly and had emerged with a valuable alternative strategy. Discovery Learning and other student-centred approaches were used well: especially in the health care session. Although it was not entitled PBL, I felt that the hairdressing approach was very close in terms of theory to our own project. As such, it was interesting to see another take on a similar method.

Using alternative learning strategies takes effort, understanding and time. Such demands are compounded when working as part of a group. Given these points, I enjoyed this project and feel that I have learnt from it.


Engels, C.E. (1997), ‘Not Just a Method But a Way of Learning’, in Boud, D. & Feletti, G. (eds.,
1997, 2nd Edition), The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning, London: Kogan Page,

Fry, H. et al. (2003, 2nd Edition), A Handbook for Teaching & Learning in Higher Education,
London: Routledge Falmer.

Hegarty, J.M. (2000a), Problem Based Learning Core Course Component, unpublished
Manchester University Course Materials.

Hegarty, J.M. (2000b), Problem Based Learning Core Course Component Final Report,
unpublished Manchester University Course Materials.

Savin-Baden, M. (2000), Problem-based Learning in Higher Education: Untold Stories,
Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

The Context of Post-Compulsory Education

Peace, one and all...
This is an essay I originally wrote during the second year of my PGCE. I've posted it here for your viewing pleasure! Enjoy!
The Context of Post-Compulsory Education: Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the development of Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University, with special emphasis on the work carried out within the Religious Studies department. A particular focus will be on analysing the impacts of wider policy and theoretical changes on local practice.

Before we begin our analysis, we need to look briefly at the concept of Lifelong Learning and its development as an educational theory.

From its origins in the late 1970s, Lifelong Learning has arguably become the most important concept in continuing education today (Coffield, 1996, 1-16; Field & Leicester, 2000, xvi-xix; Longworth & Davies, 1996, 7-20). Indeed, for some, it represents a real paradigm shift away from older ideas of adult education towards a more-student centred inclusive approach. This drive towards the knowledge society, diversification and social inclusion is felt to lie at the heart of Lifelong Learning. Thus, Smith & Spurling (1999) argue in the following terms:
‘…the injustice of the nation’s unequal learning record; the calamity of the UK economy, trapped in a pit of low skill and poor application of knowledge; and the conviction that a way towards a more humane and civilised society can be found through lifelong learning, centre on ethical and democratic principles’
(Smith & Spurling, 1999, 3).
As can be seen from this quote, Lifelong Learning seeks to address three key areas: educational inequality, poorly developed skills and ‘ethical’ growth. The strong emphasis on social cohesion and development is one of the hallmarks of Lifelong Learning theorists (see Williamson, 1998, 1-17). Consequently, there is an ideological drive towards inter-connection (see Chapman & Astin, 1997, especially 167-170; Longworth & Davies, 1996). In other words, there is a growing recognition that true societal change through learning can only take place through the collective efforts of society as a whole.

Another distinctive aspect of Lifelong Learning is its focus on economic development. Poor economic engagement is a major social issue in contemporary Britain and Lifelong Learning is seen as one of the key means of overcoming such problems and thereby developing the much-touted ‘Knowledge Economy’. Despite the apparent challenge to current inequalities, it is interesting to note that the way these ideas are expressed through the medium of Lifelong Learning is avowedly capitalist, as Milliband makes abundantly clear:

‘capitalism is more firmly embedded in the social order than it ever was … Market relations are insistently praised as the most desirable form of individual and social interaction; and there never has been a time when commercialisation has more thoroughly come to pervade all spheres of life’
(Milliband, 1994, 10, quoted in Watson & Taylor, 1998, 16).

Smith & Spurling (1999, 9) argue that Lifelong Learning consists of two distinct elements. The first is defined as empirical, in that it refers to factual content. The second element is a moral, in which Lifelong Learning is said to have a distinct ethic. In gaining a sense of ideas and values common to much of the literature on the subject, it is worth looking at these in a little more detail. The empirical element is believed to include:

· Learning throughout the lifespan
· Wide boundaries: learning should transcend, and implicitly challenge, perceived ideas
· Continuity: in that the learning is more or less continuous
· Intention and planning: lifelong learning should be intended and planned

Smith & Spurling argue that the moral element of Lifelong Learning should include:

Personal commitment: lifelong learners should take an active and sustained interest in their own learning

Social commitment: in other words, learners recognise their obligation to share their learning with others

Respect for others’ learning: in other words, the rights of all individuals and organisations involved in learning are respected and valued

Respect for truth: in other words, the learner should subject their own internal lives to what they have learned, changing values which are demonstrably at odds with new evidence (adapted from Smith & Spurling, 1999, 10-11)

Having discussed the development of Lifelong Learning as an educational theory, we can now begin our exploration of the peculiar experience of Cardiff. Given the changing nature of the field, it seems best to give a very brief overview of the current arrangement and then to trace the origins of the present reality through the last fifteen or so years.

At present, the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff runs all of the University’s continuing education provision. This is, in the main, delivered either through the Centre’s academic staff or else through part-time tutors. Courses are arranged into subjects (of which there are currently approximately fifteen) and each subject is overseen by a Co-ordinating Lecturer, who is usually a full-time member of the Centre’s staff (see Centre for Lifelong Learning, 2005, 20). As members of the Centre, Co-ordinators must also liaise with the relevant internal academic departments. Thus, the Co-ordinator for Welsh (and an experienced lecturer in her own right) works in consultation with the University’s School of Welsh. One of the key roles for the Co-ordinator is the development of new courses. Religious Studies is, by contrast, organised somewhat differently. The Co-ordinator (in this case myself) works as a member of both the Centre and the internal academic School. This has meant that the role of liaison is more forcefully emphasised here than elsewhere.

Cardiff University has been involved in continuing education since the late 1970s. During the 1980s, its courses were delivered through the Department of Extra Mural Studies. The department’s explicit aim was to offer:

‘a meeting-point – between the university and the general public of south-east Wales, between those who have received much formal education and those who say not have done so, between people interested in furthering their vocation or career and those who wish to pursue a subject for its own sake as a leisure interest’ (Dept. of Extra Mural Studies, 1990, 4)

In pursuance of this aim, the department offered a Diploma in Extra Mural Studies (ibid, 4-5). The Diploma’s chief function was to provide a structure for either learning for its own sake (as a leisure activity) or else as a platform for University entry, in much the same manner as Access courses. ‘Religion’ was one of the subjects in which the Diploma could be gained, from the successful completion of certain courses (see Dept. of Extra Mural Studies, 1990, passim; 1991, passim for examples).

In 1992, the Department underwent a major period of reform, ultimately becoming the Department for Continuing Education. The nature of these reforms are interesting and shed some light on the workings of continuing education within the context of Higher Education at this time.

There were two key debates regarding continuing education at Cardiff during the mid-nineties. The first was financial. How was the University to utilise its resources to deliver its objectives in as cost effective a manner as possible. The second issue was organisational structure. In particular, this related to delivery methods: should the department employ subject experts of its own, or should it play more of a consultative, organising role – merely ‘buying in’ teaching from the relevant academic schools? These debates took a number of years to resolve, with the result that the department continues to employ its own subject specialists.

The change of title also reflected a desire to move with the times. By the mid-nineties, the term ‘extra mural studies’ had come to sound rather dated and was furthermore associated with a particular type of education. ‘Continuing Education’ by contrast was designed to appear more inclusive:

‘The Department has changed its name, to a modern one which recognises the broad coverage of our work and is also our mission statement…’
(Dept. of Continuing Education, 1992, ii)

Further evidence of the move to greater inclusion can be seen in the opening in the same year of a Centre for Continuing Vocational Education (ibid., 4). Vocational education has long been a feature of part-time and evening classes and in this sense, the new Centre was not unusual. However, the new focus on making vocational learning explicit marked something of a departure and mirrored attempts within the wider educational world to draw out and hence strengthen this growth area (for further discussion see Reeve et al, 2002; Longworth & Davies, 1996, 57-72). Some representative examples of this trend include European Union and UK government statements on the need to place continuing education on a more vocational footing (EU, 2005)

Moreover, the Diploma was placed on a more formal footing and given virtual equality with Access courses (ibid, 102). Despite this, students still had to (and still have to) negotiate entrance to undergraduate courses on a case by case basis, with different academic schools having different requirements. Although Religious Studies was still an integral part of the Diploma, the organisational structure behind this subject meant that it was more difficult to draw up a coherent plan. At that time, the role of Co-ordinator was combined with that of School Administrator, which meant that continuing education was merely one competing role amongst many.

During the mid-nineties, Lifelong Learning rose to educational, social and ultimately, political prominence (Coffield, 1996, 1-16; Field & Leicester, 2000, xvi-xix). As we saw above, this was partly a result of developments in educational theory – particularly in its growing inter-dependence with sociological disciplines. Thus, education has increasingly been placed within its societal context – being seen to be a part of and move within, a particular social and cultural framework (Williamson, 1998).

Another factor behind the rise of Lifelong Learning was its take up by government. Central government’s enthusiastic involvement with Lifelong Learning can be seen growing in strength during the mid-nineties. 1996 was a particularly important year, with the European Year of Lifelong Learning and the publication of a government White Paper, entitled Lifetime Learning: A Policy Framework (EU, 2005; Elliott, 1996, 31)[1]. Within this influential document we find an important statement of the then government’s view of Lifelong Learning:

‘Lifetime Learning is not a Government programme, or the property of one institution. It is a shared goal relating to the attitudes and behaviour of many employers, individuals ad organisations. Government has a part to play but governments alone cannot achieve the cultural changes involved in making a reality of lifetime learning’.
(DfEE, 1996, 4 quoted in Elliott, ibid).

Whilst shared responsibility is a cornerstone of Lifelong Learning, it could be argued (somewhat cynically) that one reason for its popularity with the government is that much of the work is, in a sense, privatised. This may be seen as another indication of the capitalist uses to which Lifelong Learning can be put. The point perhaps becomes clearer when the wider context of HE during this period is explored. The expansion of the UK HE sector during the nineties has produced a much larger pool of graduates; in such an environment, there is a drive to acquire something extra, which undoubtedly accounts for some of the rise in ongoing vocational education (newly re-packaged as Continuing Professional Development).

These changes in the wider educational climate were mirrored at Cardiff by another organisational transformation. In 1998, the Department was renamed, becoming the Department for Continuing Education and Professional Development (Dept. for Continuing Education and Professional Development, 1998, 2). Amongst other things, the key driver of this change came from central government: ‘The Government’s backing of lifelong learning for all has boosted interest in part-time education…’ (Dept for Continuing Education and Professional Development, ibid). Despite these changes, owing to its peculiar organisational structure, Religious Studies proceeded in much the same way as it had done previously. This was partly due to high staff turnover and partly to the slightly anomalous manner in which it was administered.

The Department evolved into its current form in 1999, becoming the Centre for Lifelong Learning. The apparent rational behind this change was to provide a more user-friendly, accessible service (Centre for Lifelong Learning, 1999, 3). In essence, this brings us to the current system outlined above. From here, we will therefore concentrate on a number of key themes affecting Lifelong Learning as it currently exists at Cardiff University.

The introduction of the Credit Accumulation and Transfer System (CATS) has arguably been the most important challenge facing the Centre in recent years. The credit system, designed to encourage modularisation and easy transfer between institutions, involved the department in some major reorganisation. In particular, the issue of equivalency between old and new course formats required careful thought and implementation.

Within recent years, one of the most important challenges facing Lifelong Learning at Cardiff has been the withdrawal funding for non-accredited courses. Although this money has been transferred to the Centre’s Widening Access budget, this removal has had two major impacts. Firstly, it has meant that the cost of non-accredited courses has risen sharply. This has on occasion led to excluding the very people that Lifelong Learning is trying to reach. It has also, more indirectly, led to a further growth in vocational training.

Secondly, these changes have given further impetus to the drive towards accreditation. This is due to the fact that non-accredited courses have risen appreciably in price since the removal of funding. The subsequent pressure for credits has further reinforced this trend. In order to qualify for credits, a student must attempt (though not necessarily pass) all of the relevant coursework. This has led to a change in emphasis away from the more old-fashioned ‘leisure’ view of continuing education towards a more business-related ethic. Indeed, Lifelong Learning is itself oriented towards such professionalisation. It is also due to a more general rise in interest in accreditation. This seems to be an increasingly important phenomenon. As modularisation has taken hold and a more flexible view of education has developed, accredited courses have become more popular at Cardiff.

The rise of Continuing Professional Development is another important feature of Lifelong Learning at Cardiff. As we saw above, vocational education has long been a feature of continuing education. In recent years, however, the link with business and professional growth has been strengthened in an explicit and concrete manner. A reflection of this change at Cardiff was the addition of CPD was to the department’s title in 1998 (see above). This has also led to the creation of a separate CPD group within the Centre and, with devolution, has led to a growth in tailor made courses, especially in the area of Welsh language training.

All of these issues affect Religious Studies as it currently stands. Two important challenges face Lifelong Learning within Religious Studies. The first is financial. Given the changes outlined above, part-time courses operate within a much stricter financial regime. This means that only decisions regarding new courses are made against the backdrop of financial viability. The second relates to structural issues. Specifically, the somewhat anomalous structure of Lifelong Learning provision within Religious Studies has made it more difficult to make inter-connections within the Centre.

In conclusion, the theory of Lifelong Learning offers an important and timely re-evaluation of continuing education within the context of contemporary society. Its major strength is that it seeks to develop a joined-up approach to delivery and includes a very strong economic component. The Centre for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff has evolved to take these changes into account. The main challenge over the last ten years at least has been in finding a strong organisational system with which to deploy learning that is truly life long. The committed staff (and students) of the Centre make such development likely. The main question is how to develop a proper structure in which the Centre’s work can be refined. In the end, despite challenges, developing a more flexible educational system is important, necessary and hopefully enjoyable, work: ‘Remember, lifelong learning is not a prison sentence but an invitation to pleasure, achievement and progress’ (Centre for Lifelong Learning, 1999, 3).


Centre for Lifelong Learning (1999), Choices, Cardiff: Cardiff University

Centre for Lifelong Learning (2005), Choices, Cardiff: Cardiff University

Chapman, J. D. & Aspin, D. N. (1997), The School, the Community and Lifelong Learning, London:

Coffield, F. (1996, ed.), Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, Newcastle: University of
Newcastle upon Tyne

Coffield, F. (1999a, ed.), Speaking Truth to Power, Bristol: The Policy Press

Coffield, F. (1999b, ed.), Why’s the Beer Always Stronger Up North?, Bristol: The Policy Press

Department for Continuing Education (1992), Part-time Continuing Education Courses for the
Public 1992-1993, Cardiff: Cardiff University Press

Department for Continuing Education (1995), Part-time Courses for the Public 1995-1996, Cardiff:
Cardiff University

Department for Continuing Education and Professional Development (1998), Choices: Adult
Education Prospectus 1998-1999, Cardiff: Cardiff University Press

Department for Extra Mural Studies (1990), Part-time Continuing Education Courses for the Public
1990-1991, Cardiff: Cardiff University Press

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1991-1992, Cardiff: Cardiff University Press

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London: Routledge Falmer

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Kingsley Publishers

European Commission (2005), Lifelong Learning, accessed Monday 11th April

Field, J. (2002, ed.), Promoting European Dimensions in Lifelong Learning, Leicester: NIACE

Field, J. & Leicester, M. (2000), Lifelong Learning: Education Across the Lifespan, London:
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[1] For a further exploration of the European dimensions of current approaches to Lifelong Learning, see Field, 2002.

Reflections on Tutoring...

Peace, one and all...
Here are some observations and reflections on the role of the tutor. I originally posted them to The Corner, but they're obviously more at home here.
The Role of the Tutor
In recent months, I have increasingly come to see education in terms of conversation. That is, effective education can be seen as a dialogue between both teacher and student. Society at large also has a very important role to play (and thus our dialogue becomes a trialogue). In this current journal, I would like to explore another important aspect of this conversational relationship. In particular, I want to discuss my thoughts and observations relating to my role as a Personal Tutor.

Before we can begin our exploration, I feel it is important that we first establish our context appropriately. One of my main educational roles is that of Year 1 Personal Tutor. Although other aspects of my work involve student support in a broad sense (especially in what might be labelled a ‘pastoral’ setting), here my role is more strictly related to academic support. It is, therefore, my role to offer help and advice on my students’ academic development (in terms of ‘study skills’ for example), as well as on their educational plans (in terms of helping them to decide which courses they would like to take).

This role also exists within a wider University framework. As a formal Personal Tutor, I am obliged to follow specific guidelines relating to practice and conduct. Thus although I am required to meet my tutees at least three times during the year, I also see them regularly on a more informal basis.

Reflections on Dialogue
As a Personal Tutor, it is my responsibility to help my students develop and thus direct their studies themselves. In order for me to help them do this, I need to develop skills in three distinct areas:

Listening Skills

Although listening skills may seem an obvious choice in such a list, I think it is important to underline its significance. On reflection, listening seems to break down into two distinct categories – the physical skill of listening and the skill of actually hearing what the other person is saying. Both require effort to master properly. The physical skill consists of hearing the other person’s voice. In other words, as a tutor, I need to listen carefully to what my tutees are actually saying; I need to ‘hear’ them. Hearing, in this sense, takes a lot of practice and involves a number of sub-disciplines. Of particular significance, I feel, is letting the person speak themselves. There are times when we try to finish other people’s sentences. Whilst this might appear to be a very natural thing to do, it can also be very harmful. The point of dialogue is to bring the views, ideas and beliefs of two people into correspondence. And, whilst our own ‘voices’ may be well developed and sufficiently ‘loud’ to engage in such dialogue, we are trying to help others develop their own abilities. We cannot achieve this by putting our words into the mouths of others.

Trying to hear what the other person is really saying is not easy. It is, however, the only way to achieve effective communication. Here, I feel the skill of listening leads into other inter-connected areas. My aim as a tutor is to help the individual student to develop confidence in their own ability to make choices. Or, in other words, the tutor is there to help students understand the choices before them so that they can make informed decisions for themselves.

As such the role of tutor demands from me an understanding of my own hidden motivations. In offering to my tutees my own insights (such as they are), I have to constantly avoid leading them; I have to find ways to help them make their own choices. On one level this is relatively straightforward. They must choose their own path and so they alone bear ultimate responsibility. On a deeper level, though, this is extremely complex. Everything I say and everything I do has an effect on my tutees. How, therefore, can I avoid leading them in some way, even though I may not be conscious of it? How can I avoid indirectly leading someone where I want them to go?

Once again, as is often the case, I have no clear answers to offer. It seems to me that I cannot offer a truly objective service because I cannot myself be truly objective. Reflecting on this fact for a moment, however, does seem to provide some help. If I cannot offer objectivity to my tutees then I will have to offer them my very subjectivity. In other words, I think that my own personal insights and experiences are useful in themselves. Although I am certainly not special in any sense, I can remember benefiting from the insights of others. Necessarily, therefore, others should be able to draw on my experiences for their own benefit. Perhaps, then, this is the whole point? Well, at the very least, this seems a good place from which to start.

In order to move forward, I also believe that I need to develop skill in dealing with difficult issues. As I have discovered, the learning process is deeply affected by external pressures. Financial difficulties, emotional problems and family troubles all impact on a student’s engagement with learning. Although I have no magic wand with which to address these issues, I do have to deal with them on a regular basis. How then should I react in such circumstances? How can I deal sensitively with deeply rooted personal problems, whilst also maintaining sufficient professional distance?

It is at this point that the role of the tutor blurs to some extent with that of counsellor. Although there is a clear boundary in some senses, it is not always to determine where it actually lies. I am also still not clear on how to approach such situations. My natural inclination is to offer an emotional response. Because I am very interested in the idea of redemption, my first thought always seems to be to offer reassurance and support. But, is this always the appropriate response? Are there times when a less personal method (for want of a better description) is required? From my own personal experience, I am aware that sometimes we need to feel the consequences of our actions (and those of others). At the very least, I realise that developing these skills will take time and effort.

The Tutor as Guide
Given these reflections, I have come to understand my role to be that of a guide. Upon reflection, the idea of a guide seems to suit this kind of role and thus seems particularly appropriate to me. A guide is someone who has already made a journey of their own (in this case an educational one). This need not be the same journey (which is in any case impossible). A guide (or traveller) has explored learning themselves and can then pass on the insights they have gained to the tutee. Because each journey is individual and hence different from all others, the guide is not an impartial expert offering mere technical competence. In this model, the guide thus offers the tutee their experiences of travelling – their highs and lows, their successes and failures. As I have discovered during the course of the PGCE, one of the hallmarks of adult education is its emphasis upon developing the student’s awareness of their own life experiences. In other words, an adult’s previous experiences form a valuable resource in more formal ‘learning’.

As I think about these points, the spiritual dimension of teaching comes into increasing focus. ‘Education’, as I have used the term here, could equally be described as ‘transformation’ or ‘spiritual growth’. Although I have my own peculiar views and beliefs, I am not (consciously) referring to a particular belief system. Indeed, there seem to be two broadly different ideas at work here. The first could be called ‘understanding reality’. By that, I mean the ultimate nature of things, the ultimate reality of existence (however so conceived). There are, of course, many different understandings of ‘reality’ – some religious, some philosophical. Necessarily, however, understanding ‘reality’, if indeed possible, is certainly a long-term project. As such, this is perhaps less important here. Of arguably more significance is what might be termed the ‘human response’. By this, I mean the developmental response to ‘reality’. That is, how we as people grow and develop as we come to understand more about ourselves and our perspective on life. This point appears to be the essence behind such spiritual insights as ‘Know Thyself’ and ‘Physician Heal Thyself’ in that they do not refer to ‘God’ (or an outside reality) but rather to the required personal response.

Concluding Reflections
As a teacher, I am helping my students to develop their critical and analytical faculties so that they can then use them during their studies and then in later life. In that sense, a modern education in the humanities (principally history and religious studies in my case) represents a piece of the wider puzzle. What students choose to make of their learning is up to them; indeed, this is the whole point.