Kek & Huijzer

I read this brief article after I wrote my reflection on Savin-Baden, but never got round to noting down my thoughts, so this is happening later than I would have liked. Kek & Huijzer was an easier read than Savin-Baden which, as Erik noted, was rather hard to follow. However, despite the interesting title and abstract, with references to the university of the furture, 21st century skills, and PBL, I found this a less stimulating read.

First, though, I agree with the authors that:

Our purpose in higher education is to develop meaningful participation and engagement between students and ourselves – teachers, administrators, professional staff – and the ‘world’, and vice versa. (p.408)

I further agree with the vision that they articulate, which is where for them PBL comes into the equation: to achieve the above purpose, in particular in a world being disrupted by digital technologies (p.407), it is not just a question of:

facilitating students so that they can perform (qualification), but we must also ensure that they are being socialised (socialisation) into a ‘way-of-being’ (subjectification) that includes attributes and skills to take risks, to reason critically, to reflect, to be resourceful, and to be autonomous – qualities of lifelong learners – which will allow them to work and live productively in a world of uncertainties. (p.408)

I guess my main point is that it’s not clear to me why they think PBL is in a position to achieve this vision. So this was frustrating, and I decided to look into one of their key sources (other than Savin-Baden), namely Biesta.

Because of their emphasis on the purpose of HE, Kek & Huijzer here draw on the work of Gert Biesta, and for me this was probably the single most useful aspect of their paper. I thought that Biesta’s emphasis on the teleological character of education was really interesting, and likewise the distinction between qualification, socialisation and subjectification that he draws, so I went to look for the article and read it (Biesta 2015): recommended. The reason why purpose is so important for Biesta has to do with what he sees as the crucial role that teacher judgement plays in education, which implies normatively acting on the basis of values rather than because of ‘what works’ or what is supposedly ‘best practice’:

education is a teleological practice; that the telos of education is three-dimensional; and that, because of this, there is a need for judgement with regard to the three domains of purpose of education, their balance, the ‘trade-offs,’ and the educational ‘forms.’ I have also suggested that these judgements are first and foremost ‘of the teacher,’ because the teacher is constantly confronted with situations that, in some respects, are always new and hence call for judgement rather than the application of protocols or the enactment of abstract evidence about what allegedly ‘works.’ If education requires judgement, and if this judgement is ‘of the teacher,’ then it would follow that teachers have ample space and opportunity to exercise such judgement. (Biesta 2015, p.81)

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, certainly not in the case of learning and teaching, so we need to guard against dogmatism, i.e. the belief that one approach is simply ‘best’. Instead, it depends on what we are trying to achieve: the learning and teaching context is crucial. This then means that ‘good teaching’ is not just ‘good’ in the sense that it is high in quality (skilful, expert) or yields high-quality learning gains, but also in terms of what end purpose it has. In other words, teaching is good not only depending on its effectiveness but also its desirability (p.80); emphasis on ‘teaching excellence’ overlooks this normative dimension. Someone can be an excellent teacher in the sense of being really effective at teaching students to engage in questionable and indeed undesirable activities such as hacking websites.

The danger here may be for us to take PBL as orthodoxy without clearly thinking about our educational purpose. The Kek & Huijzer article surprisingly doesn’t say anything about this key aspect of the Biesta reading on which they draw, though to be fair they include the caveat that they are not providing “ready-made solutions nor is this about a toolbox of answers” (which suggests a critical attitude towards any and all approaches), and they clearly oppose an idea of learning and teaching premised on mere evidence-based effectiveness (see the reference to Barnett; p. 412).

Nevertheless, they all in all do seem to argue that PBL has the strong potential to “activate Savin-Baden’s (2014) concept of ‘liquid learning’” (p.409), thereby furthering reflective, life-long learning. And indeed, they argue that:

PBL, in its various adapted forms, is ideally suited to activate a way-of-being in students, partly because of its inherent focus on metacognition. (p.410)

And a couple of pages later:

Imagination and creativity are key to a better tomorrow, and we believe that PBL is ideally suited to help set them free. (p.412)

Even though, drawing on Savin-Baden’s notion of “liquid learning” derived from Bauman, they are arguing for a context-sensitive approach to PBL, which they term  what they term “agile PBL”, questions remain.  I found it frustrating that the authors really don’t provide justifications for their claims about PBL. Thus they claim that:

We believe that PBL, within an overall learning ecology, has the potential to help us imagine what a university might be in the future, and in the process create spaces for ‘imaginative mayhem’ for both students and teachers, as well as administrators and managers who govern and manage a university.

Why do they believe this? How does PBL have this potential to create “imaginative mayhem”? Maybe they have their reasons, but I couldn’t find them.

Again:

PBL is indeed such an agile approach to teaching and learning, malleable to changing contexts, knowledge and learning, activating liquid learning (p.412)

and:

Repositioning PBL as the engine of development of a learning ecology allows for both the recognition of these multiple learning spaces, as well as for meaningful and proactive engagement with and in them.

In each case, I wonder why, i.e. on what basis they make these claims. What are their grounds for claiming that PBL is such an “agile approach”, that it is “malleable to change contexts”, and that repositioning PBL in the ways they argue will result in “meaningful and proactive engagement with and in them”? All this may well be the case, but I don’t see them providing a solid argument or case.

In short, as with Savin-Baden, I miss a more critical, more grounded perspective concerning PBL. I want to know more about what exactly Kek & Huijzer think are the strengths of PBL (p.413)of which we can take advantage!

References

Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgment, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education, 50(1), 75-87.

Kek, M. & Huijser, H. (2015). 21st century skills: problem based learning and the University of the Future. Paper Third 21st Century Academic Forum Conference, Harvard, Boston, USA.

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