In the weeks since this blog has been running, I’ve often commented on the precarious nature of exploration, of the means to invite in the unknown, or encourage the unforeseen.
At Salford, as we continue to unpack Salford Curriculum+, our new academic sub-strategy and the structured collection of thoughts and work streams that will steer and shape the learning endeavour at Salford for the foreseeable future, we are actively continuing to capitalise upon and develop the deliberate capacity for the student to encounter the unknown and the unexpected through their learning. Central to steering this desire is the recognition that to encounter such circumstance, to walk out with trepidation across the ice, is an act in which one experiences the expansion of personal horizons. Regardless of whether one falls through the ice and gets wet (as I have) or skates gleefully across to arrive unscathed at the other side (as I have) the experience of simply venturing into a (partially) unmapped realm where possibility is rendered as present is in itself a precarious undertaking that stretches one’s personal perceptions of what might, or might not be possible. Encountering failure (getting wet and cold) is all part of the necessary journey towards building a flexible resilience based on the accrued wisdom of experience.
I’m writing this on a train. Earlier on in the journey I was sat opposite a toddler, (I’m guessing about 18 months old) who was sat next to her mum. Toddler and Mum were playing a loose game, the winner of which ended up with more wooden blocks. Not particularly structured, but there was a kind of running agreement on the rules. As the game progressed, I watched the toddler really struggle with losing; with having her wooden blocks taken away. (Oh, don’t worry; they were given back – it was all very gentle) At the young tender age of 18 months, there was obviously ( and quite appropriately/ thankfully) very little experience of losing, or of things going in a direction other than that of the internal plan of a toddlers mind.
This little train-based scene being played out got me thinking (again) about the issue of preparedness in our students (it wasn’t that they behave like toddlers – stay with me folks). I was thinking about them in relation to the learning landscape we are designing at Salford and which we know, (based on many many points of direct reference) will help them to develop the graduate resilience and qualities so desired by the wider industry and employer.
Specifically, I was reminded of this great article by Irina Popescu which recognises a ‘frailty’ in some students, seen in the manner in which they are able to cope, or not cope, with failure and more profoundly, the discomfort of not knowing, or not being given the comfort of certainty.
Herein lies the issue. Students are (predominately) coming to university from an educational system or culture in the UK which prizes passing above all else, or at least, passing is the cipher through which ‘good’ definitions of good are understood. Indeed, students need these to grades to get to us. And those grades are rewarded on the basis of having passed. In order to pass, one must practice passing – practice producing positive results. But in the pursuit of those results the act of learning by failure and the possibility for genuine exploration and risky adventure into the unknown is minimised, with a consequential decrease in student’s appetite for such endeavours. Here, the ice-covered lake has, at the safe end of things, had a bridge built across it by the tutor, entirely de-risking the activity for the student. Even at the dangerous end, there’s still a map showing the thin spots.
So what to do? We need to prepare our prospective students, to develop an experience and experiential understanding of what we do at Salford prior to their arrival with us, so that failing is seen as a positive developmental experience, and unblemished success is perhaps not so useful in the grand scheme of graduate things. At the moment (and this is a working, shifting and long term piece of work) I think some of it is all about a conscious , deliberate unlearning of certain habits and thought patterns, and a relearning of the capacity for success through failure.
Developing this work and, moreover, doing it in a sustained and systematic manner, is a long walk out over uncertain ice in itself….
See you next week.