Throughout 2017-18 academic year, we have been working on a Learning Innovation For Tomorrow (LIFT) project, which explored the idea of students requiring ‘grit’ or ‘resilience’, and other ways they might be conceptualised as effective individuals. The research reflected the LIFT principles of critically reflective practice and learner empowerment, engaging with academic attitudes towards students and discourses of resilience, as well as seeking to involve students in these discussions. We have also blogged at length elsewhere, and published, about the notion of resilience in Higher Education, and specifically in the area of self-efficacy discourses.
To get a sense of how students understand themselves, and the expectations on them, we convened a focus group with students from across the university. In response to the prompt, Students are too soft these days, focus group reactions included:
You’re always encouraged to be resilient – and you can’t always – it’s an expectation through school, in Uni, through motherhood
Our difficulties are different and hard to recognise – finance, expectations, younger people have encountered such vast changes – instability, technology is a big one
All the participants recognised the characterization of students as ‘soft’ or ‘snowflakes’, but perceptions of how accurate this trope was varied. We then used the two prompts The world is beyond help, and I can change the world, as a means of both assessing their perception of themselves as empowered learners, and engaging with the LIFT principle of ‘Futures Thinking.’ Their votes in response showed that they recognized both these sentiments – but in conversation took different views, with notable variation in their levels of optimism about their ability to effect change in the world.
Our next prompt was The university helps us think about our impact on the world. Students varied by subject to a large degree, in their responses. An education student believed it absolutely did, saying:
[In Education] we have a collective sense of empowerment. Having difference of views from lecturers helped me to develop my own views. [we have] constructive debate, we try and look for different cultural views.
A product design student said:
I want to be a circular product designer – inspired by the course. Others don’t feel it is so important. Impact is always questioned, always part of the marking criteria. So that’s why we think we can change the world.
Whereas an Accounting student said:
[Accounting] students just want to be taught accounting tools and techniques. Just want to learn it, not question it. It’s demotivating to question it.
To take a wider view, we consulted via on-line survey and then workshop (at ANTF event) with HEA National Teaching Fellows.
From Consulting NTF colleagues, the headlines were:
- Widespread use of resilience training, aimed at staff & students.
- Notable variance in the NTF responses to the use of these discourses.
- These can be seen via the shared on-line workspace at https://padlet.com/dwebster11/ANTF
We asked how those surveyed responded to the idea that students should question the world. Responses included:
- I …. think that university education should be about questioning the world
- I actively encourage my students to question the authority of publicly provided information, including that provided by the academy
- I have focused on ethics, emotional intelligence and cross-cultural intelligence, especially with respect to the internationalisation of HE and tried to alert learners to blinkers of parochialism
In responding to issues of how education addresses Developing confidence & independence, NTF responses included:
- The development of personal and professional confidence through expression, the development of communication knowledge and skills
- I seek to develop independent learning
- …..to try and try again, in an iterative process which is hard work
- I include iterative loops so students reflect on what they have learned, what they can do better now, where further improvement is needed, and how that may be achieved
The National Teaching Fellow response to being asked if they saw a role for Group work and community, NTFs said:
- Group activities … are intended to foster pedagogical outcomes but also foster a stronger sense of community
- some of our activities relate to dealing with gaps in the provision of free legal advice to communities. We design courses to help fill those gaps and to raise student awareness of the university as part of a community service
One NTF noted:
I would rather that my teaching influences what/who students become, rather than just what they know.
Through talking to both students and academics, we identified a strong resistance to the individualized discourses of grit and resilience, and a rejection of simplistic generalizations about the characteristics of contemporary students. Both students and academics demonstrated a commitment to the notions of learner empowerment, and critically reflective practice, aligning their values with these key LIFT principles. We now hope to expand this project to address the further principles of decolonized learning, and systems thinking, highlighting the structural inequalities that underpin individualized notions of grit and self-efficacy, and how these are manifest within the classroom and across the curriculum.