Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Inspiring Capability

I will be in China late this week and early next, as the guest of Shanghai University of Engineering Science, which is a university with which we are currently developing what we hope will be a mutually beneficial relationship. The project is exciting to say the least - a recognition of prior learning project which will involve assessing experienced Chinese managers against our Bachelor of Applied Management degree, and with the added bonus that it is funded by NZ Trade and Enterprise. As part of the visit I have been asked to speak at the" Fourth International President’s Forum on Education ", on the theme " How to Cultivate Talents With Innovative Spirit and Practical Ability ". So, I have chosen to talk about Otago Polytechnic's focus on developing capability - or should I say "Inspiring Capability" !
As I prepared the speech, most of which follows, I realised that we have not actually described "capability" in a public way for ourselves - although it was discussed at Academic Board last year. So, hopefully my address will have the added value as a reference point for ourselves here at home! Here it is:

"Today I would like to make the focus of my address the development of learner capability, which is the approach to cultivating practical ability which we have adopted at Otago Polytechnic. By learner capability, I mean the development of the power of our learners to perform. This, to us, is what practical ability really means – more than acquiring skills or being able to demonstrate skills. Capable people are those who can take effective action in whatever context they are operating, whether that be in their personal lives, at work or in their community.

At Otago Polytechnic we have set out to develop and implement programmes of learning which have the explicit purpose of building the capability of our learners, and in turn the capability of the communities which we serve - captured in our our mission "Inspiring Capability". We do this through a focus on practical learning, and a single-mindedness in applying theory to practice, supported by “real world” experiences.

What then does capability mean for us at Otago Polytechnic?

We see capable people as those who are confident that they can perform, who can explain what they are about and who have truly learned how to learn. Capable practitioners, which we are preparing our learners to be, not only have specialised knowledge and skill (which is so often what university and polytechnic programmes are confined to developing) but also have a range of personal qualities that enable them to be effective, that enable them to perform. For us, capable practitioners not only have the technical/specialist skills and knowledge required for their chosen trade/professional/vocational area but also they:
Ø are effective communicators of ideas and information, both verbally and in writing
Ø are self aware and self critical. They can take into account their feelings and intuition and reflect on their values.
Ø are prepared to learn and adapt. They can participate effectively in and manage change.
Ø use initiative. They are self starters and can work independently. They can set achievable and relevant goals.
Ø listen to and work effectively with others. They can work in teams, respecting and valuing the contributions of others.
Ø assess the effectiveness of their actions and learn from their experiences. They are reflective.
Ø are critical of and creative in their thinking and actions. They are open to new ways of thinking and acting.
Ø have respect and concern for others. They value diversity.
Ø accept responsibility for their actions. They are willingly accountable for their performance

These personal qualities are an integral part of what capability is, yet they can easily be forgotten when programmes and courses of learning are developed, and, if not acknowledged at best they become part of the informal/hidden curriculum. But if we genuinely want to develop capability in our learners we must be purposeful about building into our programmes explicit opportunities for learners to acquire or enhance these personal skills and abilities. This means designing both appropriate learning experiences and assessment tasks. It also means having a teaching and learning culture that supports the development of learner capability and that will allow learners to exercise control, to experiment and to take risks. This is the approach we are encouraging at Otago Polytechnic.

To be more specific:

If our learners are to leave us as capable graduates who accept responsibility, who are self starters and who have learned how to learn, our programmes must provide them with opportunities to be more responsible and accountable for their own learning. The more demanding and complex the situation within which the learner is actively responsible and accountable the more confident and capable the learner can become.

If our graduates are to be able to work effectively with others and to work in teams, then they must also learn with others and in teams. This means setting team goals and objectives, undertaking peer evaluation and being accountable as a team.

If our graduates are to be socially responsible practitioners then we must provide them with opportunities to explore the relevance of their studies to themselves and to society. At Otago Polytechnic we have adopted for all programmes the theme of sustainable practice as a vehicle for consideration of issues of social responsibility.

If our graduates are to be self aware, self critical and reflective they must as learners have the opportunity within their programmes to acquire the enabling skills and to put them into practice. This means acknowledging the validity of and providing opportunities for self assessment, and providing a safe environment in which learners can be themselves.

Thus, there are significant implications for programme design and delivery if we are to develop learner capability. We need to guard against courses being too tightly structured, over-packed with content and over-taught. These are what militate against capability. Learning must not become just a set of learning tasks. We must be concerned with process at least as much as with content, if not more so. Because capability is developed as much by how people learn as by what they learn. This implies less formal teaching, especially passive didactic strategies, and more learner managed learning, including negotiated contracts of learning and learning in teams.

A key challenge when designing programmes which enable capability development is to provide for the assessment of personal skills and abilities, as well as of subject knowledge and technical skills. Assessment is a powerful force in determining learner behaviour, so in a capability curriculum it is essential to reward the development of the personal qualities I have identified. And this, too is about both what is assessed e.g. critical thinking, reflective capacity, team work, goal setting; and how e.g. self and peer assessment, team assessment.

In summary, students will develop capability if they are required to be capable in their learning and, in particular, if they have experience of being responsible and accountable for their own learning – as individuals and in association with others. Our curriculum challenge is to embed such experiences within programmes, not for them to be an added extra or left to chance.

If we are to develop learners as capable practitioners then there are some challenges for the learners themselves. They must be prepared to take an active part in planning and organising their learning, to monitor their own progress against agreed criteria, to provide evidence of achievement against intended outcomes and to do the above individually and collaboratively.

Finally, there are also significant challenges for teachers if they are to participate effectively in a capability curriculum. They need to create the opportunities for students to plan, organise and evaluate their own learning, and need to shift the emphasis of their personal role from that of being the key content expert to one of providing guidance to learners on appropriate resources and expertise, to enable students to draw on expertise across traditional boundaries (subject, departmental/programme area, institutional) as is relevant to their goals, to offer dialogue and critical support and to stimulate reflection on learning processes and progress towards goals. Thus, teachers need to become more of a coach and less a font of knowledge, more of a guide and less of a lecturer. "

1 comment:

Sarah Stewart said...

Have a fabulous time in China, Phil. If you get a chance, would you see if you can find out how the health subjects are being taught. cheers Sarah