Are we gatekeepers, or locksmiths?

David Nicholls at Critical Physiotherapy recently blogged about how we might think about access to physiotherapy education, and offers the metaphor of a gated community as one possibility.

The staff act as the guards at the gateway to the profession and the gate is a threshold across which students pass only when they have demonstrated the right to enter the community.

This got me thinking about the metaphors we use as academics, particularly those that guide how we think about our role as examiners. David’s post reminded of a conversation I had with a colleague soon after entering academia. I was working as an external clinical examiner for a local university and we were evaluating a 3rd year student who had not done very well in the clinical exam. We were talking about whether the student had demonstrated enough of an understanding of the management of the patient in order to pass. My colleague said that we shouldn’t feel bad about failing the student because “we are the gatekeepers for the profession”. The metaphor of gatekeeper didn’t feel right to me at the time and over the next few years I struggled with the idea that part of my job was to prevent students from progressing through the year levels. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we allow incompetent students to pass. My issue was with how we think about our roles as teachers and where the power to determine progression lies.

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I imagine that this is how many students think of their lecturers and clinical examiners: mysterious possessors of arcane, hidden knowledge.

A gatekeeper is someone who has power to make decisions that affect someone who does not. In this metaphor, the examiner is the gatekeeper who decides whether or not to allow a student to cross the threshold. Gate keeping is about control, and more specifically, controlling those who have less power. From the students’ perspective, the idea of examiner-as-gatekeeper moves the locus of control externally, rather than acknowledging that success is largely determined by one’s motivation. It is the difference between taking personal responsibility for not doing well, or blaming some outside factor for poor performance (“The test was too difficult; The examiner was too strict”; The patient was non-compliant”).

As long as we are the gatekeepers who control students’ progress through the degree, the locus of control exists outside of the student. They do the work and we either block them or allow them through. We have the power, not students. If they fail, it is because we failed them. It is far more powerful – and useful for learning – for students to take on the responsibility for their success or failure. To paraphrase from my PhD thesis:

If knowledge can exist in the spaces between people, objects and devices, then it exists in the relationships between them. [As lecturers, we should] encourage collaborative, rather than isolated activity, where the responsibility for learning is be shared with others in order to build trust. Facilitators must be active participants in completing the activities, while emphasising that students are partners in the process of teaching and learning, because by completing the learning activity together students are exposed to the tacit, hidden knowledge of the profession. In this way, lecturers are not authority figures who are external to the process of learning. Rather than being perceived as gatekeepers who determine progression through the degree by controlling students’ access to knowledge, lecturers can be seen as locksmiths, teaching students how to make their own keys, as and when it is necessary.

By thinking of lecturers (who are often also the examiners) as master locksmiths who teach students how to make their own keys, we are moving the locus of control back to the student. The gates that mark thresholds to higher levels of the profession still exist, as they should. It is right that students who are not ready for independent practice should be prevented from doing so. However, rather than thinking of the examiner as a gatekeeper who prevents the student from crossing the threshold, we could rather think of the student as being unable to make the right key. The examiner is then simply an observer who recognises the student’s inability to open the gate. It is the student who is responsible for poor performance and not the examiner who is responsible for failing the student.

I therefore suggest that the gatekeeper metaphor for examiners be replaced with that of a locksmith, where students are regarded as apprentices and novice practitioners who are learning a craft. From this perspective we can more carefully appreciate the interaction that is necessary in the teaching and learning relationship, as we guide students towards learning how to make their own keys as they control their own fate.

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Caveat: if we are part of a master-apprentice relationship with students, then their failure must be seen as our failure too. If my student cannot successfully create the right key to get through the gate, I must faithfully interrogate my role in that failure, and I wonder how many of us would be comfortable with that.

Thanks to David, who posted Physiotherapy Education as a Gated Community, and for stimulating me to think more carefully about how the metaphors we use inform our thinking and our practice.