Systematic constraints as “structure” for learning

Foucault said that the ideas we think are benign are often the most dangerous. If students accept and believe that the constraints we build around them (i.e. the curriculum) are beneficial for scaffolding their learning they will always be passive. Freire might say that we are oppressing – as opposed to liberating – them by providing this structure.

The structured system convinces students that the structure is “right” and that they have a place within it. Success is determined by the student’s ability to navigate through the structure. However, this doesn’t lead to questioning of the system, or even questioning within the system. For example, we build a course that “supports self-directed learning” but we structure the course so that all engagement happens within an LMS. When we say “self-directed” we actually mean “the content is here for students to browse independently”.

If we really mean to liberate students by enabling self-directed learning we would remove the constraints entirely and encourage students to find their own content by asking their own questions.

Our students succeed despite their education, not because of it

Note: Thank you to Dave Nicholls from the Critical Physiotherapy Network for his insight and comments that helped inform this post.

Foucault said that the most dangerous ideas were the ones that we’re not even aware of; the ones we accept as being fundamentally true. He emphasised the need to examine our everyday practices and to critically analyse the discourses that make these practices possible. He believed that the most powerful disciplinary ideas are the ones that are most benign – the ones that we readily accept. This post is an introduction to a series of critiques (some might say, rants) against the ideas that we most take for granted in our teaching practices. The things that we readily accept as being self-evidently true.

These ideas form the foundation of every professional education programme, yet I will argue that they are also the most dangerous obstacles to real learning. I think that our current educational system not only prevents students from working towards deeper understanding with open minds but actually provides incentives to do the opposite. In this series of posts I’ll present some of the ideas that we accept to be foundational in the undergraduate curriculum but which actually lead students away from developing the outcomes we say we value.

I think that our students succeed despite their education, not because of it.

After decades of research in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience we can be confident of one thing…we can do better. If I look at what a modern health system needs – creative problem solvers, innovative leaders, collaborative team players, critical thinkers – it seems evident that these are exactly the characteristics that our current programmes cannot provide. Our legacy systems are broken, outdated and unfit for the purpose of graduating clinicians with the attributes necessary to address the complex health needs of people in the the 21st century.

What if we designed a curriculum from scratch using everything that we’ve learned from the research into learning and cognition? What would a curriculum look like if we critically questioned every aspect of it, asking if those components lead effectively towards the achievement of our goals? How would we choose the curriculum configuration if we were not constrained by what the institutional LMS and the timetable required? I wonder what a curriculum might look like if it didn’t have to conform to the requirements of a system that hasn’t changed much in 500 years. I think that that it could be an exciting and inspiring thing of beauty.

As a thought experiment I’m going to write a series of posts looking at the ideas that we simply accept as being fundamental to the curriculum, and then argue for why those are the very things that need to go. In each post I’ll take a future position where we have already implemented the changes that I think are necessary, and then argue for why the changes were made. The series is called altPhysio.

Research is about pushing and extending the boundaries of knowledge in order to create new spaces for practice. But despite all the evidence that change is necessary we continue teaching in much that same way that we always have. We’re creating the conceptual spaces for new and innovative practices in physiotherapy education…it’s time we started occupying them.

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