Students as partners in curriculum reform

By Dr Leah Coutts

Since the Dawkins Reforms, the role of Higher Education has expanded from focusing on knowledge generation and dissemination to preparing graduates for life beyond the institution. The need for creative arts education to meet graduate employment requirements and service industry expectations thus informs the courses and industry-situated opportunities our programs include and our pedagogical approaches to developing graduates who are industry-ready.

For educators to authentically adopt student-centred approaches to learning, we need to be willing to question the concept of ‘expertise’, trusting that while educators may be knowledge and skill experts, students are experts in themselves.

With the increased focus on developing non-discipline specific skills and attributes, active learning, peer learning and digital literacy have become buzzwords of 21st century tertiary education. But while collaborative problem solving enhanced by technology may appear to be the panacea for 21st century student learning, its effectiveness relies on more than simply incorporating digital tools into the classroom. It also requires that we educators examine the teaching ethos that underpins our practice and question whether our values and approach align with this student-centred pedagogy.

Traditionally, higher education has upheld hierarchical power relationships, with teachers deemed the experts and students the recipients of their expertise in the form of knowledge and skill acquisition. This has also been the case in the arts more broadly, with the master-apprentice model in music, for example, in many cases still alive and well (Duffy, 2016) though this is changing (see, for example, Carey et al., 2018). This didactic approach to education is arguably not sufficient for developing emerging artists.

As Bennett (in press) describes, today’s graduates, ideally, are resilient, curious, adaptable and are able to think critically, to form genuine connections with people in a variety of community contexts and to manage their own careers. For educators to authentically adopt student-centred approaches to learning, we need to be willing to question the concept of ‘expertise’, trusting that while educators may be knowledge and skill experts, students are experts in themselves. Our role is thus to enable students to draw on their expertise, provide space for them to make sense of their perspectives and experiences in relation to and with their peers, and to respectfully challenge and expand their views while providing new perspectives and insights to consider. In the process, educators may also learn a lot in return.

Adopting a Students-as-Partners approach ... makes it possible to create course content and assessment items with students, rather than for them.

To implement this approach successfully, we must first have an authentic interest in who our students are – what prior knowledge and experiences do they bring? What are their interests, expectations and goals? Do they perceive the course to be relevant? How can we align the course with the answers to these questions in such a way that increases student engagement and leads to strong learning outcomes? And how do we find the answers to these questions to begin with? We need a genuine desire to build rapport and collaborate with students, empowering them to take ownership of their learning, and we need to be willing to adapt our teaching approach according to students’ input.

Tertiary institutions increasingly seek feedback from students on completion of their courses and programs in order to strengthen future iterations. But perhaps it would be more beneficial to involve students in shaping the courses as they unfold. Adopting a Students-as-Partners approach (Healey et al., 2016; Pauli et al., 2016) makes it possible to create course content and assessment items with students, rather than for them. Given the attention on actively involving students in their learning, this appears to be a logical next step for creative arts education, but one that is yet to be fully explored.

In my experience, collaborating with students to shape classes each week involves uncertainty, taking risks, being vulnerable, being willing to improvise in your teaching – what Whitworth and colleagues (2007) call ‘dancing in the moment’ – and continuously reflecting on your practice. This is an opportunity to model for students the skills and attributes we wish to encourage them to develop. Taking this approach can strengthen four key areas of effective learning: communicating values and the purpose of a course; helping students to develop an understanding of self; developing engaging learning activities; and creating interesting and relevant assessment items (Coutts, in press).

As an early career academic, Students-as-Partners is an exciting space to research and explore in relation to my teaching. Just as our graduates need to be prepared to adapt to the ever-changing industry landscape, so to does arts education, and Students-as-Partners offers an exciting opportunity for us to evolve our practices. Institutions offer a multitude of professional development opportunities, including peer teacher observation schemes, workshops on enhancing courses, teaching strategies and embedding technology, each designed to enhance student learning.

As we move deeper into the 21st century we can perhaps expect these opportunities to further focus on how we can learn from the students themselves and plan courses and activities in collaboration with them. To remain relevant we need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and embrace uncertainty in our teaching. The more we can maintain our own learner mindsets, the more we can help students to develop and maintain theirs.

 

References

Bennett, D. (in press). Higher music education and the need to educate the whole musician: Musicians’ work in the early-, mid- and late-career. The Musician’s Career Lifespan in Creative and Educational Spaces in the 21st Century. Proceedings from the 22nd International Seminar of the Commission for the Education of the Professional Musician (CEPROM).

Carey, G., Coutts, C., Grant, C., Harrison, S., & Dwyer, R. (2018). Developing a shared understanding of optimal learning and teaching in the tertiary music studio. Music Education Research, 20(4). https://doi.org/10.1080/14613808.2017.1409204

Coutts, L. (in press). Exploring partnerships: A Students as Partners pedagogical approach for fostering student engagement within an academic music course. The Musician’s Career Lifespan in Creative and Educational Spaces in the 21st Century. Proceedings from the 22nd International Seminar of the Commission for the Education of the Professional Musician (CEPROM).

Duffy, C. (2016). ICON: Radical professional development in the conservatoire. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 15(3-4), 376-385. doi:10.1177/474022216647385

Healey, M., Flint. A., & Harrington, K. (2016). Students as partners: Reflections on a conceptual model. Teaching Learning Inquiry, 4(2). http://dx.doi.org/10.20343/10.20343/teachlearninqu.4.2.3

Pauli, R., Raymond Barker, B., &Worrell, M. (2016). The impact of pedagogies of partnership on the student learning experience in UK higher education. York, England: HE Academy.

Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, K., Kimsey-House, H., & Sandahl, P. (2007). Co-active coaching: New skills for coaching people toward success in work and life. Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black Pub. Chicago


Dr Leah Coutts is Lecturer in Music Learning and Teaching at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. Leah’s research interests include curriculum design and implementing a transformative pedagogical approach in a variety of community and higher music education settings. Leah’s current practitioner-based research explores the implementation of a Students-as-Partners approach to course design within first year Bachelor of Music and Honours level courses. Her research is expanding to also investigate how institutions may support this approach across programs and courses.