An interview with...

An interview with… Bruce Macfarlane

Bruce Macfarlane is Head of the School of Education and author of ‘Freedom to Learn at University’. He delivered a BILT Education Excellence Seminar in May 2019 that can be watched here.

What motivated you to write Freedom to Learn?

It is a case of mea culpa. Earlier in my career I worked as a business and management lecturer and later as an academic developer. In these roles I advocated several learning and teaching practices I criticise in the book. I now believe that many of these things undermine student rights as learners, or their ‘freedom to learn’. This includes enforced participation in class, group assessment, and trying to assess students on the basis of confessional style reflective writing. I am concerned that the student engagement movement has placed too much emphasis on assessing students based on their ‘time and effort’. This mantra has corrupted university assessment making it acceptable to give grades for attendance and ‘class contribution’. This is about not about real learning. It is about rewarding academic non-achievement.

While there are plenty of publications about academic freedom these mainly focus on freedom for academics, not students. There have been few serious attempts to understand student academic freedom. This phrase is largely associated with student protest but I argue that it also needs to be thought in terms of learner rights – to non-indoctrination, reticence, in choosing how to learn, and in being treated like an adult.

Why do you think this performative culture persists?

Performativity is a term synonymous with the demands of being an academic or, indeed, virtually any modern day public sector worker. However, a performative culture also exists for university students too. Three forms of student performativity affect their lives: ‘bodily’ performativity through the way that compulsory attendance requirements are creating a culture of presenteeism at university; ‘participative’ performativity that forces students to take part ‘actively’ in classroom learning and is often assessed on a highly superficial basis through impressionistic grading; and ‘emotional’ performativity requiring compliance with normative political agendas, such as global citizenship and often monitored via reflective writing assignments.

Student performativity has developed, and persists, partly because academics are increasingly burdened by demands to meet their own performative targets such as publishing in high impact journals and winning large research grants. Rewarding students for their ‘time and effort’ is a cheap and cheerful way to reduce the time hungry demands of teaching and assessment. This, sadly, is a big reason why grading attendance and group assessment goes largely unchallenged.

What are the long-term benefits of adopting the changes outlined in the book?

There are important long-term benefits in giving students the freedom to learn. The coercive and authoritarian culture of learning at university promoted by many student engagement initiatives infantilises students and fails to prepare them for life as an adult. In ‘real life’ you are not rewarded for just turning up. Releasing students from compulsory attendance rules would help to re-focus students – and their teachers – on learning rather than rituals of compliance. If students are going to really benefit from a ‘higher’ education they need to be allowed to make up their own minds about the issues that matter to them, not get rewarded for simply being compliant.

What is the one message readers will take away from it?

Well, here are two messages (if I may!). There is a lot of talk in higher education about the ‘effectiveness’ of learning but we need to question practices that are coercive and abuse a student’s right to be treated as an adult taking part in what is meant to be a voluntary phase of education. The means do not always justify the ends.

My second message concerns the meaning of ‘student-centred’ . This phrase has become a hurrah word but its original and true meaning has been lost and distorted. As academics, we need to start questioning practices that are really about creating a presenteeist culture, enforcing forms of participation, and assessing students on the basis of a confessional discourse. In short, we need to put the freedom to learn at the heart of student learning. This is what Carl Rogers called freedom from pressure and is what ‘student-centred’ really means.

Great Debate

The Great Debate: Engagement vs Attendance?

Our second blog entry is by Shanaz Pottinger, undergraduate student studying Experimental Psychology, at the University of Bristol.

You are invited to leave comments below.

Do we even need traditional lectures?

Succinctly, yes, we do! Lectures are an intrinsic part of the university experience, a rite of passage for all degree holders and an important arena for community building. In many ways Bristol is a traditional institution that draws a student body who are attracted to elements of the traditional educational experience (at least at the undergraduate level). I am in full agreement that the university must innovate and move with the times, however, far-reaching over modernisation at Bristol will lead to a loss of the university’s intrinsic appeal. Moreover, in my view, if courses were to see serious reductions in contact time there would need to be a reduction in tuition fees charged for this type of degree.

I appreciate that an opposing argument may be that traditional lectures favour a ‘one size fits all’ approach whereas an engagement focussed approach allows students to engage with material in a way that works for them. However, human beings are fundamentally social animals and research suggests that the quality of our social networks has an impact on our sense of wellbeing. Thus, I propose that the social benefits of traditional lectures should not be overlooked. These can be simulated in a digital environment but in my view these interactions are not totally comparable. After all Facebook has not replaced the social benefits of actually meeting up for a coffee has it?

In my view, we should be aiming for a model that champions attendance and engagement. As a student I would love the opportunity to experience a little less death by PowerPoint and a little more blended learning and flipped classrooms- just not entirely from the comfort of my own bedroom.