Michael Cole, Senior Lecturer, School of Health, Sport & Bioscience, University of East London
Most of us in higher education will be familiar with the concept of ‘employability’ and the increasing focus on careers and enterprise (if you haven’t, where have you been hiding? And is there room there for a little one?). Some may also be familiar with ‘pedagogy-as-praxis’ (Freire, 1968), a critical approach to learning that centres *takes a deep breath* intellect, resistance, love, anti-white supremacist and anti-capitalist solidarity within reimagined relationships between knowledges and values, and between student-lecturer, staff-staff, and university-community.
But are these two educational goals at odds with each other? Is it possible to lead a module that embraces these seemingly diametric philosophies – one concerned primarily with an individualist instrumentalism of ‘getting that job’ (Dacre Pool and Sewell, 2007), and the other with the collective consciousness of resistance (Fanon, 2007; Cowden and Singh, 2013), emancipation (hooks, 2013), and co-constructed (Dewey, 1916; Le Roux, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 2014), counterhegemonic (Giroux, 2012; Sabaratnam, 2017) learning?
More specifically, is it possible for such a module to fulfil framework regulations, tick the appropriate TEF metrics, and be valued by VCs whilst at the same time rousing rebel souls?
In this blog post I briefly explain and summarise how I attempt to embed a strong careers focus into module ‘SE6103: Sports Therapy Skills ’ whilst at the same time hoping to free learning from the constraints of colonial-capitalist logics which dominate higher education institutions.
For context, SE6103 is a core level 6 module on a BSc Sports Therapy course. Sports Therapy is an allied healthcare vocation that has a professional, statutory or regulatory body (PSRB). In the UK, the PSRB for Sports Therapy is The Society of Sports Therapists (SST), and it is this organisation which accredits the BSc course, requiring the modules to align with their professional competencies. Module SE6103 meets PSRB learning outcomes related to emergency first aid and sports trauma management across competencies of research, synthesis, and applied practice in recognition, management and referral. It also has institutional outcomes related to professionalism and careers ‘skills’. I have led this module for 5 years. I have been a clinically active member of the SST for 20 years, and have taught in further and higher education in varying capacities during the same period.
I am a white, middle-class, cis-gender single father of two, with UK citizenship, no religion, no disability, and with fluid challenges of personal mental health/wellbeing.
So, how is the module ‘careers focussed’?
The module helps to prepare students for graduate careers in several meaningful ways, with four of these outlined below:
- Additional awards – embedded in the learning outcomes and assessments are three external, accredited professional development awards (two are badged CPD units from a national association, and the other is a nationally-recognised certificate accepted by PSRBs, insurers, and employers, as evidence of competency and safety for membership application, renewal, or selection). Students are advised to add these three separate achievements to their CV after passing the module. Thus, with this one module, their CV increases in both size and quality, raising their chances of selection for interview (Pegg et al., 2012; Thompson et al., 2013). Go get that interview!
- Careers literacy – in one assessment, students engage in a mock job interview and presentation. Students present on a prepared topic, and then discuss their learning and suitability for the advertised role via panel questions. For many students, particularly those coming directly to university from school/college, this is the first time they have experienced the structure and style (and nerves!) of a professional job interview. Interviews (and feedback) are recorded for each student to revisit as a useful source of continued learning towards entering the graduate jobs market. With this module students experience a job interview, raising their chances of recruitment from interview (Lord et al., 2019). Go get that job!
- Authentic and relevant learning – every year at the planning stage, I review the content and assessments with several industry-leading employers and clinicians. As a result of working as a Sports Therapist in elite sport and clinical practice for nearly two decades, I am privileged to now benefit from professional WhatsApp group networks of friends and colleagues who share best practice and are comfortable in offering honest, constructive feedback. Students benefit from this real-life and current application of knowledge and competency. This module provides authentic insight into what employers expect. In preparing students, this module raises their chances of successful interview and probation (Laguador and Jr, 2014). Go advance that career!
- Digital literacy – for another assessment task, students are required to build an e-portfolio of evidence of their competency. Using Microsoft OneNote and social media, students create an audio-visual report of applied practice across seven case-study scenarios. Building a digital account of their learning and development is a skill that they will continue to use through their careers as allied healthcare professionals, and prepares them for post-graduate study. It also raises their IT and social media literacy, both of which are integral to entrepreneurship, and to accessing alternative, flexible, informal and inclusive CPD opportunities. This module ensures engagement in applied self-governance – a key requirement of their PSRB and one which raises their chances of optimum lifelong-learning (Coldwell-Neilson, 2018). Be safe and flourish in that career!
These four areas are explicitly designed to directly boost the students’ graduate employability (Dacre Pool and Sewell, 2007).
Now, how does the module also resist the neoliberal commodification inherent in traditional approaches to contemporary teaching?
The module uses an anti-colonial (Dei and Kempf, 2006) epistemology of practice in order to be equitable and inclusivein several meaningful ways:
- Co-created learning – students have space and opportunity to share their previous learning, prior experiences, and thoughts about the curricula, both before the module begins and particularly at the start of sessions. The type of content, pace and level of instruction have a flexibility that allows us (students and lecturer) to adapt and respond to the fluidity that our cognitive, affective, and curricular needs demand. Three principles underpin this co-creation as a process: Respect; Reciprocity and Responsibility (Cook-Sather, Bovill and Felten, 2014).These help to shape the flow and direction of the learning and are facilitated by positioning myself as an embodied co-learner, maintaining enough authority – within an educative alliance – to scaffold an environment where students have freedom to be themselves, to connect, to question, reason and create a shared knowledge within a communal sense of purpose where they feel they belong (Masika and Jones, 2016).
- Centrality of student voice – underpinned by critical reflection-in-action (reading the room, empathy, deep knowledge of their curriculum journey from level 3-4, continuous metacognitive appraisal of my perceived power, privilege and position) and reflection-on-action (student Q/A, polling, focus groups), students reciprocate the mutual openness and risk-taking necessary to push forward in our learning, and exercise their responsibility to themselves, each other and the module in contributing to the learning experience. For example, an explicit and pre-agreed expectation was for students to work together and value supporting each other, such that ‘student A’ achieved a learning outcome in week 5 and continued to be present supporting their peers to achieve it too. All students were commended for their engagement in peer support. Each student matters (Schlossberg, 1989) to the groups’ success.
- Critical heath literacy – the causes of and impact of structural oppressions on access to, provision of, and outcomes for healthcare (Metzl and Hansen, 2014) are woven throughout the learning, such that students are able to choose to empower themselves to better understand society and their profession, and how they might work to challenge and change it.
What impact does this approach have? How is effectiveness measured? Such questions (and their assumptions and implications) are highly contested, and not for this blog. However, falling in line with the two approaches I have outlined, there are pertinent sources of reflection and feedback. Module completion and attainment are above institutional benchmarks, though despite 64% of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students and 63% of their white counterparts achieving a ‘first-class’ module grade, the difference between white students receiving a first and/or 2.1 is 11%. Overall student satisfaction is 100% positive. From a critical perspective, narrative student feedback stresses enjoyment and belonging and the different – and very welcome – ‘vibe’ in the lecture room. Positive comments included “engaging”, “learning at my own pace”, “easy to ask for help”, “approachable lecturer”, and “continuous assessment and feedback that reduces anxiety”, “sharing our personal experiences”, and “really useful interviews”.
As an academic who loves the healthcare career that I am supporting my students to progress into, and who is passionate about supporting their freedom to develop critical consciousness, this combined approach hopefully satisfies both. As ever though, it remains a work in progress. I will continue to reflect and develop myself and the module, with a continued focus on relationships, for as Ansley & Hall state:
“such practices potentially destabilise the relationships between the student and themselves, the student and their peers and student and their institution, precisely because research-engaged teaching enables students to become active partners in the production of knowledge and meaning. If this is a re-imagining of the ways in which knowledge and practices are produced, then it challenges established positions and enables co-creation to challenge the methodological purity of institutions that reproduce attainment gaps between specific groups. However, it remains crucial that intersectional injustices are brought to the forefront during this process…a continuing process of dialogue rooted in a critique of pedagogic practice, which emerges through the process of co-creation” (Ansley and Hall, 2019, p.3).
Follow Michael on twitter @Cole_Therapy_Ed
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