Sometimes the universe aligns to make you think. In the same week I came across the following two texts. The contradictions between the two really sum up the ways in which we create an environment which treats students as incapable of making decisions about themselves.
Text One: “Getting students to complete surveys and tests was the biggest challenge from the first year of the [learning gain] projects. Compulsion has led to the greatest student engagement...” (p.8 Kandiko Howson/HEFCE 2017)
Text Two: The Mental Capacity Act: Nothing about me, without me
Start by thinking I can make a decision
Do all you can to help me make my own decision
Don’t treat me as unable to decide, just because you think my decision is unwise
If you make a decision in my best interests, you must consider my thoughts, wishes and feelings
Before making a decision for me, ask if your aims could be achieved in a less restrictive way
In this blog, I’m not going to self-censor (much) and its topic is autonomy, I am not exploring definitions of student engagement here. I spend a lot of time wondering about the ways in which we infringe students’ autonomy whilst stressing the importance of independent learning. I’ve developed a model which juxtaposes ideas of student need with ideas of student autonomy, and let me tell you that when the idea of the student is characterised by concern, and need is perceived as being high, then it looks bad for autonomy.
So why do we infringe autonomy? Well, looking at the HEFCE document, when we think that otherwise students won’t do what we want (and for whose benefit do we want them to do it? Ours or theirs?). Or when we think that we know better and students might be in danger of causing themselves harm. Or when we don’t agree with their actions.
And yet, look at the poster, under the Mental Capacity Act (2005) people can decide for themselves, even when their medical team think they’re unwise. This applies when those people have dementia, or when they are younger than most HE students. The Mental Capacity Act (MCA) applies to people of 16 and above, but under certain circumstances even children below 16 can consent to, or refuse treatment, against the wishes of their parents.
So why do we compel students not to make ‘bad’ decisions, when if they were patients they would be granted the capacity to make those decisions and to live with the consequences?
If we apply the MCA test the ‘because they are young’ argument doesn’t stand up.
‘We’ve always done it like this’ is compelling - because we have always done it like this. But the medical profession used to be paternalistic, and the poster is evidence of change there.
‘We’ll have to pick up the pieces’ - in a climate of student satisfaction that is a significant risk. But how educational is it to be prevented from making mistakes and from dealing with the consequences? After much thought, and a PhD on this topic, I can make the whole thing as complicated as you like, but actually it may be very simple. ‘What did you learn from [fill in the blank]’. If what you learned was that you do what the grown ups tell you to do and that if you choose not to they’ll sort it out, then maybe it’s time to think again about our practices.
So what kinds of compulsion can you remove from your HE practice… and are you brave enough?
Kandiko Howson, C.B.(2017) Evaluation of HEFCE’s Learning Gain Pilot Projects Year 1 Report July2017 http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/HEFCE,2014/Content/Pubs/Independentresearch/2017/Evaluation,of,HEFCEs,Learning,Gain,Pilot,Projects,Year,1,Report/2017_lgeval.pdf [accessed 4.4.18]
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