Why does the lecturer's 'voice' fall on deaf ears?

12th September 2008 at 01:00

Another new term, another new set of jargon. Of course you can be sure that much that is new to me has already been around for some while. But these things take their time to percolate down to lowly lecturer level.

So, what are the stories behind the flavour of the month phrases: "learner journey" and "learner voice"? Student is out the window these days, presumably because of the negative connotations of the word study - which might imply a degree of effort and application. "Learner" is favoured too because it reminds us - lest we forget - that learning is what it is all about.

The learner journey, then. If you teach - sorry, facilitate learning - you necessarily know a lot about your learners' journeys. It's what they tend to blame for their not-so-occasional lapses of punctuality. As children, they first learn to say mama and dada: then it's "Buses, miss" and "Trains, sir".

But then these are not the learner journeys the phrase was invented for. "Journey" in this instance refers to the students' - learners' - passage through the system, and how good, or bad, it is judged to be at each stage.

Because we are all dedicated to excellence - a word, by the way, rapidly losing all meaning through considerable over-use - and because we want every stage of our learners' journey to be a joyous and fulfilling experience, we thrust "How are we doin'?" forms into their hot little hands at every turn. Hence, "Was your first contact with the college: poor, satisfactory, good or.you've guessed it. excellent?"

As yet we haven't started issuing them with three-page questionnaires every time they go to the toilet, but give it time: "Was your bowel movement today (a) satisfying; (b) unsatisfying; (c) crap?"

Of course, the key part of the learner's journey is always going to be the bit he or she spends in the classroom - these days more normally (and multi-syllabically) known as the "learning environment". Personally I'm all in favour of asking them how things on their course are going, receiving their perceptions and then acting on them. Sadly, nothing so simple and effective is allowable in the "learner journey" philosophy.

Lecturers can hardly be trusted to handle it themselves, so instead the class are given a tick box menu and a set of standardised questions dreamed up by some jobsworth in a back room in Coventry. Then the surveys are shipped off to Bangalore to be processed, the results emerging several months later, by which time everyone's forgotten what they thought and said.

Learner "voice" encompasses a lot more than simply filling in questionnaires. As far as I can see, it's about allowing and encouraging students to become more actively involved in their own education, saying what they think about their experiences, and expecting to be listened to. Participation and empowerment are the key words here.

This is, of course, a whole new world to poor, clueless lecturers. It's not as if we have for years been encouraging our students to develop their "voice". Sadly, it has never occurred to us to foster discussion, nurture their critical faculties, develop powers of self-expression and listen to and value what they have to say. As your average 17-year-old might put it: Duh!

Teachers tend to react with scepticism to such ideas as "journey" and "voice", not because they are opposed to them, but because they feel patronised and condescended to by those presenting them as something new. They also see a marked contrast between what is proposed for students and the way that they themselves are being treated. While managers bend over backwards to hear the learner "voice", lecturers are expected to be seen and not heard.

Learners' opinions are to be valued and acted upon: lecturers must simply shut up and do what they are told.

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