Context is everything! Reflections on the first stage of INOTLES

I’m back home from a week in Brussels, where I’ve been working with colleagues from across Europe on our TEMPUS project, INOTLES, developing pedagogies in teaching European Studies.

It’s been a blast and a genuine pleasure to meet all these people with whom I’ve only have online contact so far. The commitment and interest I’ve seen – especially when many of them have very difficult situations back home in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova – would put some of us to shame.

We’re now moving into the next phase of the project, training trainers, which I’ve discussed already, but it’s good to reflect on what we discussed, especially following our dissemination event mid-week. There we presented our work and got input from various stakeholders (academic, employers, the European Commission and so on).

For me, the big take-home was the idea of context.

When we’d been preparing the (big) bid document, we wrote about the need to adapt to local situations and requirements, but it was really only now that it fully came home as to what that meant.

To take a banal example, while I worry about getting student buy-in to my various ‘ideas’, some colleagues are worrying that they have no access to any online journals, or even any online access at all. To anything. While we might complain about the tightening of funding provision in western Europe or North America, at least that is from a high initial level that some have never had access to.

That difference in material provision was a starting point, but it triggered a series of wider reflections on my part.

Firstly, while our project is about sharing and developing pedagogies, that is only part of what an education system is about. I’ve already mentioned resources, but it also encompasses the institutional and regulatory frameworks we all have to deal with. For instance, in our project meeting on Saturday, we discovered that one of our key timelines further on the project might need reworking, to accommodate the very long lead-in times for introducing new teaching elements in some institutions.

But more than this, it is clear that pedagogies also embody values. Simulations or problem-based learning imply a position for the student that is much more active and pro-active than a lecture-based model, and that has consequences throughout the organisation. Indeed, even for my institution to use PBL in the way that Maastricht does would require a vast investment in infrastructure and staff, and we are not so very different from each other.

And this leads into a second key point, namely that just as pedagogies need an educational context, so education needs a context of its own. Put differently, we need to think very clearly about what we are trying to achieve with/for our students.

The message that came from stakeholders (as I saw it) was that substantive knowledge was neither here nor there to a considerable degree. Instead, it was the set of skills and aptitudes that mattered. Students need to be able to go out into the world as self-reliant agents, able to adapt to whatever it is they find themselves doing, working it out and making it work. Knowledge helps in this, but in support, rather than as a key driver.

This isn’t about producing new wage-slaves or serving the economic imperative, but also helping students achieve their personal ambitions and objectives; indeed, broadening the horizons of those ambitions and objectives too.

The word I found myself using was ‘responsibilisation’ of the student: making them take control of their learning and getting them to recognise that only they can do that. My colleagues asked if it was a real word – I’m not totally sure about that, to be honest – but at least they took the point.

Of course, all of these leads us to a fairly classic academic analysis: everything is connected, so to change anything, everything else must change too.

But we’re not going to do that, not least because it would probably mean nothing happening. Instead, we are going to work through our planned activities and we’re going to try.

What will be key, it that we will now be doing that with our eyes wide open to the context.

And that’s work a week of anyone’s time.

5 thoughts on “Context is everything! Reflections on the first stage of INOTLES

  1. The normative aspect of pedagogy — why something should be taught in a certain way, or even taught at all — often gets neglected. Like you I’m reminded of its importance whenever I interact with people who come from very different institutional environments.

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