Practice-based learning – starting with practice

Professor David Boud proposes a new model of higher education with practice-based learning at the centre

Professor David Boud asks whether higher education can truly be practice-based unless we re-evaluate the system with future practice at the centre.

Much current discussion in higher education is about the possibility of providing additional work experience, placements, internships, or other practice-based activities, to existing courses. It is said that this will help students understand the workplace, aid employability and add to their motivation to graduate.

Many universities throughout the world are moving towards making such experiences compulsory and including them, not just as add-ons, but as a normal part of the curriculum. Middlesex University is involved in such discussions and many courses that had not previously thought about including placements are considering using them.

Such discussions assume that our courses are mostly fit for purpose and that the conventional three-year campus-based undergraduate degree will equip students for the future. But what if we didn’t make this conventional assumption? What if, rather than starting with what educational institutions offer now, we start from the needs of the external world and work backwards from that? What if we acknowledge that there has been a practice turn in society and consider what a fully practice-based degree might look like?

In the world outside educational institutions, people rarely work as isolated individuals judged only on what they do independently of others.

Why should we even begin to think in these terms? The first reason is that the old educational model of years of schooling plus a degree to equip students with more and more knowledge without applying it to real problems in real contexts is reaching its limits.

Secondly, in the world outside educational institutions, people rarely work as isolated individuals judged only on what they do independently of others, in the ways that are the norm in educational settings.

Thirdly, scholarship in the social sciences is suggesting that it is more useful to view the world in terms of the practices that make it up rather than the individual attributes of those who practice. These practices involve multiple peers, material things, particular settings and the discourses that hold them together. Practices transcend individuals, and individuals need to find their way into them.

In a few university degrees, we know what kind of work the graduates are likely to do (e.g. nursing, teaching, etc.) and they can be prepared directly for it. In other degrees, students will be entering a world of practice, but neither we nor they know what the practice might be and how that will change. What we do know however is that they will certainly be engaged in different practices. They must act in real situations with other people and with problems that are often ill-defined. But, do our courses equip students for this? They may gain some knowledge (which will soon be out-of-date) and a few skills. Most of what they specifically need, however, will be learned after graduation and typically not in an educational context.

Can we do more to design courses to better prepare students for acting in the world? There are many ways of organising courses that start with practice. They include fully problem-based courses, work-based learning programs and graduate apprenticeships.

But we don’t need to follow a standard model. There are various questions we need to ask ourselves: Are our courses oriented around authentic problems with which students can grapple with their peers? Are the things students do likely to have an impact beyond themselves? Are they taking place in contexts outside the bounds of the campus? Do they involve interacting with people other than their teachers and their peers?

The question is not whether there are some elements of our current programs that do this, but whether these are the dominant modes and whether other educational activities are subordinated to them.

Where can we start on this?

The last place to start is by looking at existing courses. They represent the accretion of many compromises over a long period of time and this can narrow our horizons. To think differently, we must set them aside for the time being and ask what a fully practice-based course would look like in some area of need with which we are familiar (familiarity with external need is the starting point, not with how it can be met by what we do now). We shouldn’t begin with knowledge, that will change. What capabilities will practitioners in the area of need and related areas require? What will they need to be able to do to meet the challenges they will face, that are at present specifically unknowable?

Boud, D. (2012). Problematising practice-based education. In Higgs, J., Barnett, R., Billett, S., Hutchings, M. and Trede, F. (eds.) Practice-Based Education: Perspectives and Strategies, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 55-69. Boud, D. (2016). Taking professional practice seriously: implications for deliberate course design. In Trede, F. and McEwan, C. (Eds) Educating the Deliberate Professional: Preparing Practitioners for Emergent Futures, Dordrecht: Springer, 157-174.

Read Professor Carol Costley’s response to David’s blog, What might a practice-based curriculum look like?

This blog was originally published on INSPIRE – Promoting excellence in Learning and Teaching, driven by Middlesex Senior Fellows of HEA with contributions welcomed from all Middlesex staff.

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