tisdag 31 maj 2011

Top-down vs. bottom-up


Over the weekend, I've thought a little bit more about exactly why the exercise I wrote about in the previous blog post (Education Assessment Exercise) matters to me. It is obviously not the two hours I spent (wasted?) on the exercise itself that matters, but rather something else that bothers me. What?

I believe it really is the folly of someone, somewhere thinking such an exercise will magically (?) improve the state of our education that bothers me. I might live under the misconception that there is goodwill involved and that this exercise is an honest (but misguided) attempt to improve what we do. A more devious alternative interpretation is that it is all about power and control, and that quality of has little to do with it. Still, I will here operate under the first assumption and spell out why I think it is misguided.

I'd like to draw a parallel to the gentlemant-"scientist" who, at the height of the British empire, sits in his comfortable leather chair somewhere in the greatest city of them all, London, and reads accounts from all around the world (i.e. the British empire) about "savages" and their affairs. Based on these reports - themselves of varying quality - he performs some magic sleight of hand. Through an act of armchair science (i.e. not getting his hand dirty by working with actual empirical material, but rather using others' interpretations of others' interpretations as his "research material" to be analyzed) he puts it all together into one grand unified theory about cultures and races. He "reasonably" draws the conclusion that savages at best can be compared to children and that "we" (white British imperialists) obviously are doing them all a great favor by ruling their countries and "taking care" of them. Later and based on his "unified theory of savagery and governance", the Empire finds support for a variety of policies that one hundred years later look, well, "strange".

Such one-size-fits-all theories take little care about unique idiosyncrasies of specific cultures and geographies into account and suffer from a whole lot of other intractable problems too. The lack of high-quality information, and the folly of drawing sweeping conclusions without any (own) first-hand observations has since been heavily discredited in scientific contexts. Scientist and science fiction author Isaac Asimov does a great job of portraying such dismal scientific processes on a grand scale in the aging, dying galactic empire in his Foundation trilogy. In an old, tired empire stretching over innumerable worlds, it is considered crude to collect actual empirical material, and refined to add yet another layer to what there already is. Armchair science in a culture no longer interested in the present or the future is in fact a defining characteristic of this vast empire in decline.

I find that the some of the same mechanisms of trying to understand and rule at a distance ("top-down") are at play in a large bureaucratic organization such as KTH. I would suggest that one example of this "syndrome" is that there is vast overconfidence in the possibility of improving the content and the quality of whole university programs and individual courses through top-down measures, and a corresponding lack of confidence in the alternative; in the possibility of reaching for the same kinds of improvements through bottom-up measures.

To raise quality through bottom-up measures necessitates a high degree of trust in the faculty and in the teachers who are the nuts and bolts of the teaching effort. I would go as far as to say that there is little such trust in place today. I also freely admit that such trust can obviously sometimes be misplaced. However, if there is a perceived need to (in infinite detail) (attempt to) control every teacher and every course through copious and detailed instructions regarding this-and-that, this all really just signals that the average teacher is not to be trusted by the very organization she works for. But seriously, what can realistically be done at all if a university does not trust its core personnel - the people who actually teach?

It should be obvious that the most important task of all other personnel at a university should be to support those who actually teach; those who meet students in classroom situations and who try to impart some knowledge and at times hopefully even some wisdom. To me - an small cog in the machinery - it oftentimes feels like it's the other way around - other groups of employees (administrators, bosses) make demands on my and other teachers' time not the least because (from their point of view) our time is always free of charge. If I on the other hand would like to make demands on some other people's time within this organization (where have all the secretaries gone nowadays?), the gut reaction is instead to deem it expensive and therefore unrealistic.

I personally think that one of the best and least expensive ways to improve individual courses (and consequently whole educational programs) would be to set up high standards and requirements as well as high-quality support for the individual teacher. I most often feel that neither is in place, and I would personally not appreciate high demands without also having a high degree of support (as in "every man for himself", or "sink or swim"). As a university teacher, I am of course free to develop and improve my courses as much as I would like to - or not. There is unfortunately little official support for, and few consequences of not doing so.


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