DEVELOPING LEARNING PARTNERSHIPS THROUGH THE DISCIPLINES

Mick Healey

Geography and Environmental Management Research Unit (GEMRU), Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ, UK

Email: mhealey@chelt.ac.uk; Tel: +44 (0)1242 543364; Fax: +44 (0)1242 543283

Paper presented to the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australia Annual Conference on 'Learning Partnerships', The University of Newcastle, Australia, 8-11 July 2001, and subsequently published in Research and Development in Higher Education, 24, pp.42-50 (2001).

ABSTRACT: This paper describes and evaluates a discipline-based approach to developing learning partnerships drawing on examples from Australasia, North America and the UK. It focuses on inter-institutional partnerships aimed at developing, researching and disseminating effective learning and teaching resources and practices within disciplines. The paper is illustrated with particular reference to the experience of national and international learning partnerships that have been developed within the discipline of geography.
Key Descriptors: Learning partnerships, networks, educational development, learning and teaching resources and practices, disciplines, geography

Introduction

Most learning partnerships take place within institutions between students, between teachers or a combination of the two. Learning partnerships between institutions of higher education are less common. This paper is concerned with a particular type of inter-institutional partnership involving academics in the same or related disciplines. Hence for this paper a learning partnership may be defined as a group of teachers from different institutions of higher education who come together formally or informally to disseminate, develop, and/or research learning and teaching practices and resources within a single or related group of disciplines.

These discipline-based learning partnerships, or networks, can serve a wide variety of functions, including providing initial and continuing professional development for higher education teachers, developing curricular materials and resources, founding educational networks for disseminating effective practices, undertaking pedagogic research projects, and editing discipline-based educational journals. Many of these learning partnerships operate at a national level and some are international. These 'partnerships' may be short-term, for example, to run a particular project or event, or long-term, such as with a professional association or a journal. In the case of the latter the membership of the partnership is likely to change over time. 'Learning' takes place through these partnerships in three senses. First, the members of the partnerships 'learn' directly from running the activities. Secondly, the members learn from bringing together teachers from different sub-disciplines, different kinds of higher educational institutions, and sometimes also from countries with different educational systems. In both these cases being a member of, say, a national or international educational project team or an editorial board of a discipline-based pedagogic journal, is an effective form of staff development for the people involved. Thirdly, the purpose of most of the learning partnerships is to disseminate effective learning and teaching practices and resources among the discipline community to be used to improve the quality of learning of their students.

There has been a growing interest in many countries in discipline-based educational development (Jenkins, 1996; Jenkins and Healey, 2000; Rust, 2000). One of the reasons for this is that it has been recognised that most academics think of themselves in disciplinary terms. Hence to communicate effectively with them and to influence their behaviour there is a need to translate the language of educational development into the prevailing discourse of the disciplines. This viewpoint contrasts with the traditional institutional model of educational development, which adopts a largely generic approach and emphasises the benefits of comparing practices across disciplines (Gosling, 1996, Knapper, 1997). Indeed Gibbs (2000) argues that there is a great deal more in common between disciplines than most teachers acknowledge or perceive and that when it comes to teaching it is largely generic principles and methods which need to be applied rather than discipline-based ones.

These different perspectives are not, however, necessarily contradictory. Whereas the first stresses the practicalities of influencing teachers in higher education, the second emphasises the importance of the underlying generic principles. This paper is based on the premise that the discipline-based approach to developing learning partnerships has not, as yet, received the attention that it deserves. It is argued that much is to be gained from this approach as long as it is informed and draws on the understanding to be gained from the generic literature. A related argument, based on the dominance of disciplines in higher education, is used by Gibbs (1996) to advocate the devolution of educational development to academic departments.

The aims of the paper are, first, to identify the nature of discipline-based learning partnerships and to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses; and second, to illustrate the operation of national and international learning partnerships with reference to one specific discipline, that of geography. The paper concludes with a discussion of the lessons to be learnt from developing discipline-based learning partnerships.

The nature of discipline-based learning partnerships

There is an international interest in the development of learning partnerships through disciplines. Some partnerships have involved subject associations, such as the American Association of Higher Education's Faculty Roles and Rewards programme (Diamond, and Adam, 1995, 2000). During the 1990s in Australia many projects funded by The Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching and its replacement, the Committee of University Teaching and Staff Development, were discipline-based, capitalising on academics commitment to their subjects. Similarly the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in the United States has been guided by the principle that the scholarship of teaching is not divorced from the content of the discipline being taught. For example, its Pew National Fellowships Program selects Carnegie Scholars in disciplinary groups to provide collegial interactions within the discipline (Cambridge, 1999). The UK has gone a stage further and in 2000 established a Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) consisting of a Generic Centre, a Technologies Centre and 24 National Subject Centres. The latter build on twenty years experience of running discipline-based programmes, such as the Computers in Teaching Initiative, the Teaching Learning Technology Programme and the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning. The importance of the discipline is also emphasised in the core knowledge and values for membership of the UK's Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.

Such discipline-based learning partnership initiatives provide important opportunities for developing the scholarship of teaching. Martin et al. (1998) suggest that the scholarship of teaching involves three essential and integrated elements: engagement with the scholarly contributions of others on teaching and learning; reflection on one's own teaching practice and the learning of students within the context of a particular discipline; and communication and dissemination of aspects of practice and theoretical ideas about teaching and learning in general and teaching and learning within the discipline. Significantly, they explicitly emphasise the importance of the discipline in two of the three elements. Healey (2000a, 172-3) goes further and argues that, "For most academics, developing the scholarship of teaching will only bring about change in their priorities if it is embedded in disciplines and departments."

There are at least five strengths to adopting a discipline-based approach to developing learning partnerships:

  1. For most academic staff their primary allegiance is to their subject or profession, and their sense of themselves as staff at a given institution is secondary. Becher (1994, 157) regards disciplines "as academic tribes each with their own set of intellectual values and their own patch of cognitive territory". There is a strong perception among staff that there are significant differences among disciplines in what academics do and how those activities are described and valued. Support for this view is given by Prosser and Martin (2000, 6), who conclude that, "variation between the disciplines is fundamental to the nature of teaching and learning within the disciplines".
  2. Some disciplines are characterised by distinctive forms of teaching, such as; laboratory practicals in the sciences; studio critiques in art; work-based learning in teaching, social work and nursing; and fieldwork in geography and the earth sciences.
  3. All forms of teaching need to be 'translated' into the culture and ways that different disciplines operate. The Geography Discipline Network (GDN), a consortium of a dozen universities and colleges in the UK, has found, from running over 60 department-based workshops on teaching, learning and assessment in geography, that most colleagues respond more positively to the case studies of the way practices operate in particular departments than to generic discussions of the pros and cons of various teaching methods.
  4. A discipline-based approach can integrate the methods of teaching and learning with the content of the discipline. So discussion can be focused around questions, such as 'how can students learn effectively about x?'. As Rice (1995: vi) notes: "improvement of teaching needs to be rooted in the intellectual substance of the field".
  5. Discipline-based learning partnerships encourage the development of support groups in which members share not only an interest in teaching and learning, but also an interest in the subject matter being taught and the culture of the discipline's 'academic tribe'. Participants thus have more in common than in many generic learning partnerships.

There are also, however, potential weaknesses in developing learning partnerships through a discipline-based approach:

  1. Many subject staff lack sufficient knowledge and training to undertake the task effectively and that as a consequence the partnerships can be insular with much 'recreating of wheels'. This came out in Weimer's (1993) review of discipline-based pedagogic journals. She found that most of the journals exist in a sort of splendid isolation with respect to any writing or research done outside the field.
  2. An examination of some of the educational development literature suggests that discipline specialists are sometimes portrayed as thinking that the teaching process is unproblematic and not worthy of much attention (Baume, 1996; Jenkins, 1996; Schulman, 1993; Weimer, 1997). Discipline specialists, who are interested in improving the quality of the learning experience of their students, are often unaware of the potentially valuable role that educational developers and other pedagogic specialists can play.
  3. There is also a view that as higher education is moving towards 'Mode 2' (Gibbons, 1999), in which "both research and teaching are increasingly issue and problem based; they go-beyond discipline boundaries" (Martin and Ramsden, 2000, 135). Interdisciplinary learning partnerships are growing in importance.

Careful planning and design are needed to develop learning partnerships through the disciplines that maximise these strengths and minimise the weaknesses. In the remainder of this paper the different approaches used in one discipline, geography, are analysed and the lessons that other disciplines may draw from this experience are evaluated.

Learning partnerships in geography

Geography is an intriguing discipline with which to illustrate the nature of learning partnerships. On the one hand, it has more than 25 years experience of developing a discipline-based approach to educational development (Healey, 1998a, b) and is recognised as one of the leading disciplines in pedagogic innovation (Gibbs, 1999). On the other hand, because it draws on the social and natural sciences as well as aspects of the humanities, many of the ways in which geographers have approached the issues are adaptable to other disciplines (Healey et al., 2000a).

National and international learning partnerships in geography

There are two broad types of discipline-based learning partnership, short-term partnerships, usually based on project-funding, and long-term partnerships, mostly based in professional associations. Although the distinctions between the two are not always clear. On the one hand, professional associations sometimes undertake short-term partnerships on their own or in collaboration with other groups; for example, the Association of American Geographers (AAG) has sponsored four different Commissions since the late 1960s concerned with different aspects of teaching and learning. On the other hand, some short-term partnerships have lasted a long-time, such as the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) in the UK, which was funded for 20 years; or have successfully attracted a series of different projects, such as the GDN, which has received funding of almost £0.5m (sterling) from four major government programmes since 1995. A survey of national geography education networks associated with the International Geographical Union (IGU) found that most activity is based in the US and the UK (Healey, 2000b). There is need to develop networks in other countries, particularly in non-English speaking countries and the Third World (Shepherd et al., 2000).

Several of the short-term learning partnerships have attracted significant sums of money and have been able to develop ambitious programmes. For example, the National Science Foundation recently awarded $US 800,000 over five years to the Geography Faculty Development Alliance, based at the University of Colorado, to provide teacher training to junior faculty and advanced doctoral students. The LTSN Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, based at the University of Plymouth, has an annual budget from the LTSN of approximately £300,000 (sterling) (Gaskin, 2001). In contrast the programme of activities of the long-term learning partnerships associated with professional associations is generally much more modest. For example, the Institute of Australian Geographers integrates papers on learning and teaching into its Annual Conference, while the Higher Education Study Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG) runs an annual programme, usually consisting of two or three sponsored sessions at the Annual Conference and two or three conferences or seminars during the year, sometimes in association with other groups.

Several of the long-term learning partnerships attract visitors to their events from abroad. The IGU has its own Commission on Geographical Education, but its primary interest is in pre-university education. The lack of an international forum for the discussion of higher education issues in geography led to the founding of the International Network for Learning and Teaching Geography in Higher Education in 1999. It now has its own listserve, Web pages (http://www.inlt.org/) and Newsletter. Its goal is "to improve the quality of learning and teaching of geography in higher education internationally" (Hay et al., 2000: 224). It is in the process of establishing a database and clearinghouse for educational materials and a number of international projects are planned. Nine papers from the first international symposium have been published (Healey et al., 2000a) and a second symposium was held in Plymouth at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2001. At the beginning of 2001 there were 218 members of the listserve from 16 different countries. Unfortunately, the INLT has no funding of its own. This illustrates a major difficulty in developing international learning partnerships; unlike in research there are few sources of funding available for international collaborations.

Courses for new university geography teachers

The pioneering work on developing initial training courses for geographers was undertaken in the mid-1970s by the AAG under the direction of William Pattison (Fink, 1978; Monk, 1978). They developed a course for geography graduate teaching assistants in the States. Eventually 16 departments participated in the project. The idea of national workshops for graduate teaching assistants and new faculty in geography in the US has, as noted above, recently been resurrected by the Geography Faculty Development Alliance.

In the UK a pilot residential workshop was held in 2000 for 30 recently appointed lecturers in geography, earth and environmental sciences (Clark et al., in submission). The aim was to supplement, rather than replace, the generic institutional teaching courses in which many of the delegates were also participating. The workshop was run by a team of discipline specialists all of whom had previously worked together with at least some other members of the team developing pedagogic guides and running workshops. Just as important as the 'formal' sessions was the opportunity for the participants, almost all of whom were the only new members of staff in their departments, to share their teaching experiences with other colleagues who were also starting their teaching careers. The positive evaluations of the pilot by the participants, the facilitators and an independent evaluator, has led the newly established LTSN Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences to adopt the workshop as an annual feature in its programme of events. The programme for the 2001 workshop is shown in Table 1. Other Subject Centres are considering developing their own workshops for new staff in their disciplines.

Continuing professional development for geographers

Although accredited continuing professional development (CPD) courses for geography teachers in higher education do not yet exist, geographers have been more active in the CPD area than they have been in developing initial training courses. In the US the Human Dimensions of Global Change project bought together geographers in a series of summer workshops to develop 10 active-learning modules for use in teaching introductory higher education courses in geography (Hands On!, 1998). Another collaborative project is the Virtual Geography Department (VGD), which was funded from 1996-9 by the National Science Foundation (Foote, 1999). The goals of the VGD are "to develop ways for geographers to share materials and use the World Wide Web" and "to offer high quality curriculum materials and classroom and laboratory modules that can be used across the Internet by geography students and faculty at any university in the world, and to promote collaborative research" (Virtual Geography Department, 2000). The VGD moved to the University of Colorado in 2000 and its aims continue to be developed through the activities of the Worldwide Web Specialty Group within the AAG.

Geographers in the UK have also been active in developing educational materials and resources. These include computer assisted learning modules for introductory geography courses (GeographyCal) (Healey et al., 1996; 1998); teaching and resource materials which support developing key skills in a geographical context (Geography for the New Undergraduate - http://www.livhope.ac.uk/gnu/); and information technology resources for the support of fieldwork teaching (Virtual Field Course - http://www.geog.le.ac.uk/vfc/).

Whereas all the projects mentioned so far, both in the US and the UK, primarily provide materials and resources that geography teachers in higher education may use to encourage active learning, one group, the GDN, addresses the CPD issue directly. Its aim is to develop and disseminate good teaching, learning and assessment practices. The GDN is a consortium of geographers, educational developers and other specialists. It has produced 17 teaching and learning guides for staff, one for students preparing to start a geography degree course, and a further 6 guides for staff on providing learning support for disabled students undertaking fieldwork (Gravestock & Healey, 1998; 2000; 2001). It has also organised five national conferences and seminars and held over 60 department-based workshops. The GDN Web pages include over 35 full-text papers and publications, abstracts from three geographical education journals and about 200 case studies of interesting teaching, learning and assessment practices from around the world (http://www.chelt.ac.uk/gdn/). The GDN Web pages have become a major resource for the geography higher education community and are regularly receiving over 10,000 hits a week. The case study resource database is currently being expanded to provide the home for the pedagogic resources for the LTSN Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Clearly over the last few years there have been several initiatives providing support for geography teachers in higher education, at least in the US and the UK. However, despite their individual excellence, the impact of many of the initiatives has been restricted because, first, most have been limited-life projects, and, second, it has been mainly those who are already interested in teaching and learning who have tended to become involved with the projects. Impacting on the wider faculty may, in the long run, come about through educating new staff, while in the short to medium term, may be achieved by facilitating the involvement of a larger proportion of faculty by, for example, running departmental workshops. Longer-term continuity for the initiatives involves significant long-term investment, such as the British government provided for the CTI Centres for 20 years and will hopefully now provide for the LTSN Subject Centres.

An international journal for learning and teaching geography in higher education

Although such journals may not immediately be thought of as learning partnerships, it may be argued that they represent a learning partnership between the authors, the editorial board, the referees and the readers. The written record also provides an inter-generational learning partnership. In 1977 a group of British geographers founded the Journal of Geography in Higher Education (Healey, 1998a). While recognising that immediately, for organisational reasons, it had to be British-based, they determined to develop it as an international journal (Jenkins, 1997). Now it is effectively that, or more realistically, it carries articles from Australasia, North America, the UK, and, to a lesser extent, 'elsewhere'. This 'international' perspective is now confirmed and shaped by the editorial organisation. Scholars from Australasia and North America now submit their articles to local editors, who also arrange refereeing, decide acceptance or rejection of articles, and shape overall editorial policy. The first JGHE lecture was held at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference, 2000 (Monk, 2000); in 2001 the second JGHE lecture was held at the joint New Zealand Geographical Society and Institute of Australian Geographers' Conference in Dunedin.

Lessons for developing discipline-based learning partnerships

There are several lessons that can be learnt from twenty-five years experience of developing national and international learning partnerships in geography, some of which are applicable to other disciplines. Five are mentioned here:

  1. Develop a core-group of interested discipline-specialists - Bringing together a group of committed individuals is vital to develop a discipline-based learning partnership. Unless this is in connection with a short-term funded project, obtaining support from a relevant subject association is usually critical for long-term survival. Similarly, bringing in new members is necessary for continuation planning.
  2. Integrate curriculum and pedagogic concerns - As Schulman (1987, 15) observes, "The key to understanding the knowledge base of teaching lies at the intersection between content and pedagogy." Debates within the discipline about the content of the curriculum and the impact of national policies for teaching and research on the discipline are important in involving a wider group of staff than normal.
  3. Engage with the disciplinary community - Working within the prevailing culture of the subject is the basis of a discipline-based approach to learning partnerships. Involving as many discipline-specialists as possible in events and activities is an important way of obtaining support for the learning partnership and helps to avoid the 'not invented here syndrome'. Holding department-based workshops is an effective way of disseminating effective practices and reaching staff who would not normally attend a generic pedagogic workshop or a national discipline-based workshop.
  4. Be outward looking - Avoiding the problem of insularity, referred to earlier, is important if the learning partnership is to be effective. This involves being open both to ideas within the discipline from other countries and to pedagogic developments in other subjects and generic educational networks.
  5. Involve educational developers and pedagogic specialists - An important way to tap into expertise external to the discipline is to involve educational developers and pedagogic specialists in the partnership. This can be an effective method for developing the capacity of discipline specialists to be engaged in educational development and pedagogic research.

These and other suggested points to consider in establishing and developing a discipline-based learning partnership are listed in Table 2.

In conclusion, this paper has argued that a discipline-based approach to developing learning partnerships has many advantages, not least that it addresses the practical issue of valuing the discipline-based culture which pervades higher education. As long as the principles of the scholarship of teaching are adopted and activities are informed by what is happening within the discipline in other countries and outside the discipline in other subjects and generically, then discipline-based learning partnerships have the potential to be a powerful agent for developing and embedding effective educational practices. It is recognised that there is a growth in interest in interdisciplinary learning partnerships, such as women's studies and development studies, but it is believed that disciplines will continue to dominate the way in which higher education is organised and academics think about themselves for many years to come. Educational developers have a key role to play in supporting and facilitating the development of discipline-based learning partnerships, but if they are to be accepted by the mass of discipline specialists they need to "recognise, value and build upon staff's disciplinary concerns" (Jenkins, 1996, 61). Supporting and facilitating the development of discipline-based learning partnerships is an important way by which this may be achieved.

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Table 1. Programme for LTSN Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences Workshop for Recently Appointed Lecturers, 21-22 May 2001

Times Programme
DAY ONE  
09.30 - 10.00 Registration & Coffee
10.00 - 10.15 Introduction to workshop
10.15 - 11.30 Plenary 1: Fieldwork
11.30 - 12.00 Coffee
12.00 - 13.15 Plenary 2: Learning outcomes & assessment in our subjects
13.15 - 14.15 Lunch
14.15 - 15.45 Parallel Session 1
15.45 - 16.15 Tea
16.15 - 17.15 The Subject Centre: What can it do for you?
18.00 - 18.30 Focus group: impressions of the Subject Centre
18.30 - 20.00 Dinner
20.00 - 21.30 Evening session
   
DAY TWO  
09.00 - 10.30 Parallel Session 2
10.30 - 11.00 Coffee
11.00 - 12.30 Parallel Session 3
12.30 - 13.30 Lunch
13.30 - 14.45 Plenary 3: New Quality Agenda - Discipline perspectives
14.45 - 15.00 Tea (drink in final session)
15.00 - 16.30 Plenary 4: Individual Planning, event profile - where next?
16.30 Disperse

Parallel Sessions (Depending on demand some will run twice)

  1. Communication and information technology in our subjects
  2. Resource-based learning in our subjects
  3. Laboratory classes in our subjects
  4. Integrating skill development with academic content: a problem-based learning exercise
  5. Work experience, employer links and employability for our students
  6. Lecturing in our subjects
  7. Small-group teaching in our subjects
  8. Supervising our research students
  9. Researching our teaching

Issues concerning safety, equal opportunities, part-time students, special-needs students and distance learners will be dealt with by embedding them in each of the programme's sessions as appropriate. Throughout the workshop participants will have access to a 'resource library'.

As an entry ticket to the event participants are asked to introduce themselves, and their teaching and research interests on the Workshop Web-based Bulletin Board. You should say one thing about your teaching that works well, one thing about your teaching with which you would like some help/discussion, and give the Web address of your favourite Web site (it need not be academic).

 

Table 2. Some points to consider in establishing and developing a discipline-based learning partnership

  1. Make as many contacts as possible with like-minded enthusiasts in the discipline in your state/province/nation; build a core group as soon as possible and involve them in the establishment and organisation of the partnership's activities
  2. Agree the main objectives for your learning partnership; develop an action plan with timescales and a clear division of responsibilities for their achievement; review and, where appropriate, revise your objectives and plans regularly
  3. Start small, but think big; organising workshops and small conferences need not involve many resources
  4. Seek wide support for your learning partnership by 'networking the networks'; obtain legitimacy and status by working with your subject's learned society or professional association and other key groups; make your learning partnership invaluable by, for example, organising workshops and conferences to discuss the disciplines' response to government higher education initiatives
  5. Integrate in the programmes of activities curriculum and pedagogic issues with topical issues of concern to the future of the discipline
  6. Take every opportunity to involve academics in the discipline in the learning partnership; identify and work through key individuals in university and college departments
  7. Ensure that events and activities receive wide publicity and reports are written up and distributed widely; produce a newsletter; establish a discipline learning partnership WWW site; and consider establishing a listserve discussion list
  8. Prepare guides to good practices in learning, teaching and assessment, written in an accessible and practical style, and containing plenty of case studies illustrating their implementation in your discipline
  9. Produce learning and teaching materials that can be adapted and used flexibly by lecturers and tutors in your subject
  10. Publish discipline-based pedagogic research, conference proceedings, and bibliographies of discipline-specific educational literature; consider establishing a discipline educational journal, if one does not already exist
  11. Ensure a high standard of scholarship in the way you write about and discuss the teaching of your discipline; strive to raise the standard of other contributors
  12. Seek funding to develop, identify and disseminate good practice in the learning and teaching of your discipline
  13. Establish links with other educational learning partnerships in closely related subjects and with learning partnerships in your discipline in other countries; involve key people from related disciplines and other countries in your activities
  14. Contribute to generic educational conferences and workshops
  15. Involve educational developers and other pedagogic specialists, particularly those with a background in your discipline, in the planning and implementation of your activities, including bringing them in to participate in events, work on projects, facilitate workshops, and to advise on and evaluate the development of the learning partnership
  16. Encourage and prepare new members to take over the running of the learning partnership

Source: Based on Healey (1998a, Table 1)


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