One-size-fits-all focus will diminish us

Caroline McCaw
Caroline McCaw
Thursdays are Otago Polytechnic academic Caroline's McCaw's favourite day of the week. 

Every Thursday, over the past few months, I have been taking groups of Otago Polytechnic senior communication design students out to Orokonui Ecosanctuary.

We are working on a range of projects we are discovering, proposing and investigating with the wonderful team running the sanctuary and its operations.

Teaching and learning happens as soon as we head for the car park; on the journey; in the cafe; presenting and getting feedback from the wise Orokonui staff; and on the many wonderful walks we do, tagging along with education groups, or exploring on our own. We share stories; we reflect on new knowledge; we think about how we can contribute to the opportunities we identify both explicit and implicit.

When we engage in project-based learning outside the classroom we are learning about ourselves and our place in the world; everyone we work with becomes part of our learning journey.

It's exciting for me, as a teacher, every time. This real-world experiential learning is exciting for students, too. Every project is different - each a new learning conversation.

The Review of Vocational Education and the Government's emphasis on a standardised, modular learning focus is heading in the wrong direction.

Consistency reviews between programmes in different towns and cities would undermine the richness of learning as it occurs in strong relationships inherent in community-based approaches. Dictating quality control from some centralised entity cannot meet the needs of regions.

Those leading the review just don't know. The Government's premise is that students at polytechnics are just learning skills, and that these skills are transferable between context, campus, teacher, student and assessments. This narrow focus avoids that in-between space, in which the joy of learning, and learning about ourselves, occurs.

We can't work on a project designing for Orokonui without being a part of the community there. We need to become regular visitors, to smell the mud on our boots. We need to empathise, to feel, smell and touch the context we are designing with and for, and to develop productive relationships through our experiences. These are not easy to quantify in a consistency review.

At Otago Polytechnic we have really high standards and expectations, of our students and of each other. Accountability holds hands with trust. Standardisation, on the other hand, stands in the corner with distrust, fear and a very narrow focus.

In an earlier design project this year, we worked with the Town Belt Kaitiaki, a group of 13 schools that border Dunedin's Town Belt and their pupil ambassadors, co-ordinated by Doc educator Claudia Barbirat.

Many of our students had never heard of the Town Belt, and their first task was to go out and explore it. A lesson in getting lost! We developed maps of our collective experiences before meeting with a group of pupil ambassadors, and listened to the group's aims and projects.

Our clients were all younger than us, and very articulate in telling us about their work. Together we identified a range of design outcomes that our students could prototype, and could be usefully employed by the kaitiaki in achieving some of their aims.

Our lessons began by respecting the children and youth, to learn from them, and then consider what we too had learned through our first-hand experiences. If we hadn't got lost we couldn't consider maps and way-finding solutions. In the process of working together we all learn.

The future of work will require our young graduates to have skills of listening, observing and finding opportunities. Among these skills are environmental, cultural and social literacies, so that our graduates may find work when jobs that we have known no longer exist. Our graduates need an entrepreneurial mindset, and great interpersonal skills.

This is more than workplace learning, although that may play a part.

There is room for industry feedback, but industry can't access the local opportunities that we as teachers, and local community members, can.

However, it's a mistake to undermine the role of the teacher, as sharer of knowledge, beyond the classroom.

And, just as we had to learn to listen, respect and work with youth and children, the Minister of Education needs to engage with us.

These projects always involve deep reflective and applied learning; the transferable skills students can take into the workforce - and the world - are timely and relevant.

Otago Polytechnic is a leading innovative and responsive learning environment. Let us share our approach with other polytechnics.

At this stage we, our students and our communities have everything to lose.

-Caroline McCaw is academic leader of communication design at Otago Polytechnic.

Comments

This is all very well. But Otago Polytechnic has been selling job seekers and businesses short for decades. (While I am ever grateful for them for giving the University of Otago's Design Studies employees jobs) As with many areas, the Polytech has fallen short on offering short quality practical graphic courses for years. You dont need a 5 year (1year pre-entry, 3 year degree, then a one year honours) degree to be a graphic designer. Most medium size Dunedin businesses need at least a part time graphic designer to do ads, for websites, facebook and print. They do not need an overqualified visual communications specialist. They need someone who can turn out acceptably good advertising quickly to a variety of platforms. It is well known to Phil Kerr that canny unemployed "millennials" would rather not go into life long debt to get a job that doesnt exist. Yet over the years, the Polytech under his leadership has refused to address Dunedin work skills shortages. Sorry guys you've had your chance, time for centralised control and real employment outcomes and meeting industry expectations.

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