Prescription, adaptation and failure around improving univeristy teaching

The following post and its content has been shaped by (at least) three separate influences:

  1. My on-going attempt to establish some ways of thinking about how you effectively support the improvement of teaching within universities – currently going under the label of “reflective alignment”
  2. A post by Damien Clark that attempts to integrate some of my ramblings into his own thoughts.
  3. The article by Knight and Trowler (2000) that I’m currently reading entitled “Department-level cultures and the improvement of learning and teaching”.

Lightning McQueen

I’ve found the Knight and Trowler (2000) article particularly good because it has expressed and explained quite effectively a number of points that I believe currently make most institutional attempts to improve teaching less than successful (Yes, there’s a good chance that confirmation bias plays a significant role here. But then I think I’m right 😉 ). In this post, I’m hoping/planing to focus on the following points:

  • Prescription – why most institutional approaches to improving teaching generally rely on prescription and why this is always destined to fail.
  • Adaptation – how whatever “innovation” is introduced into a social setting, especially one like a university and the practice of teaching, will be adapted by the participants both negatively and positively. Importantly, a suggestion that institutional leaders need to forget about proscribing the negative effects and instead focus on encouraging the positive. Not to mention the need to more effectively engage with context and ignore “best” practice.
  • Improvement is a journey, not a blueprint – where I’ll try and outline the foundations of an alternative approach to improving teaching.

In the last section, I’ll also explain why I’ve used a photo of a Pixar movie character at the start of this post.


Damien writes in his post

It occurs to me that prescribing any particular learning theory (such as constructive alignment) is not the answer

Absolutely, this is the problem I have with most of what is practiced around improving teaching at universities, it seeks to make prescriptions. This is one example of what I label within the reflective alignment idea as “level 2” knowledge, which is defined as:

  1. What the management does.
    This is the horrible simplistic approach taken by most managers and typically takes the forms of fads. i.e. where they think X (where X might be generic skills, quality assurance, problem-based learning or even, if they are really silly, a new bit of technology) will make all the difference and proceed to take on the heroic task of making sure everyone is doing X. The task is heroic because it usually involves a large project and radical change. It requires the leadership to be “leaders”. To wield power, to re-organise i.e. complex change that is destined to fail.

When applying “level 2” knowledge about improving teaching it is typical for a small group of folk to go away, identify based on their expertise and perspectives what the solution is and then prescribe it for everyone else. Where everyone might be the program, department or the institution. You can see this quite often when there are headlines like “All students will complete at least one online course”, “All courses in our medical program use Problem-based learning”, or “All courses will have an online presence”, or even worse “All courses will have an online presence that consists of A, B, C and E with an option of F”.

Paul Ramsden – an example of “level 2” knowledge

On of the interesting aspects of the Knight and Trowler (2000) paper is that they offer a criticism of Paul Ramsden’s work. This is the first criticism of that work I’ve heard (which may say more about the breadth and depth of my reading) and one that resonates strongly with the point I’m trying to make here. It also appears to criticise the idea of “transformational leadership”, which I’m also not a fan of – two birds one stone, perhaps.

Knight and Trowler (2000) argue that Ramsden’s (1998) suggestions for improving teaching illustrate the perspective of a leader that prescribes a solution with little focus on how it will be received by the academics that will be required to adopt it. They give an example to illustrate this

Ramsden suggests that departmental leaders establish a student liaison forum where students can meet staff over lunch to canvass ideas and creative options for better teaching and learning. Such an event would be a desirable effect, rather than an achievable cause, of departmental change. In practice, in the departments most in need of change such a proposal would be met with a mixture of resistance, avoidance, coping or reconstructing strategies related to staff and students’ interpretation and reception of such an idea and its underpinning assumptions. The same is true of most of the rest of Ramsden’ s proposals, such as forming groups of staff interested in working through key texts on teaching during their lunchtimes or encouraging peer observation of teaching by being the first to be observed.

This resonates strongly with me and my experience. Just last year I saw an attempt at “forming groups of staff” fail after a couple of meetings. And I see this all the time with the “prescriptions” that are rolled out by institutions.

The prescription approach ignores the findings from work on workarounds (Ferneley and Sobreperez, 2006), shadow systems (Jones et al, 2004) and task corruption. It ignores that nature of academics and teaching process.

Most importantly and pragmatically, it does NOT work. Knight and Trowler (2000)

Likewise, attempts to improve teaching by coercion run the risk of producing compliance cultures, in which there is `change without change’ , while simultaneously compounding negative feelings about academic work

Of course, there’s a neat research project in finding empirical evidence to back that claim up. It might go something like this:

  • Take a look at all of the attempts to improve teaching at an institution or two, three..over a certain time period.
  • Categorise those approaches based on the level of prescription.
    e.g. how far removed from the coal face academics was the prescription decision made? What type of participation did coal face academics have in preparing the prescription? e.g. were they “consulted” (and then ignored) about what they thought of the idea? Were they involved heavily from the start? How different is the prescription from current practice?
  • Determine how successful those prescriptions have been.
    First criteria would be, “is it still being used?”. The second criteria could be, “How is it being used?”. i.e. find out whether or not academics are working around the prescription. Lastly, “What impact has the prescription had?”.

Adaptation – why prescription fails?

Why do I think this approach fails? Well, there are the empirical results arising from my observations. Observations of prescription after prescription fail either through lack of use or task corruption. There are, however, also theoretical reasons and/or beliefs about the nature of teaching, academics, universities and how to effectively enable change. The following covers one particular area around the importance and inevitability of adaptation.

The importance and ignorance of place

The Ps Framework: a messy version

In the Ps Framework I have identified “Place” as the environment in which it all takes place. It is the foundation. The nature of the “Place” (or the context) in which teaching takes place is an essential influence on what is possible and what happens. Importantly, there is also the idea that “Place” is unique. The institution I work for is different others. The departmental culture you belong to is different from the one I belong to.

Knight and Trowler (2000) suggest

Yet how this is done will vary from context to context. Case studies of actual innovations such as the Rand Change Agent Study (1974-78) have confirmed that the need to achieve mutual adaptation of the innovation and the context is one important component of successful innovations

There are many related perspectives, including Gonzalez (2009)

Factors arising from the context within which the staff member is teaching also proved to influence the approach finally adopted

Not to mention the Trigwell framework (2001) I’ve used repeatedly.

So what has this got to do with the failure of the prescription approach to improving teaching? Knight and Trowler (200) quote Fullan

… one of the basic reasons why planning fails is that the planners or decision makers of change are unaware of the situations that potential implementers are facing. They introduce changes without providing a means to identify and confront the situational constraints and without attempting to understand the values, ideas and experiences of those who are essential for implementing any changes. (Fullan, 1991, p. 96)

Academics are knowledge workers

How do you think academics react when a prescription is made that illustrates little or no understanding of the constraints within which they operate? Let’s take a little test of interactivity and have a poll. Go on, interact.

View Poll

Perhaps it’s no surprise which of the above options I believe to be somewhat unlikely. One reason I think this is that I believe academics are knowledge workers. As knowledge workers academics have considerable autonomy about how they perform tasks and often can and do resist the imposition of new technology and changes to routine. Which links to and is informed by Drucker’s views of knowledge workers “Knowledge workers own the means of production. It is the knowledge between their ears. And it is a totally portable and enormous capital asset.”

Knight and Trowler (2000) suggest

Creating an environment in which lecturers feel that they have control over their teaching, that teaching is valued and that they have room to take chances, has been found to assist in the move towards a student-focused approach which leads them towards deep learning and significant conceptual change.

Senge (1999) offers a view on the impacts of a prescriptive approach to change

Top driven change…do(es) not reduce fear and distrust, nor unleash imagination and creativity, nor enhance the quality of thinking in the organization

Inevitability of adaptation

Arising from the view of academics and knowledge workers, the importance of context and more generally the social shaping of technology literature it is inevitable that any innovation or prescription will be adapted as it is adopted. Response to change in academic contexts always produces unintended results (Meister-Scheytt and Scheytt, 2005), outcomes are unpredictable and fuzzy (Knight and Trowler, 2000). In part because “human agency means that there is choice and that actions can be taken to maximise work satisfaction in the face of structural changes” (Knight and Trowler, 2000).

People, particularly academics when it comes to teaching, will modify how a prescription operates. Partly in an aim to “handle” the prescription but also, importantly, because introducing a change in a context will generate new experiences and new insight that will shape the system, its culture and expectations. Perhaps for good and perhaps for bad.

Improvement is a journey, not a blueprint

So what’s the solution? Knight and Trowler (2000)

We suggest that learning organisations require learning managers: managers who are reflective practitioners and who apply their analytical skills to the important activity systems with which they are engaged, and develop with other staff appropriate, contextualised, strategies for change. Fullan (1993) reminds us that change is a journey, not a blueprint. Journeys are usually engaged in with a specific destination in mind, but the one reached may be significantly different from that originally envisaged and there are usually as many reasons for going as there are travellers.

Making great time, rather than having a great time

My eldest son has a growing fascination, along with many kids his age, with animation, and in particular movies from Pixar. Over the weekend, after much badgering, he received a copy of Cars. In that movie one of the characters has the line

Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time.

The prescription approach is an example of teleological design. Teleological design places an emphasis on the destination, not the journey. Ateleological design reverses that.

I’m suggesting that improving teaching requires a much more ateleological approach. In attempting to explain the difference my co-authors (Jones, Luck et al, 2005) and I came up with the following

An analogy involving how to plan an overseas trip can provide a more concrete example of the differences between teleological and ateleological design. The extreme teleological approach to such a trip involves taking a package tour. Such a tour has a fixed, upfront plan designed by a group of experts, with little or no knowledge of the individual traveller, to appeal to a broad cross section of people. The extreme ateleological approach involves the traveller not having a fixed plan. Instead the traveller combines deep knowledge of her personal interests with a growing contextual knowledge of the destination to make unique choices that best suit her preferences and quickly modify her journey in response to unexpected events.

Knight and Trowler (2000) combine Weick and Fullan to arrive at

As Weick (1995) has observed in his analysis of organisational sense-making, aims are often elucidated after action, which suggests that the progress of change is more likely to be successful when it follows the path of `ready, fire, aim’ rather than the more usual `ready, aim, fire’ (Fullan, 1993, p. 31).

It’s more than that

So, do you just let each individual academic embark on their own back-packer journey of teaching. Doing what they want, when they want? No, that’s not what I’m arguing. Even with the back-packer analogy above, being an effective back-packer requires/is improved by an infrastructure that:

  • Improves/expands the travelers knowledge of the potential paces to visit.
  • Provides the necessary resources for the traveler to reach those places.

At this stage, I’m going to stop trying to extend this to a description of a solution. I’m stuck in a writer’s block and this post is already too long. Pick this up later.

Departmental leadership?

Knight and Trowler (2000) argue that

cultural change for the better can occur when the focus of leadership attention is at the level of the natural activity system of universities: the department or a subunit of it. However, cultural change has to be collaborative and is therefore unpredictable. Managers work in rather than on cultural contexts and their most important skills revolve around perceptiveness towards and analysis of these contexts

The build on this to suggest that middle managers – department heads – and how they lead are an important contributor to the quality of teaching. In particular, their use of approaches that “support the backpacker”.

I’m not convinced that the department-based approach is all that effective. I’m not sure there is an appropriate level of diversity within such groups to ensure a broad enough selection of destinations for travel.

I’m also not convinced that Knight and Trowler’s (2000) emphasis on leadership, especially that of middle management, is the full story. It continues the emphasis on Level 2 knowledge about improving learning and teaching (an emphasis on what management does) and also assumes that what a single individual does (the leader) is the complete story.

For me, the entire system, its processes and polices has to be focused on what the teacher does. On providing the infrastructure that provides the teacher with (at least) the two points introduced in the last section.


Ferneley, E. and P. Sobreperez (2006). “Resist, comply or workaround? An examination of different facets of user engagement with information systems.” European Journal of Information Systems 15(4): 345-356.

Fullan, M. (1991). The New Meaning of Educational Change. London, Cassell.

Gonzalez, C. (2009). “Conceptions of, and approaches to, teaching online: a study of lecturers teaching postgraduate distance courses.” Higher Education 57(3): 299-314

Jones, D., S. Behrens, et al. (2004). The rise and fall of a shadow system: Lessons for enterprise system implementation. Managing New Wave Information Systems: Enterprise, Government and Society, Proceedings of the 15th Australasian Conference on Information Systems, Hobart, Tasmania.

Jones, D., J. Luck, et al. (2005). The teleological brake on ICTs in open and distance learning. Conference of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’2005, Adelaide.

Knight, P. and P. Trowler (2000). “Department-level Cultures and the Improvement of Learning and Teaching.” Studies in Higher Education 25(1): 69-83.

Meister-Scheytt, C. and T. Scheytt (2005). “The complexity of change in universities.” Higher Education Quarterly 59(1): 76-99.

Trigwell, K. (2001). “Judging university teaching.” The International Journal for Academic Development 6(1): 65-73.

Ramsden, P. (1998). Learning to Lead in Higher Education. London, Routledge.

7 thoughts on “Prescription, adaptation and failure around improving univeristy teaching

  1. “Making great time, rather than having a great time”
    This section reminded me of a meeting recently to define a vision statement. The vision statements itself, while being the end result, is not the important part; it’s going through the process of recognizing deficiencies and new aspirations in a collaborative environment that gets everyone thinking along the same lines. This give ownership of the output (the vision) to all the participants and builds the energy needed to overcome the cost of change.

    1. G’day Tony,

      Personally, the question of vision statements is still questionable. As a general rule, I think they are not all that helpful, after all they are a very teleological thing to do. However, I have a vague concern that they may be helpful, in the way you suggest, and a lot of folk agree.

      Against the idea of vision statements, for me at least, is the question of just how well you can develop a paragraph or two that summarises the aim of a complex process for a range of opinionated people (e.g. teaching and academics). Given the diversity inherent in most groups of academics and how they approach teaching, I’m not sure the process of a vision statement really generates shared understanding.

      I think, working collaboratively together sharing each others rationale, attempts and failures, is a better way of developing a shared vision. In particular, because the practical nature of it enables more likelihood of really agreeing on understanding. Something I’m not sure playing with words while formulating a vision statement can help.

      Perhaps it depends on how much the vision statement is treated as a blueprint with detailed descriptions that rule out or rule in particular destinations, and how much it is a very high level statement.


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