Herding cats, losing weight and how to improve learning and teaching

The purpose of this post is to work out some initial ideas for a presentation I’ll be giving at CQUniversity in the next month or so. The title of the presentation is probably going to be “Herding cats, losing weight and how to improve learning and teaching”. The talk is related to my current position and is the first step in making the position better known within the organisation.

I’m hoping that this post will help me formulate some of the ideas that have been floating around about this presentation. The main purpose I hope to achieve is sufficient understanding of what I’m trying to do to come up with an abstract.

If you have an comments on the following please contribute. I’m particularly interested in references that might support or argue against any of the views below.


The talk will draw on many of the perspectives I’ve recently read and shared on this blog. The basic argument is that most of what Universities, at least those of my experience, have been doing to improve learning and teaching (quality, implementation of learning management systems, L&T innovation grants, graduate certificates in learning and teaching, curriculum design, over emphasis on discipline based teaching etc.) can be characterised as attempting to herd cats. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, it’s best summarised in an old EDS commercial (YouTube video included below).

The problem

It’s my belief, that at best these approaches help the innovators – the small percentage of university academic staff that are inherently interested in improving their learning and teaching. That’s it, that’s the only positive I see of these approaches.

The negatives include:

I think I’ll argue that such approaches are symptomatic of an increasingly techno-rational approaches to universities and learning and teaching. An increase driven in part by the change nature of the context within which higher education must operate. i.e. decreasing funds, increasing calls for accountability etc. Approaches which are based on the assumption of ordered systems.

I’ll argue that the assumptions of ordered systems and techno-rational approaches are increasingly unquestioned. In fact, I’ll suggest that the nature of these assumptions and their mismatch with the context leads to defensive routines and that these assumptions become undiscussable. Actions which further restrict the ability of an organisation to improve learning and teaching.

The solution

First, I’ll try and use the idea of losing weight as a metaphor for the individual decisions around trying to improve learning and teaching. It will suggest that achieving both goals in a sustainable way, requires a change in the day to day practice of the individual. Not something that can be achieved by outside direction.

This metaphor/analogy will be used to make connections between the nature and outcomes of fad diets and fads in learning and teaching. It will also be used to highlight what we know about individuals, cognition and rationality. In particular, this will talk about the tendency for past experience to directly influence and limit how we will act in the future and how this influences both teachers and the managers that direct teachers.

Importantly, around about here it is important to connect with some of the “lessons from people” I’ve developed for the thesis.

At this stage, I’m getting a bit more fuzzy as to content and direction. The standard approach for me at this stage would be to talk about complex systems and the work of Dave Snowden. In particular the various principles he has. I may translate this into specific examples of things that can be done and connect it back to examples at CQU. In particular the limitations of teleological approaches to the support of e-learning systems.

More work to be done here, but I think the point has to be to bring all this abstract stuff back to real examples, suggestions or principles that can be applied in this context.


The environment within which Universities operate has changed significantly over recent years. Two of the biggest changes have been a reduction in state funding for universities and, at the same time, an increased need for universities to demonstrate the quality and appropriateness of their services, especially learning and teaching. Consequently, most universities have developed a range of strategies, policies, structures and systems with the intent of improving and demonstrating the quality of their learning and teaching. This presentation will draw on the metaphors of herding cats and losing weight to examine the underlying assumptions of these attempts, the resulting outcomes, question whether or not they are the best we can hope for, and present some alternatives.

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