The need for a third way

One of the themes for this blog is that the majority of current approaches to improving learning and teaching within universities simply don’t work. At least not in terms of enabling improvement in a majority of the learning and teaching at an institution. Recently I finally completed reading the last bits of the book Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein. Chapter 18 is titled “The Real Third Way”. This post explores how that metaphor connects with some of the thinking expressed here.

The real third way

Thaler and Sunstein mention that the “20th century was pervaded by a great deal of artificial talk about the possibility of a ‘Third Way'” in politics. Their proposal is that libertarian paternalism, the topic of the book, represents a real third way. I’m not talking politics but there appears to be the same need to break out of a pointless dichotomy and move onto something more useful.

The characterisations of the two existing ways provided by Thaler and Sunstein are fairly traditional (stereotypical?) extremes of the political spectrum. i.e.:

  1. Liberal/Democrat – “enthusiasm for rigid national requirements and for command-and-control regulation. Having identified serious problems in the private market, Democrats have often insisted on firm mandates, typically eliminating or at least reducing freedom of choice.”.
  2. Conservative/Republican – have argued against government intervention and on behalf of a laissez-fair approach with freedom of choice being a defining principle. They argue that “in light of the sheer diversity of Americans one size cannot possibly fit all”.

Thaler and Sunstein’s third way – libertarian paternalism – is based on two claims:

  1. Choice architecture is pervasive and unavoidable.
    Small features of social situations have a significant impact on the decisions people make. The set of these features – the choice architecture – in any given social situation already exists and is already influencing people toward making good or bad decisions.
  2. Choice architecture can be manipulated while retaining freedom of choice.
    It is possible to make minor changes to the set of features in a social situation such that it encourages people to make “better” decisions, whilst still allowing them to make the “bad” decision, if that’s what they want.

Connections with improving learning and teaching

Early last year I borrowed and slightly modified Bigg’s 3 levels of teaching to identify 3 levels of improving learning and teaching. Obviously there is a numerical connection between these 3 levels and the “3 ways” outlined above. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realise that the connections are more significant than that, and that the “3rd way” seems to be a useful way to position my beliefs about how to improve learning and teaching within a university. Here goes my first attempt at explicating it.

Expanding upon the 3 levels of improving L&T

The 3 levels I initially introduced can be expanded/morphed into ways or into stages. In terms of stages, I could probably argue that the levels/stages represent a historical evolution of how learning and teaching has been dealt within in Universities. Those three stages are:

  1. What the teacher is (i.e. ignore L&T).
    This is the traditional/historical stage that some long term academics look back on with fond memories. Where university management didn’t really get involved with teaching and learning. Individual academics were left to teach the course they way they felt it should be taught. There was little over sight and little need for outside support.

    The quality of the teaching was solely down to the nature of the teacher. If they were a good teacher, good things happened. If bad….. This was the era of selective higher education where, theoretically, only the best and the brightest went to university and most were seen to have the intellectual capability and drive to succeed regardless.

    For a surprising number of universities, especially those in the top rank of universities, this is still primarily how they operate. However, those of us working in “lesser” institutions are now seeing a different situation.

  2. What management does (i.e. blame the teacher).
    Due to the broadly publicised characteristics of globalisation, the knowledge economy, accountability etc. there is now significant pressure upon universities to demonstrate that the teaching at their institutions is of high quality. Actually, this has morphed into proxy measures where the quality of teaching is being measured by ad hoc student memories of their experience (CEQ surveys), how many of the academics have been forced to complete graduate certificates in higher education, what percentage of courses have course websites and how well the institution has filled out forms mapping graduate attributes.

    All of these changes to the practice of teaching and learning are projects that are initiated and “led” by senior university management. The success of the institution is based on how well senior university management have been in completing those projects.

    As each new fad arises within government of the university sector, there is a new set of projects to be completed. Similarly, when a new set of senior management start within an institution, there is a new set of projects to be completed. In this case, however, the projects aren’t typically all that new. Instead they are simply the opposite of what the last management did. i.e. if L&T support was centralised by the last lot of management, it must now be de-centralised.

    Most academics suffering through this stage would like to move back to the first stage, I think they and their institutions need to move onto the next one.

  3. What the teacher does.
    For me this is where the institution its systems, processes etc are continually being aligned to encourage and enable academics to improve what they are doing. The focus is on what the teacher does. This has strong connections with ideas of distributive leadership, the work of Fullan (2008) and Biggs (2001).

    For me implementing this stage means taking an approach more informed by complex adaptive systems, distributive leadership, libertarian paternalism, emergent/ateleological design and much more. This stage recognises that in many universities stage 1 doesn’t work any longer. There are too many people and skills that need to be drawn upon for successful teaching that academics can’t do it by themselves (if they ever did). However, that doesn’t mean that the freedom of academics to apply their insights and knowledge should be removed.

So, now I’ve expanded on those, time to connect these three ways with some other triads.

Connections with politics

The following table summarises what I see as the connections with the 3 stages of improving learning and teaching and the work of Thaler and Sunstein (2008).

  1. Conservative/republican == What the teacher is.
    i.e. the laissez-faire approach to teaching and learning. Academics are all too different, no one system or approach to teaching can work for us.
  2. Liberal/democrat == What management does.
    There are big problems with learning and teaching at universities that can only be solved by major projects led by management. Academics can’t be trusted to teach properly we need to put in place systems that mandate how they will teach and force them to comply.
  3. Libertarian paternalism == What the teacher does.
    The teaching environment (including the people, systems, processes, policies and everything else) within a university has all sorts of characteristics that influence academics to make good and bad decisions about how they teach. To improve teaching you need to make small and on-going changes to the characteristics of that environment so that the decisions academics are mostly likely will improve the quality of their teaching and learning. A particular focus should be on encouraging and enabling academics to reflect on their practice and take appropriate action.

Approaches to planning

This morning George Siemens pointed to this report (Baser and Morgan, 2008) and made particular mention of the following chart that compares assumptions between two different approaches to planning.

Comparison of assumptions in different approaches to planning (adapted from )
Aspect Traditional planning Complex adaptive systems
Source of direction Often top down with inputs from partners Depends on connections between the system agents
Objectives Clear goals and structures Emerging goals, plans and structures
Diversity Values consensus Expects tension and conflict
Role of variables Few variables determine the outcome Innumerable variables determine outcomes
Focus of attention The whole is equal to the sum of the parts The whole is different than the sum of the parts
Sense of the structure Hierarchical Interconnected web
Relationships Important and directive Determinant and empowering
Shadow system Try to ignore and weaken Accept most mental models, legitimacy and motivation for action is coming out of this source
Measures of success Efficiency and reliability are measures of value Responsiveness to the environment is the measure of value
Paradox Ignore or choose Accept and work with paradox, counter-forces and tension
View on planning Individual or system behaviour is knowable, predictable and controllable Individual and system behaviour is unknowable, unpredictable and uncontrollable
Attitude to diversity and conflict Drive for shared understanding and consensus Diverse knowledge and particular viewpoints
Leadership Strategy formulator and heroic leader Facilitative and catalytic
Nature of direction Control and direction from the top Self-organisation emerging from the bottom
Control Designed up front and then imposed from the centre Gained through adaptation and self-organisation
History Can be engineered in the present Path dependent
External interventions Direct Indirect and helps create the conditions for emergence
Vision and planning Detailed design and prediction. Needs to be explicit, clear and measurable. A few simple explicit rules and some minimum specifications. But leading to a strategy that is complex but implicit
Point of intervention Design for large, integrated interventions Where opportunities for change present themselves
Reaction to uncertainty Try to control Work with chaos
Effectiveness Defines success as closing the gap with preferred future Defines success as fit with the environment

I was always going to like this table as it encapsulates, extends and improves my long term thinking about how best to improve learning and teaching within universities. I’ve long ago accepted (Jones, 2000; Jones et al, 2005)) that universities are complex adaptive systems and that any attempt to treat them as ordered systems is doomed to failure.

I particularly liked the row on shadow systems as it corresponds with what some colleagues and I (Jones et al, 2004) suggested sometime ago.

In terms of connections with the stages of improving learning and teaching,

  1. No planning == What the teacher is.
    i.e. there is no real organisational approach to planning how to improve learning and teaching. It’s all left up to the academic.

    Often “traditional planning” proponents will refer to the complex adaptive systems approach to planning as “no planning”. Or worse they’ll raise the spectre of no control, no discipline or no governance over the compelx adaptive systems planning approach. What they are referring is actually the no planning stage. A CAS planning approach, done well, needs as much if not more discipline and “governance” as a planning approach, done well.

  2. Traditional planning == What management does.
    University management (at least in Australia) is caught in this trap of trying to manage universities as if they were ordered systems. They are creating strategic plans, management plans, embarking on analysis and then design of large scale projects and measuring success by the completion of those projects, not on what they actually do to the organisation or the quality of learning and teaching.
  3. Complex adaptive systems == What the teacher does.
    The aim is to increase the quantity and quality of the connections between agents within the university. To harness the diversity inherent in a large group of academics to develop truly innovative and appropriate improvements. To be informed by everything in the complex adaptive systems column.

Orders of change

There also seems to be connections to yet another triad described by Bartunek and Moch (1987) when they take the concept of schemata from cognitive science and apply it to organisational development. Schemata are organising frameworks or frames that are used (without thinking) to make decisions. i.e. you don’t make decisions about events alone, how you interpret them is guided by the schemata you are using. Schemata (Bartunek and Moch, 1987):

  • Help identify entities and specify relationships amongst them.
  • Act as data reduction devices as situations/entities are represented as belonging to a specific type of situation.
  • Guide people to pay attention to some aspects of the situation and to ignore others.
  • Guide how people understand or draw implications from actions or situations.

In moving from the cognition of individuals to organisations, the idea is that different organisations (and sub-parts thereof) develop organisational schemata that a sustained through myths, stories and metaphors. These organisational schemata guide how the organisation understands and responds to situations in much the same way as individual schemata. e.g. they influence what is important and what is not.

Bartunek and Moch (1987) then suggest that planned organisational change is aimed at trying to change organisational schemata. They propose that successful organisational change achieves one or more of three different orders of schematic change (Bartunek and Moch, 1987, p486):

  1. First-order change – the tacit reinforcement of present understandings.
  2. Second-order change – the conscious modification of present schemata in a particular direction.
  3. Third-order change – the training of organisational members to be aware of their present schemata and thereby more able to change these schemata as they see fit.

Hopefully, by now, you can see where the connection with the three stages of improving teaching and learning are going, i.e.

  1. First-order change == What the teacher is.
    Generally speaking how teaching is understood by the academics doesn’t change. Their existing schemata are reinforced.
  2. Second-order change == What management does.
    Management choose a new direction and then lead a project that encourages/requires teaching academics to accept the new schemata. When the next fad or the next set of management arrives, a new project is implemented and teaching academics once again have to accept a new schemata. If you’re like me, then you question whether or not the academics are actually accepting this new schemata or they are being seen to comply.

    The most obvious current example of this approach is the current growing requirements for teaching academics to have formal teaching qualifications. i.e. by completing the formal teaching qualification they will change their schemata around teaching. Again, I question (along with some significant literature) the effectiveness of this.

  3. Third-order change == What the teacher does.
    The aim here is to have an organisational environment that encourages and enables individual academics to reflect on their current schemata around teaching and be able to change it as they see problems.

    From this perspective, I see the major problem within universities not being that academics don’t have appropriate schemata to improve teaching, but that the environment within which they operate doesn’t encourage nor enable them to implement, reflect or change their schemata.


I think there is a need for a 3rd way to improving learning and teaching within universities. It is not something that is easy to implement. The 2nd way of improving learning and teaching is so embedded into the assumptions of government and senior management that they are not even aware of (or at best not going to mention) the limitations of their current approach or that there exists a 3rd way.

Look down the “Traditional planning” column in the table above and you can see numerous examples of entrenched, “common-sense” perspectives that have to be overcome if the 3rd way is to become possible. For example, in terms of diversity and conflict, most organisational approaches place emphasis on consensus. Everyone has to be happy and reading from the same hymn sheet, “why can’t everyone just get along?”. The requirement to have a hero leader and hierarchical organisational structures are other “common-sense” perspectives.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of implementing a 3rd way is that there is no “template” or set process to follow. There is no existing university that has publicly stated it is following the 3rd way. Hence, there’s no-one to copy. An institution would have to be first. Something that would require courage and insight. Not to mention that any attempt to implement a 3rd way should (for me) adopt an approach to planning based on the complex adaptive systems assumptions from the above table.


Baser, H. and P. Morgan (2008). Capacity, Change and Performance Study Report, European Centre for Development Policy Management: 166.

Bartunek, J. and M. Moch (1987). “First-order, second-order and third-order change and organization development interventions: A cognitive approach.” The Journal of Applied Behavoral Science 23(4): 483-500.

Biggs, J. (2001). “The Reflective Institution: Assuring and Enhancing the Quality of Teaching and Learning.” Higher Education 41(3): 221-238.

Fullan, M. (2008). The six secrets of change. San Francisco, CA, John Wiley and Sons.

Jones, D. (2000). Emergent development and the virtual university. Learning’2000. Roanoke, Virginia.

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.

Thaler, R. and C. Sunstein (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. New York, Penguin.

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