Developing graduate attributes in a landscape of practices

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In this extra post, Lindsay Knox reflects on her EdD dissertation findings, which look at how international students on the MSc Language Education programme understand graduate attributes, and what this could mean for curriculum transformation. Lindsay is Head of Teacher Development and Scholarship at ELE in the Centre for Open Learning.


Graduate attribute frameworks have long been part of the conversation in HE as universities endeavour to prepare students for the supercomplex future they face (Barnett, 2000). As the university consults widely on its curriculum transformation project, there is a valuable opportunity to reach a more nuanced understanding of what the Edinburgh attributes could be and their intersection with the curriculum. Reaching such an understanding involves identifying the factors which enable, but also constrain, students’ development of these attributes. This blog post aims to contribute to that understanding by sharing some reflections from my dissertation research, which looks at how international students on the MSc Language Education programme understand graduate attributes.

The research participants were from the MSc Language Education programme. While it does not confer a professional award, this Masters is very much oriented towards the language teaching profession. Arguably, it was perceived as a de facto language teaching qualification by a number of the participants, as they imagined their future professional lives. In addition to the employability factor, I was also interested in their perspectives as international students for whom English is a second (or even) third language, and as postgraduates who have already begun to develop some of the intended graduate attributes.

One of the previous criticisms of graduate attributes has been their conceptualisation as generic skills rather than recognising them as being highly contextualised and situated (Jones, 2013). Jones (p. 601) is clear that implementation and development of attributes is more successful, “when they are conceptualised as integral to the “community”, for example when they fit with the disciplinary and departmental culture, with the epistemic frames and with teaching practice”.

However, this raises two important questions: firstly, what is meant by community and, crucially, whether thinking in terms of a single community sufficiently captures the complexity of students’ learning experience. Secondly, while there is an understandable focus on the actual attributes, the same emphasis needs to be given to the intended graduate: who they are and the specific worlds they will return to upon graduation.

Drawing on Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice (1998), but also the later work on Landscapes of Practice (Wenger-Trayner, Fenton-O’Creevey, Hutchinson, Kubiak & Wenger-Trayner, 2014), offers a useful lens for us to think about our students’ situated learning experience. For this particular group, it became clear that developing intended attributes was linked to, but also sometimes hampered by, their membership of multiple communities here and at home.

Academically, there was a need to demonstrate competence in the practices of their discourse community within the UK HE environment, whilst integrating those into practices learned within their academic community on their undergraduate degrees. Similarly, from a professional perspective as language teachers, previously held taken-for-granted assumptions about language learning and teaching and what it meant to be a competent language teacher, as constructed on the programme, were called into question.

For these international students, their Masters is a high-stakes investment requiring negotiation of both an academic and professional identity. With varying degrees of participation in each community, and their uncertain claims to competence within each, the development of graduate attributes, especially within the squeezed timeframe of a one-year PGT programme, becomes a complex enterprise as they navigate a dynamic yet destabilising landscape of practices. It is understandable that students focus on shorter-term objectives to ensure successful progression.

One possible curricular direction would be to embed graduate attributes related to academic language and literacies into programmes rather than viewing them as an optional add-on. It may also be possible to design a curriculum which explicitly draws students’ attention to the landscape of practices and their membership of, potentially, multiple communities. This would have benefits for students in learning ways to navigate these communities, but also for those of us teaching on such programmes. Creating curricular space to map the landscape that we and our students co-inhabit may allow important conversations to take place, where the boundaries between different communities of practice become locations for learning from each other.

References

Barnett, R. (2000) University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity. Higher Education, 40, 409-422.

Jones, A. (2013) There is nothing generic about graduate attributes: unpacking the scope of context. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 37 (5), 591-605.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger-Trayner, E., Fenton O’Creevey, M., Hutchinson, S., Kubiak, C. Wenger-Trayner, B. (2014) Learning in landscapes of practice. Oxon: Routledge.


Lindsay Knox

Lindsay Knox is Head of Teacher Development and Scholarship at ELE in the Centre for Open Learning, and teaches on the Professional Practice course on the MSc Language Education at MHSES. She is in the final year of an EdD, and is currently writing up her dissertation, which is looking at how international students on this programme understand graduate attributes.

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