For the last 18 years, I have worked across several Further Education Colleges, Universities and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), in both academic and leadership roles. Certainly, within the last 8 years, I have noticed the increasing and widespread development of systems that require – and dictate – standardisation, metric control and rigid surveillance processes; this has been driven in no small part by the expansion of consumer-based expectations. As we know, Higher Education (HE) students in England now pay for their degree, through a loans-based system; this has led to the inevitable rise of demands for an educational product of quality, and one that is ‘value’ for money. In one sense, it is right and proper that consumers, (students), demand and receive transparency, comparability and robustness where the purchase of their educational product is concerned. However, this new shift in values and associations regarding the purpose and experience of education and learning, is also proving susceptible to the collateral damage of an unfortunate consequence.
Knowledge & Learning for ‘what’?
The consumer-based pressure for academic providers – such as Colleges and Universities – to produce a standardised and equitable product, belies a reductive potential to dilute and quash the creative dynamism inherent to an open, creative and unpredictable learning environment. Increasingly, sanitised and controlled spectator-based knowledge, cascaded through the ‘standard’ of didactic instruction, serves to stifle creativity; the subsequent boredom and conformity largely produces a disengaged army of educational voyeurs.
This is a problem – and one that we all should take seriously – as tightly structured and regulated knowledge, routinely channelled and functionally churned out, is anathema to creative and critical thinking. A mundane and standardised learning experience, based on the cascadence of tightly controlled information, stringently measured and meted out to uninvolved participants, produces a mould for uncritical conformists. This does not bode well for the future; we are supposed to nurture and mentor the managers, leaders, teachers and public service professionals of tomorrow. Confronted by a tsunami of precarity and insecurity, we must rise to the intimidating economic and political challenges of these uncertain times as critical and impassioned thinkers. If we wish to create radical and innovative problem solvers, independent and capable operators that can tackle projects and obstacles in new and adept ways, we must become the change that we wish to see.
Of course, there is ‘hope’; despite the bureaucratic forces and organisational challenges posed by the pervasiveness and constraints of the consumer-driven educational framework, I have found, (and, I would argue exist in most – if not all – organisational contexts), spaces of creative agency. Loaded with possibilities of freedom and manoeuvrability, individuals, whether learners or colleagues, hardly ever adhere to the rules and compulsions of an organisation in their entirety. At the level of the individual, anti-conformist tactics can often be conceived and developed in creative ways. Maverick operators (or what I might term Creative Tacticians) are quick to recognise that the organisational context harbours a littering of opportunities – in the form of gaps and spaces – where unpredictable practices can start to emerge. It is important that current leaders and managers learn to recognise the positive characteristics of the Creative Tactician, and not shy away from the inevitable unpredictabilities, (by seeking refuge in the legalistic rigidity of bureaucratic systems); approaching operational routines in adaptive ways, means that, under the right conditions, Creative Tacticians can productively alter and improve the performance and experience of their environment. Such Tacticians can rescue vestiges of autonomy from the stranglehold of predictable pressures; micro manoeuvres can generate, nurture and promote conditions for democratic and empowering relations. Managers and leaders should therefore seek ways of either becoming (or utilising) Creative Tacticians, to engage with the cracks, fissures, and inconsistencies that open-up in the routines and automated behaviours of the organisation.
Discovery with Freedom
For example, as part of the development and writing of my own programmes and teaching, I have experimented with learning techniques that recognise and embrace the characteristics and experiences that are unique to each learner; as creative tactics for reflection, inspiration and discovery, these fluid techniques have proven to be highly effective; the adaptive tactics have enabled learners to discover ideas and pursue projects in new and fresh ways.
Rather than continue to induct fledgling disciples into closed practices by policing inflexible rules, leaders (whether academics or managers) should rise to the challenge to set out to discover, creatively experiment with, and implement new democratic frontiers. Rather than disciplining teams to accept and obey the imposition of immovable orders, facilitative practices, unleashed by Creative Tacticians can be experimented with, to open-up a new cartography of dynamic behaviours and possibilities. In the pursuit of creative discovery, a levelled team of practitioners can engage in the challenge of co-developing tactics for alternative and transformatory everyday practices. This is indeed the stuff of personal and organisational hope, and, in some respects, requires a militant optimism or ‘faith’ in the redemptive unmadeness of actively engineering alternative possibilities. However much off-kilter with contemporary constraints and organisational objectives this maybe, I for one believe in embracing these principles, because without the audacious serendipities of Creative Tacticians, the only other route seems to be a rather drab journey towards a perdition of apathetic inaction and uncritical conformity.
Dr Craig A. Hammond is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Liverpool John Moores University; in addition to writing and publishing research papers, he teaches across a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.
Dr Craig A. Hammond is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Liverpool John Moores University; in addition to writing and publishing research papers, he teaches across a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. His most recent book Hope, Utopia and Creativity in Higher Education: Pedagogical Tactics for Alternative Futures, published by Bloomsbury Academic press, (in January 2017), addresses and develops many of the points discussed as part of this Blog.