Pedagogy for employability: teaching skills or rehearsing behaviours?

by bethanyaldenrivers

A colleague recently directed me to Len Holmes’ (2001) paper on ‘graduate identity’. While the paper was published 12 years ago, the relevance of its central themes have stuck with me over the past two weeks. I feel compelled to write a few words.

Holmes used a metaphor of theatrical performance when discussing the way in which educators (and, indeed institutions and curriculum designers) should consider facilitating employability. Learning and working are socially situated activities, which are characterised by certain expectations. The participants (or ‘actors’) in these activities are expected to ‘perform’ in certain ways. So, rather than a skills-based (tool-kit) view, Holmes talks about employability as the ability to perform particular behaviours that are required for particular contexts. In light of this view, the teacher’s role, then, is to facilitate opportunities for students to ‘rehearse’ these behaviours.

What I really liked about Holmes’ paper  were his ideas for thinking about our pedagogies.  Yes, I think the role of the tutor is to help the student (or actor?) ‘rehearse’ his/her abilities and to articulate what they’re able to do. BUT, I think the role of the tutor is to help the student develop into the higher level intellectual commitments of personal development, social thinking, contextual judgement—thereby encapsulating all the other employability-enhancing activities along the way.

So, I’ve been considering the role of higher education in contributing to the employability and, therefore, to the economic growth of society. Indeed, that is one side of the debate on the role of higher education in society. However, I tend to side with those who believe that HE serves the wider purpose of stimulating a more intellectually sophisticated society.

Two of my current research projects (and my thesis) deal with epistemological development in university students—so I guess this is close to my heart in that sense. Perry’s (1970) model of intellectual development (as well as popular frameworks proposed by the likes of Kuhn, King & Kitchener, Baxter Magolda) indicate that critical reflection, contextual decision making, evaluative judgement, etc. all happen at more sophisticated levels of one’s personal epistemology. And, as these are all ‘skills’ (or shall I call them behaviours?) that are often expected by employers, I think it begs the question of whether a stronger pedagogical focus on developing learners’ personal epistemologies actually subsumes our efforts to develop their employability…?

To this end, Baxter Magolda (1999) proposed a ‘Constructive Developmental Pedagogy’ that is guided by three principles. First, educators need to validate learners as knowers, recognising their beliefs and supporting their development. Second, learning should be situated in the learners’ own experiences. Third, learning happens through active meaning making between students, peers and teachers. Reflecting on my own teaching practice, I think I do the last two things ‘so-so’ but I think I could be more proactive in understanding my learners as knowers (i.e. their beliefs about knowing and knowledge).

Land (2006) proposed that educators should be called ‘developers’ rather than teachers because he believed our role is to develop thinkers for our society. Barnett (1994) referred to tertiary educators as ‘knowledge-mongers’ because so much of this work rests on the shoulders of the university tutor—what knowledge to present to the learner, how to present it, etc. It’s a tough job!

My APPLE project (Analytics for Profiling and Promoting LearnersEpistemologies) investigates these sorts of things more closely. Truth be told: I’ve always held  a personal definition of ’employability’ as one that includes ‘developing a set of skills’. So, this other perspective has enriched my own definition.