UK Tertiary in the 21st century; a Cooperative Learning toolkit #1

Introducing Cooperative Learning to Higher Education

On 11 November 2015, UEA’s School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies successfully trialled the structural approach to Cooperative Learning, to facilitate the effective student-centred learning looked for at tertiary level.  

This event is a small watershed for a number of reasons. Therefore this first post examines the wider context of the session. (For details of the session itself, get notified of the upcoming part #2 or visit the homepage now).

First of all, student-centred learning is seen to provide of the broad spectrum of skills now demanded from the workforce which include “Flexibility & Adaptability, Initiative & Self-Direction, Social & Cross-Cultural Skills, Productivity & Accountability, Leadership & Responsibility” (See 21st Century Skills Framework). Tertiary has been informed in no uncertain terms that governments across the globe wanted to see this happen yesterday, as we have discussed in previous posts.

Secondly, because a quick sweep of the internet will reveal the sparsity of UK tertiary engagement with this simple, effective method. To understand why this is odd, consider the fact that the Gulf, China and Singapore have been actively pursuing this method in all phases of education for at least a decade, and that branches of Western universities in the Emirates push this method because it is widely acclaimed to promote independent thinking and democratic values; given democracy is now a “Fundamental British Value,” it does seem all the more absurd that we should not try this at home. (For more on student-centred learning in the Middle East, see my paper The High Cost of Free Thinking; Debating Education Reforms in the Gulf, also available on ResearchGate for peer reviewing).

What Tertiary could & should

So with the money-men in business and government pushing for these skills, and considering that underfunded primary schools as far out as rural Norfolk are working with local business mavericks to secure full integration of such qualities as early as Year 1 – Why is effective student-centred learning so difficult for tertiary?

After all, its leaders are groomed from the most intelligent and best-educated minds within academia and should be epitomes of innovative, out-of-the-box thinking, especially as they are (supposedly) relatively independent of the bottom line compared to businesses.

“We reassert the importance of the teaching mission of higher education institutions and the necessity for ongoing curricular reform geared toward the development of learning outcomes. Student-centred learning requires empowering individual learners, new approaches to teaching and learning, effective support and guidance structures and a curriculum focused more clearly on the learner in all three cycles.”

– leuven/louvain-la-neuve communiqué, 2009, quoted in Student-Centred Learning Toolkit for students, staff and higher education institutions, European Student Union, Brussels, 2010.

If the skills outlined above are what business and government want to fund, there is every opportunity for those brilliant, original minds to experiment and develop amazing education in all phases, that would fundamentally allow our young to review and rewire society – politics, science, economics, the works.

But, alas…

Why x 5 – The Toyota Motor Corporation is asking

The 5 Whys is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships formally developed within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its innovative manufacturing methodologies. Ask yourself five times why this idea did not come out of a university.

Wrong – it’s not lack of competition. Anyone in academia will tell you the pressure building on universities under the Chicago School of Economics “free market” doctrine has done nothing to make higher education more effective. As in every other sphere of human existence, Milton Friedmann’s cult of measurable results and monetisation has generated a chronic crisis of septic competition, desperate quick fixes and manipulated statistics instead of collaborative, carefully thought-out and sustainable solutions. In fact it is more than likely that the permanent fear of replacement driven by liberalisation’s Rick-the-Temp-mentality makes it difficult for leaders to think ahead more than a single semester.

Pointing the blame in the opposite direction, there is the traditional anti-authoritarian ethos of the academic milieu, which demands full independence from external pressures. Taken to extremes, this potentially leads tertiary to the absurd situation of refusing to promote empowered, thinking and critical students, simply because “big business”  is asking for independent thinkers to compete in the 21st century.

Of wool & air; CL as a tool

Between these extremes, there are a number of issues: Mainly, there is a wooliness about student-centred learning. A critical voice, Professor Frank Furedi at the University of Kent, believes some accept it merely “because it sounds good and sounds progressive … It’s used in a rhetorical sense by some universities to indicate that ‘we are very responsive and student friendly’, and in other places as a managerial strategy to stabilise student retention rates.” (Quoted in A matter of opinions). Turning around a primary school based on a woolly concept using trail-and-error is hard enough. But compared to a university, a primary school is a fishing boat; turning around a tertiary super-tanker by muddling along is just not possible.

This is precisely why the clear delineation, the simplicity, the adaptability to any subject and materials, all combine to make the structural approach to Cooperative Learning so enticing. Just over two hours of CPD, delivered to a wildly disparate group of lecturers, empower lecturers to deploy controlled, targeted student-centred activities with student buy-in the next morning, slotted straight into current lesson plans and using current materials.

Apart from problem of defining student-centred learning itself, there is the general airiness of academia, which I outlined in From the Mountain to the Valley; that the grand ideas remain pies in the sky, because there is no system in place to engage the ground crew. Sadly though, the crew might actually be very capable of executing the grand designs, but don’t have the surplus energy to come up with such ideas themselves in the day-to-day nitty-gritty, where Academia is incapable, but are paid to think big. In other words, collaboration would be good.



The interesting solution here is to stage Cooperative Learning events, akin to Healing Fractures II, to facilitate a constructive meeting of multiple stakeholders, coming from wildly different angles, and with very different objectives, e.g. student representatives, local networked secondary schools, delegates from DfE, HEA, relevant local and national businesses, university lecturers, department heads (Think sociology, politics and education, as well as hard subjects of science, health, business), internal CPD providers and external educationalists. Aim: To bring education into the 21st century with all stakeholders actively involved.

Next post will provide details on the session itself. Get notifications of related posts on twitter.

More on Healing Fractures II – Beyond Birmingham? on this blog. is the business end of

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