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Quality systems in adult learning: a clash of cultures?

15/07/2015
par Andrew McCoshan
Langue: EN
Document available also in: FR DE IT PL

If culture is the missing piece in the quality puzzle, as discussed in my last blog on this subject, it also seems that “teachers' and trainers' complaints of technical-bureaucratic approaches to quality assurance are common" (QALLLitative Report, page 126).

Why is this? For the authors of the report from which this quotation is taken, part of the reason lies in teaching and learning themselves since they “cannot be steered by the usual process management… (what to do, when and how, and how to measure success along the way)". But the report also identifies a tendency for quality systems to be imposed “top-down" and the corresponding need for this to be balanced with “bottom-up engagement". These observations highlight the need to examine not just the organisational aspects of quality systems but also cultural differences as to how these systems are perceived.

The early and influential work of Charles Handy suggests that organisations are a mix of cultures and are interwoven with how activities are organised. Handy doesn't deal with quality systems directly but his thinking provides useful handles to grab on to if we want to start to understand why adult educators might be averse to some forms of quality systems.

Handy identifies four culture models. Role cultures exist where regular activities need to happen; government ministries are a good example. They are characterised by rules and formal procedures. Club cultures exist where an individual dominates an organisation and personal loyalties are important, as in small enterprises for example. Person cultures also stress the individual over group collaboration and are to be found in organisations like law firms or university faculties where an individual's expertise is valued above almost everything else. Task cultures exist where activities cannot be proceduralised, where teams have to come together in flexible ways to address problems, where there are plans rather than procedures.

It is not easy to read off from these models what the approach to quality might be in different cultures. Role cultures might be the easiest to interpret through the quality systems “lens": they are the only model where Handy refers explicitly to quality noting that they “abound with standards, quality controls". These are the types of “technical-bureaucratic" systems to which teachers and trainers seem so averse. In club cultures, the centralisation of responsibilities under a single leader may mean that they take personal responsibility for quality. In person cultures, individual experts must guard their reputations and thus might see themselves as guarantors of the quality of their own work. Averse to management in general, people in these cultures may well treat formal quality systems disdainfully.

Task cultures seem to be the most difficult to place in the quality perspective. This may be significant for adult learning. Although we lack much evidence, Handy found that teachers in the UK seem to prefer this type of culture: they see themselves as working in small teams; their “tasks" are groups of learners each with their own needs. It is risky to generalise, but if this is true more widely, is this the source of the tension which I set out at the start of this blog? Are adult learning institutions mainly mixtures of role and task cultures with aspects of other cultures also in the mix? Educational institutions, especially larger ones, need the formal procedures of the role culture to get things done. But perhaps teachers, in their task-based teams, are more likely to wonder what quality actually means for learning.

This is a complex area and these thoughts are just starting points. Hopefully it provides a useful way in which to consider quality in “cultural" terms. It points to a need for adult learning providers to reflect on their own organisational cultures as part of quality development. It also suggests that there might be value in looking outside adult learning into organisations where task cultures are believed to dominate–the choice is varied, from advertising agencies to construction companies.

Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 20 years. For the last 10 years he has specialised in policy development studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently a freelance consultant, an Associate with the UK Higher Education Academy, an ECVET Expert for the UK, and a Member of the UK Education & Employers Taskforce Research Group.

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