24/06/2012 13:07 BST | Updated 22/08/2012 06:12 BST

Curious Too

Remember, the social worth of a University is not to be measured in the projects it does, or the numbers of students it has, or the wealth it's students create. The social worth of a University is in the decisions it's graduates throughout their career.

Funny how ideas come together. I was asked yesterday for a list of features I want to see in our graduating students, and top of my list was curious. Top of the pile of Huffington Post UK this morning is Kate Lemon talking about the power of curiosity and how essential it is for the development of green energy. This comes on the back of my comments yesterday about how Michael Gove is missing the point, again, on mathematics; and how the schools curriculum should be more about the love of number beauty which underpins arithmetical ability.

So, what do I seek to develop in our graduating students? These five qualities, the first of which is curiosity.

  • Curious- committed to 'questioning answers' as well as asking questions
  • Co-creative- willing to share knowledge and experience rather than assume, and assert, expertise and control
  • Co-operative- working together for mutual advantage rather than personal gain at the expense of others.
  • Conscientious- able to apply the most robust research & knowledge creation techniques available to a given situation
  • Compassionate- committed to changing society through the least oppressive
means possible

Of course, the students get to study the subject as they go along- learning facts and reading books, listening to lecturers summarise what there is to know, and where to find out more detail. But the main thing they get to practice are these values. And I mean practice- they do workshops and group work, and have to show in their assignments how their values impact their choice of what evidence to select and present.

I teach community development and social entrepreneurship. What I teach is secondary to how I teach, though. How I teach is designed to provoke thinking and decision-making in wicked situations.

Firstly, curiosity is essential. They have to want to find out about things. I don't present learning outcomes at the start of class, instead, we explore something and then the students try and work out what the learning outcome was. That way, they make the learning process their own. Questioning answers is something I have learnt from Professor Emeritus Margaret Ledwith, whose work informs the whole programme. The students are taught to look at all information with a quizzical frown, questioning everything, every assumption and prejudice. This is a critical curiosity. Without it, society doesn't change.

Secondly, I insist that my students develop a co-creative streak. This works in two ways. I don't assume that they know nothing and have no experience, but I work with what they already know and have already done, extending and pushing their boundaries, their comfort zones. We make up our modules as we go along- shifting and morphing the material, selecting from a bank of resources rather than sticking to a rigid timetable. The students need to keep an eye 'on the game but in the detail we have plenty of elbow room to create the course between us.

The second way this works is by co-operation. Boy, is it hard to get students to work in groups'. They are so obsessed with retaining their grades that they are not willing to risk the 'freeloader' problem- you know, the student in the group who does not work, but gets the same grade as everyone else. This means that students hate group work, but (bit by bit) we are starting to realise that it is social capital, working together, that creates success not singular heroic acts. To avoid the freeloader problem, the students work on tasks together and that is peer reviewed, but the individual student's grade is based on their ability to reflect on the work done, and the group dynamics.

Being conscientious is probably an obvious one, but it never ceases to amaze me how much public policy is based on very weak research with poor understanding of scientific evidence or reading of published research. Having a graduate in your organisation who knows how to ask the right questions, how to gather the best evidence and where to find the most authoritative research is what you really need.

Compassionate students are different from passionate ones. I am perturbed sometimes, not by the passion that students have to change the world, but the oppressive means they choose to employ to achieve it. We use a methodology called motivational interviewing. It's a shame really, because the methodology is not about interviewing in an employment sense or about motivational speaking. It's about developing the intrinsic motivation of a person, or a community, to make the social changes they want to achieve. Sometimes this is called empowerment, but mostly this means the poor being given somebody else's power. What is better is for the poor, or disenfranchised, to find their own power, and their own motivation to use it, not borrow mine.

Well, that's a snapshot of the sort of student I hope to develop. They will be graduating soon, so give them a job!

Remember, the social worth of a University is not to be measured in the projects it does, or the numbers of students it has, or the wealth it's students create. The social worth of a University is in the decisions it's graduates throughout their career.