ALTF Impact Series | ‘Belonging, being and becoming’ with David Radcliffe

30th June 2018

ALTF Impact series, Featured Fellow


Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows address the critical issues that are in the forefront of the Australian higher education agenda. In the ALTF Impact Series, we chat to Fellows about their research, and find out how it’s making a difference. First up, we speak with one of the original CAUT Fellows (1994) David F. Radcliffe about his work on ‘belonging, being and becoming’ in engineering education. 

David Radcliffe was one of two inaugural CAUT National Teaching Fellows in 1994. With a background in mechanical and biomedical engineering, his research over the past 30 years has focused on the nature of the practice of engineering and the education of engineers as professionals, with an emphasis on engineering design. This work is situated and interdisciplinary involving collaboration with anthropologists, learning scientists, librarians, designers and architects. He was the first Professor of Engineering Education in Australia and also served as the head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University in the US for seven years. Both of these achievements had their origins in the networks formed during the CAUT Fellowship. David is a Fellow of both the American Society for Engineering Education and the European Society of Engineering Education and is a Past-President of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education.

Where do you think we need to be making an impact in higher education?

The Early Years Learning Framework prepared by the Australian Government is titled Belonging, Being & Becoming. While this document only considers learning from birth to five years and through to the transition to school, belonging, being and becoming are universal epithets that capture the essence of learning at all life stages, including higher education (even though the specifics of what each of these three aspects entail at each life stage are different). They apply equally to undergraduate and graduate students and indeed to academic, professional and general staff working in higher education. At a time when the narrative around higher education is expressed in managerial terms, with students as customers, courses as products and performance as meeting short term KPIs, we need to resist accepting such a narrow, transactional view of education. All learning is constructed through relationships not via utilitarian exchanges. These relationships are reciprocal; both the ‘learner’ and the ‘teacher’ change, develop and grow as a result of an educational encounter, be it formal or informal. In higher education we need to actively foster belonging, being and becoming in the interdependent learning journeys of both students and staff, based on a better understanding of how these complex relationships form and evolve.

How does your current research approach this?

My current research interests focus on various aspects of belonging, being and becoming in the context of engineering education, although the findings are not limited to this disciplinary domain. One approach used is to explore the student experience in global design projects and in study abroad trips through the lens of authentic learning. Another approach is to apply an ontological lens to develop and validate ways to assess how different research experiences shape graduate students as future professionals. A third approach is to study interdependence in the co-evolving development of early career academics, their graduate students and their community.

Could you explain what your current research project involves?

One set of studies underway involves using a multidimensional framework to design and/or assess learning environments (other than in industry placements) where undergraduate students experience what it is to be a practitioner and to reflect in a very disciplined way on this act of becoming. A second study involves the development and validation of a psychometric survey instrument to measure the extent to which different types of graduate research experiences contribute ontological opportunities to practice becoming a professional. A third study involves reflecting on the stories of how new academic staff experience and navigate the transition to becoming a holistic scholar (teacher, researcher, mentor, citizen) within a community, especially in the context of new, emergent or highly interdisciplinary fields of study.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your involvement?

The focus on belonging, being and becoming highlights the ways in which individual lives, students and staff, can be transformed through both well designed and also serendipitous learning experiences in higher education. The most rewarding aspect of this has been ‘seeing’ the significant developmental leaps that junior staff experience. The authenticity research has led to the conceptualisation of the ‘socio-technical laboratory’ experience. This extends and enriches what counts as a ‘laboratory’ in the context of engineering education from the traditional ‘science’ laboratory and the ‘technological’ or applied laboratory – be these hands-on, virtual or remote – that have been a cornerstone of engineering education for 150 years.

Where has your current research project been published?

Background papers and preliminary findings have been published in the proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education annual conference and the Frontiers in Education conference. One paper has been submitted to the European Journal of Engineering Education and others will follow.

What were your biggest learnings from this project?

Just how counter-cultural it is to focus on belonging, being and becoming in the academy and how difficult it can be for all concerned – for the students as learners, the staff as teachers and as learners and for the researchers.

What’s next?

A possible future investigation will be to explore the tripartite relationship amongst university teachers, their students in a practicum and the practitioners who mentor them during this experience, as a reflexive, co-learning community.

If you would like to find out more information on David’s research, please get in touch here.