Barnett’s Dispositions & Qualities and the Creative Attributes Framework

Barnett’s Dispositions and Qualities from A will to learn by Ron Barnett

 How do you recognise Barnett’s ‘qualities’ in the context of a course you work with? Think of a couple of examples.

My library colleagues have developed the LCAF, learning outcomes that tie in with UAL’s Creative Attributes Framework. Although we don’t use these to assess students, they help us decide what and how we teach. There are several similarities with Barnett’s dispositions and qualities. For example, under the heading ‘Resilience’ we have

  • Handle adversity in the research process; able to problem solve and overcome obstacles 
  • Work with ambiguity, uncertainty and unfamiliarity 

Relating to ‘a preparedness to explore’ and ‘determination to keep going forward’ we have

  • Build on existing knowledge; use research as exploration rather than as a tool to back up what is already known
  • Recognise research is a creative process; take an enquiring, analytical and explorative approach
  • Understand connections between information sources and ideas, and be empowered to take risks in order to make further connections

I think many of our learning outcomes are more akin to dispositions/qualities than skills or knowledge: we are hoping to enable the students to, as Barnett describes students “take ownership of her studies and imparts to it her own energies and direction”.

To what extent do you recognise Barnett’s ‘dispositions’ in your own approach to learning? Assuming this varies, what influences them?

I think if I do have some of these dispositions, it varies a lot. Unless I feel a very strong connection with a subject, self-belief is a big factor in the variation.

Are UAL’s Creative Attributes more like Barnett’s ‘qualities’? Or his ‘dispositions’? Is it just a question of phrasing? Comment on a couple of examples.

As to the character of the Creative Attributes, this varies. Quite often the Creative Attributes combine elements of the dispositions and qualities into one e.g.

Enterprise Creative Attribute

Here the “mindset to take measured risks” seems to be very close in character to the dispositions, but the second part, “the resourcefulness to pursue these opportunities in an ethical and sustainable way” seems to have more in common with the qualities, as it describes the manner or the style in which that “mindset” or disposition should manifest itself. However, the Creative Attribute for ‘Resilience” directly ties to one of Barnett’s qualities.

The major disparity between the dispositions/qualities and the Creative Attributes is that the attributes seem much more concerned with the individual whereas the dispositions/qualities are concerned with how that individual interacts with others to a much greater extent. For example, the only mention of interacting with others in the attributes are in the “Showcasing abilities and accomplishments with others” section below, but all these seem focused on how that individual transmits information or ‘showcases’ to others rather than reciprocal engagement.

Showcasing abilities and accomplishments to others creative attributes

Also, the qualities include integrity, restraint and respect for others, whereas the attributes, apart from one mention of being ethical, don’t mention anything of this kind. This is perhaps a little strange when the ability to work with people in a respectful and honest way would seem to be key skills for the creative industries.

The Creative Attributes are explicitly focused on employability and enterprise, i.e. on preparing students for socially useful occupations. What valuable attributes (‘creative’ or otherwise) can you think of that aren’t employment-focused?

Being employment-focused, these attributes are concerned with the commercial side of creative practice, but much creative endeavour is not commercial, and may hold a different kind of value to the artist and others. Perhaps a valuable attribute would be the ability to pursue something for the love of it, even though it will never bring commercial gain.

How are these attributes taught and/or learned at UAL?

I think these attributes are mainly taught via the methods by which the students carry out and deliver their work e.g. through collaborative project work, giving presentations, live projects.

As part of our information literacy workshops, we also teach these attributes as part of teaching students how to find, understand and evaluate information.

Barnett’s ‘qualities and dispositions’ are about learning, and the CAF is about creative practice. Are they more or less similar than you would expect, given this difference?

They are less similar than I would expect. They might apply in different ways to how Barnett means them, but I think all the dispositions/qualities could be applied to creative practice. As mentioned above, I think it’s surprising that some of them aren’t included.

How do these ideas connect with the theory you’ve been encountering on your elective unit (if you are doing one)?

I am doing the ILTHE module and considering Barnett discusses various barriers to learning that students might face, it seems surprising that he doesn’t mention anything related to inclusivity or diversity in the chapter e.g. how the dispositions could be affected if a student perceived they were treated differently or found university to be in some way unwelcoming to them if they were from a particular background or had a disability. He mentions difficulties students may encounter in the course their studies, such as illness or disliking the teaching style, but seems to assume that all students start from the same point at the beginning of their course. This seems to differ with Paulo Freire’s views that we must take the social identity of students into account, consider the power dynamics that exist outside the classroom and practice a pedagogy that aims to dismantle existing power structures.

Not a problem? Still a mystery… Satisfaction with library services in the National Student Survey

I was inspired by Munday’s writing on problems and mysteries, and by the project by a PGCert alumni that investigated what students perceived by the phrase “intellectually stimulating” to look into what mysteries might lie within the library NSS results and how they could be investigated.

The NSS Library Question

There is one question on libraries in the NSS, Question number 19.

Previous to 2017 the library questions was:

“The library resources and services are good enough for my needs”. (NSS Question changes for 2017)

In 2009 Tracey Stanley gathered feedback from librarians on the library question and gained this feedback:

  • “It does not focus on the electronic aspects of the library service, which play an increasing part in overall service provision.
  • The phrase ‘good enough for my needs’ appears to encourage a negative response.
  • The question does not allow respondents to focus their response on satisfaction with either stock or services.
  • The question is linked with others also included under ‘Learning resources’ – most significantly, a question about access to specialised IT resources – which may skew the overall result for the ‘Learning resources’ section as specialised facilities may not, by their nature, be widely available to all.
  • It does not focus on the level of support for learning provided by the library service.”

I disagree with this in one respect: I think the phrase “Good enough” implies mediocrity and sets a very low bar, especially compared to the loftier tone of some the other questions, which ask students to consider whether their course has been intellectually stimulating, has challenged them to achieve their best work and explore concepts in depth. Finding that most students think the library service is “good enough” doesn’t seem to be something we should particularly celebrate, as many libraries have done. The University of Oxford even made the rather spurious claim “Oxford libraries voted best in the UK for second year running.” when they achieved the highest score nationally on the library question in 2013 and 2014.

The question was improved for the 2017 survey to the following:

“The library resources (e.g. books, online services and learning spaces) have supported my learning well.” (National Student Survey)

Although this is still somewhat problematic, as the question is still linked to other questions on specialist facilities and does not allow respondents to distinguish between library resources and services, the data yielded from this might be more reliable in telling us if the students feel the library is really doing a good job in supporting them in their studies.

This year the proportion of students at UAL who “mostly agreed” or “definitely agreed” with the rephrased statement above was 91%., slightly above the sector average for Q19 of 87%.

This appears to be a very good result, but it is too easy to be satisfied, there are still many questions to be asked of this data. I have listed a few below, and how they could be investigated.

What do students understand by the question?

What do students understand by the phrase “supporting my learning”? How do they think the library should be doing this? What are their expectations of the library? Is it still possible that the students have low expectations, perhaps because they are not aware of all the services the library offers? It would be interesting to conduct focus groups with students to ascertain what they understand by Question 19, and what their expectations of the library service are.

What are students’ perceptions of Library Services?

Recently Library Services conducted a Digital User Experience project where students were asked to map their research processes. It was found that some students were unaware of what the role of the library staff is. Some were confused as to whether we are there simply to manage the space and collections, and monitor behaviour, or whether we were there to help them. This reticence to ask questions certainly indicates there are low expectations of the ability of library staff and will inevitably mean there is a lack of awareness of library resources and services.

This 1500 CSM students attended a library information skills session in 2016-17 (Information skills can include how to use the online resources, database searching, evaluating the reliability of resources, referencing skills etc.)  and only 105 CSM students attended a one-to-one library tutorial. Many courses do not take up the offer of information skills training from their subject librarian, and the take-up of library tutorials is relatively low, so students may never be aware of the online resources provision and never have the opportunity to acquire more advanced research skills.

It seems possible that the highly positive NSS results could be actually be the outcome of lack of awareness and low expectations of the library service. As well as focus groups, we can look at other measures available. The results from the Library Survey that took place in the Autumn of 2016 give a fuller picture of how the students and staff view the various aspects of the library service, and as shown in this infographic, it is a more complicated picture than the NSS results suggest.

Library Services Satisfaction Infographic

Could the good results be masking a problem?

Although only 9% of students across UAL did not agree that the library supported their learning, it would be interesting to find out more about that 9%. What if disproportionate numbers of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, BAME students, international students, or students with disabilities felt that the library was not supporting them? I can not discern this from the dashboard data as it only breaks down each question group, not individual questions, by student profile. It would be interesting to see responses to question 19 across UAL by student profile to see if there are any groups that do not feel the library supports them. If there was, this would then require further investigation to see why. Mainly, it is important to remember with statistics that a positive result can mean you are serving the majority well, while some groups may not be being served well at all.


As we wouldn’t think that some bad feedback meant that everything we are doing is wrong, it is important not to see good feedback as an endorsement of everything we do. We must look beyond the data to ensure that there are not bad reasons for good feedback.

“The heart of the matter lies beyond all regulation”. Aoun, Whitehead and Palmquist/Kant

I found the main recurring themes in the readings were how universities should teach and how they should be run. They all seem to agree that the promotion of imaginative or critical thought is the main purpose of university, rather than the acquisition of knowledge alone. Interestingly, Aoun and Whitehead both mentioned that if we wanted students to only acquire knowledge all they would need are either books or a library card, as if all that can be found in the library are dry facts. It seems to be stating the obvious to say that libraries and their resources can feed the imagination just as much as good teaching.

I was prompted, particularly by Pamquist and Whitehead to consider the link between the purpose of the university and regulation, and whether all regulation is necessarily a bad thing. In Pamlquist, we see that Kant acknowledges the need for regulating the faculties which train professionals, but that the philosophers, while keeping the other faculties in check, should not be subject to regulation themselves, as they should have “reason alone” as their authority. Whitehead argues that public opinion is the only effective measure of a good university, and that the authorities must not attempt to treat universities like businesses.

This has a great deal of resonance today, in view of the new frameworks for regulating universities, particularly the TEF. This diagram from WonkHE illustrates the TEF metrics.

Aoun also argues that it is imperative for universities to prepare students for work in the future, which I believe is important. One of the TEF metrics is the numbers of graduates gaining skilled employment. Concerns were raised in the discussion group over whether the TEF would force university teachers to concentrate too much on useful skills at the detriment of inspiring the imagination and allowing students the chance to play, discover, and take risks without adverse consequences.  However, I have found that sometimes having a structure to guide your work and aims that will help the students in their working lives can be a positive thing. In the library service we have used UAL’s Creative Attributes Framework to develop learning outcomes for our information literacy workshops.

Creative Attributes Framework logo

Often, we only see students for one or two workshops per year, so having a clear aim for each session is helpful.  We can select an appropriate goal for the workshop and then plan exercises that aim to achieve that. By linking to the CAF, we can also show how the library sessions are key to meeting course outcomes and not just an added extra.

I think our learning outcomes also show that teaching for employability doesn’t necessarily disallow creativity. The outcomes emphasise the importance of encouraging the students to research independently, find inspiring resources, solve problems and think critically regarding information and publishing practices, which I think all fit into the key skills and literacies set out by Aoun, particularly critical thinking. All these skills can be useful in employment and life generally, but I don’t believe they compromise creativity. Therefore, it shouldn’t be assumed that teaching for employability means we are seeking to produce automatons, as it can mean helping students acquire the skills they need to work and live creatively.

I was also inspired by his views on how powerful learning can be when students take ownership of it, “it is one thing to have a story told, it is another to be the protagonist”. I am interested in ideas of critical information literacy , involving teaching methods such as ‘flipped classroom’, which I already use in one workshop, where the students carry out a simple research task with very little direction then present their findings back to the rest of the group. This is effective as the students discover the resources for themselves and they are they are interested to hear from their peers about what they have found.

So far, academic libraries have been free from external regulation. However, libraries have always felt under pressure to prove our value and many, including UAL libraries, have been willing to sign ourselves up for mechanisms such as the Customer Services Excellence framework. This sits uncomfortably with me. Although it can be a good idea to have standards to aim towards, it demands a great deal of staff time in compiling data and evidence, and it feeds the trend of framing students as customers. This trend can be seen in the direct link between new government regulations and funding models, as having demanded students pay higher tuition fees, the government is now deeply concerned over ensuring they receive ‘value for money’ plus demonstrate appropriate use of government money.

So, although I don’t think all effects of the TEF are necessarily negative, I think the marketisation-regulation-marketisation merry-go-round that Whitehead warns against is potentially damaging, As students are increasingly framed as customers, and universities even begin to view themselves as providing a service, students might engage less in constructing their own university experience, and may be less likely to become independent, critical thinkers. I don’t know what the effects of the TEF and the new Office for Students’ powers will be, but it seems that teaching the skills and literacies such s those set out by Aoun is increasingly important, and not just to shield future graduates from the growth for artificial intelligence.