Why are we here?

IMG_6987In this blog post, Natasha Taylor and Catriona Cunningham reflect on life in the wonderless classroom…and the perils of asking ‘why are you here?’…

Natasha’s story…

I was really excited to have the opportunity to teach this term, but it has turned into one of the most frustrating teaching experiences I have ever had. Attendance is a serious problem and even when they do come they are not engaged – it is like they don’t care. Out of a group of 16 students, I have never even met 8 of them. Nothing in my arsenal of ‘tried-and-tested strategies’ works – absence reporting, pleas to collective conscience, signposts to assessment, promises of fun. Not even chocolate.

Perhaps it is about misplaced expectations? It is a topic that I find interesting – academically, but also at a more general level. Who wouldn’t find crime investigation, prisons and the courts interesting? Who wouldn’t want to come and have a discussion about these things? What is interesting is that in the conversations we have had, they don’t seem to have any awareness of what is going on in the world – be it in real life news, or fiction. Perhaps I am wrong to assume that their lives are enriched with new movie releases, tweeted news headlines, trashy holiday reads and Netflix?

I have been determined not to accept the argument that they are all slipping into ‘consumer mode’ and just want to be presented with a certificate at the end of three years. Surely students come to university to learn, not just be fed knowledge? At the end of one mediocre discussion, I challenged them on this very point. WHY are you here if it is not to take every opportunity made available to you? WHY the inertia?

Devastatingly, the response was numbing. They didn’t even seem to care that I was challenging their very being, demanding them to justify themselves. It was so utterly frustrating because I know what they are missing.  Am I wrong to get cross with them for that?  Should I be letting them decide how and when to engage?

Catriona’s Story

January 2016: Return to institutional life after 5 years in the academic jungle of the Higher Education Academy with its many different tribes and territories. Now, I’m in an institutional landscape where learning and teaching is taking root and sprouting. In academic development we are launching a new HEA-accredited CPD framework and are piloting a (non-accredited) course for those aiming to become Associate Fellows. Within a few days of launching this course, waiting lists for the sessions were full; there was an appetite or even a hunger for teaching and learning… As the weeks have gone by, however, I’ve often felt like I was back in the jungle constantly battling through shoots that are resistant and occasionally hostile.

I had imagined sharing the excellent practice taking place across the UK and beyond, looking at this study, or this website and helping them see the magic you can unleash in your class. They explain very patiently to me that this is all great, exciting, possibly even inspiring and yet they have no time to integrate this new way of doing things. It is as if I am bringing them brightly wrapped gifts from around the world and they don’t even want to unwrap the paper. I want exploration, they want answers. I want change, they want empathy. I want hope, they want job security.

Yesterday, to my shame, I let my emotions show in a class. In an open discussion, I felt a surge of anger I couldn’t – or didn’t – conceal and asked them why they were here to learn about learning and teaching if they didn’t actually want to change. Unlike Natasha’s participants, there was an audible gasp and lots of comments in the session feedback sheets. They were confused, had learned nothing and were deeply offended that I had questioned their reasons for being there. And they were right to be angry because instead of opening up a model for collaboration and ensuring their space was ‘safe’, I was imposing my agenda on them.

But how, in academic development, in the spirit of openness and educational enquiry, can we change hearts and minds without getting battle-fatigue? Where can we find an open clearing in the jungle?

Oh, you shouldn’t have! (Or…is it a grower?)

Jockey Innovation Tower, PolyU, Hong Kong
Jockey Innovation Tower, PolyU, Hong Kong

The arrival of the fourth Innovating Pedagogy report from The Open University was met with muted enthusiasm at Lacunae HQ. Like a fancily wrapped gift that turns out to be rather disappointing…’It is just not very…innovative…this year!’, came the puzzled response.

In previous years the predictions have proven to be pretty good. For example, the 2014 report brought us the flipped classroom, BYOD, storytelling, threshold concepts and (a firm favourite!) bricolage –  innovations that we at Lacunae tinkered with for most of 2015!

So what is different about the predictions for 2016?  Well, part of the problem was that many of the ideas just didn’t feel very new or relevant at first glance. Many of us have been implementing ‘crossover learning’ for a decade or so. If you don’t teach maths or science,  all of the suggestions about labs and scientific argument don’t seem very useful.

On the other hand, those ideas which are more exciting, seem somehow out of reach. Different technologies to help teachers ‘read’ individual students and respond to their specific needs just seem a bit out of reach to the jobbing (time-poor) academic who sees their students one hour a week.

But then we took a second look…..

The key phrase  from the blurb for the report that framed this second reading was “ten innovations that are already in currency but have not yet had a profound influence on education“. And it is that notion of profound influence that brings the light bulb moment.

When you believe that your practice attempts to value the links between informal and formal learning, when interdisciplinarity is at the heart of what you do and you are convinced of the potential to capture affective learning through reflection – and perhaps more importantly you work collaboratively with others who think/feel the same – it is easy to forget that not everyone values these pedagogies. Or even if they value them in some abstract sense, the ideas lack heft and form when it comes to influencing policy. So, although terms like crossover learning, incidental learning and context-based learning may seem a little like cover versions of our favourite tunes, we do see the possible benefits of getting everyone to sing from the same song sheet!

Also, for those readers that feel tempted to skip over the bits that seem aimed at STEM colleagues – don’t!

As the report acknowledges, learning through argumentation is relevant across the disciplines. But we would argue that it isn’t just transdisciplinary, but provides opportunities for an interdisciplinary pedagogical approach. The report recommends professional development for STEM teachers to build their skills in supporting argumentation. Providers of that professional development would do well to draw on the skills of philosophy teachers and law educators. Scientific mooting anyone?

Likewise, computational thinking might provide a handy matrix for extending the acknowledged benefits PBL, but if we also overlay the matrix with the principles of learning and teaching based on ‘wicked problems’ then we could really be onto something.

The key to making everything fall into place and get the most from the report is to look at the table on Page 7. This presents all of the pedagogies identified in all four of the reports, grouped into six themes: scale, connectivity, reflection, extension, embodiment, and personalisation. When you look at the 2015 pedagogies in this context, it is much easier to see the value they bring and to understand how they contribute to a bigger story.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

It’s a charade!

https://ahermitsprogress.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde.jpg

It took me a while to get into it, but I’ve bought into the whole Twitter thing now. But one thing I have struggled with is how can it be usefully employed in teaching? Is it me? What transforms the twitter sphere into a learning space and what can be gained from interacting with your students in 140 characters? I’ve seen it used in live feeds during lectures, or for a ‘chat space’ at revision time, but these applications haven’t really excited me.

Imagine my wonderment, then, when I attended a workshop led by Rosie Miles, Reader in English Literature and Pedagogy, from the University of Wolverhampton last week. Underpinned by the theory of ‘ludic learning’, Rosie has successfully developed a twitter-based activity in which students assume roles from fin de siècle literature and tweet in character. Reflecting on the experience, Rosie describes how twitter becomes a disruptive space characterised by the many-voiced, democratic, participatory spirit associated with ‘carnival’. Students relish in the opportunity to explore characters in novel ways and achieve deep, transformative learning through performances of self.

Twitter is the perfect space in which to situate these conversations. It requires students to say things better, smarter. By using protected accounts, it is easy to set up a twitter bubble – a space where students can interact without interference from the outside world (this is important for assessment).

I can see some many applications in other disciplines. Ask students to assume the characters of social theorists? Historical figures? Artists? Elements? Such a simple idea, yet brilliant.

Click here for the abstract for Rosie’s conference paper. She is keen to encourage more examples in other disciplines so if you give it a go, give her a tweet @MsEmentor .

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

All Wrapped up!

Christo and Jeanne Claude, Wrapped Trees, Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park, Riehen, Switzerland, 1997-98
‘Wrapped’ by Bruno Casonato CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Earlier this year, I ran an HEA workshop with Karen Fraser on how you can squeeze the most out of MOOCs in your learning and teaching. I came across the idea of ‘wrapping’ where you integrate a MOOC into a traditional university face-to-face module.

 

Here is a really good case study by colleagues at Vanderbuilt University.  What I find exciting is that it combines the philosophy of the flipped classroom with pedagogies underpinning blended learning and communities of practice. It may not be an easy approach to take – the case study highlights many of the barriers – but I can see the potential for using open courses in my own teaching. Definitely one to watch!

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

A little more conversation

Thinking Writing
Image kindly provided by Sally Mitchell (QMUL)

This resource comes from the ‘Thinking Writing’ project at QMUL, which explores the relationship between thinking and writing in higher education. It contains some excellent tools for helping students to write better, but I have also found it useful when reflecting on my own writing skills/habits.

It has made me think differently about the importance of conversation in the writing process. Conversations about a piece of writing – either with yourself, your peers or your wider discipline community – can be transformative learning experiences.

However, when we assess, we often deny students the opportunity to have conversations about their writing to develop it. We instruct them not to collude, that their work must be their own. They don’t have the opportunity to consider our feedback and change what they have written, to re-submit and show us what they have actually learned.

If you think about it, the assessment shouldn’t be the end of the learning process. It should be part of an on-going conversation. Some good suggestions for diversifying assessment are provided.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

Lost at sea!

CC-BY-NC 2.0
Ninja Wolf Lost at Sea by Krysthopher Woods

LOST AT SEA!

A super activity to use on those occasions when you are welcoming a new cohort of participants to a programme, and you want an ice-breaker-come-teambuilding exercise that people won’t scoff at.

Put your participants on a yacht in the mid-Atlantic and set the thing alight! Give them 15 potentially life saving items and ask them to decide which they want to keep. What possible use could the chocolate and rum be?

You get the idea. It works so well because it neatly fuses together individual and group decision making processes. And it’s fun. I like to add an additional step to the end which asks the groups to reflect on the group dynamic and team roles and discuss how they perceived their own input, and that of other team members.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.

Yikety Yak! Let’s talk back!

Yik-Yak

Whoo-oo-oo! I am the Ghost of Christmas Present, come to alarm all you teaching folk with a vision of horror!  Your students – all of them – have a new app, Yik Yak. It’s like Twitter, but it is anonymous. They can write whatever they like and no one will know. They can moan, swear, bully, use bad grammar…SHUDDER.

It’s not open to the whole world. Worse!  It is geographically bound, so you can only pick up ‘Yaks’ (messages) from with a  1.5 mile radius. That’s your campus, your lecture theatre. That means everything is about you. Intense, huh?  You can feel the wave of panic in the Executive suites. It must be stamped out!

Hang on a minute!  I am the Ghost of Christmas Future and I say DON’T PANIC!  Surely we can find a use for this? How might it help us with Learning and Teaching? It could give us insights into how our students learn, and alert us to NSS issues early? We could use up-voting and down-voting to develop critical analysis. We could even join them and be part of the community. Want to know more, well I bring you this lovely piece by Eric Stoller:

https://www.jisc.ac.uk/blog/yik-yak-the-rise-of-anonymous-geo-social-connectivity-20-may-2015

I think he just saved Christmas!

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.