Smiling faces sometimes (are the one’s who learn most)

It’s been a while since I last put finger to screen to tap out a blog on here. But, I don’t want anybody to think I’ve been idle. Far from it! I write this having just been presented with my piece of paper that makes me a National Teaching Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. I was inducted along with 54 exceptionally talented people from across the UK in the awe inspiring surroundings of Liverpool Cathedral.


What strikes me about these awards, apart from them making us dress up to receive them, is that when we started talking amongst ourselves there was a large amount of confusion about the role of pedagogy in what we do. We were all in Liverpool supposedly to celebrate our excellence in teaching and learning, yet we seemed to have little collective analysis of what motivates people to learn.

To be sure, there were confident people in the room who had their pet theories (which they were happy to regale us with) but I came away more confused than when I had gone in. This is not a criticism of the NTF Awards. Everybody there had been innovative in some way and over a sustained period. Having been turned down previously I am under no illusions that these awards are not easy to obtain. But, doing excellence and reflecting on it are not the same thing.

I was left wondering how I can translate my own journey into something more useful to the learning community. I certainly couldn’t say “do what I did” as some of the funding streams I have benefitted from over the years no longer exist. And, even if they did, what I did then would no longer fit what you would need to do today. Times change, after all.

So, here, in a couple of paragraphs is the sum total of what I have learned in my 20 or so years in higher education.

1. All students are different. That sounds obvious. So it should. But sometimes I worry about academics who claim “Students don’t like….” as if a casual conversation with a single student is representative of the entire student body.
2. There are lots of ways to teach. Lectures may have their place but so do debates, role plays, problem-based learning, board games etc. The only thing that constrains our teaching is our imaginations.
3. Teaching and learning are not the same thing. Just because we are teaching it doesn’t mean anybody is learning.
4. Students learn in different ways. See 1 and 3. Not all learning takes place in formal learning environments. In fact, it is highly likely that most learning takes place away from the classroom and teachers. Get over it. Students don’t need us as much as we need them.
5. There is no such thing as a weak student. I know, this one takes a bit of selling. There are students who struggle, but it is usually not because they are “weak” but because they were badly advised in their course choice or are having a life crisis of one sort or another.
6. Online learning does not mean the death of education. Just because you like standing in a room talking at people does not mean that they like listening to you. Face to face teaching retains its place, but any lecturer/academic worthy of the name should embrace technologies that help to bring education to those traditionally denied it.
7. Learning should be fun. If I have learned anything at all over my years in HE it is that too much education is pompous, dull and excruciatingly boring. Who decreed that this should be the case? If you can put a smile on your students’ faces then they will learn more. Trust me on this.
8. Student engagement is about more than retention targets. Too much student engagement is concerned either with finding ways to increase retention or in filling places on various governance committees. Neither of these are engagement. An engaged student is one who feels that they are part of a community. That community might consist only of students or of academics and students, but in some way it must be self-sustaining. The idea that we can engage with hundreds of students simultaneously is a misnomer. Relationships are not sustainable at that level, so we need to provide environments where students can connect with 5 or 6 others in an environment where they feel safe and able to do so. The massification of higher education has made this harder to achieve than previously. This does not mean it is impossible.

That’s it for now. I may return to this theme. In the meantime, I’m happy to debate these ideas if you are so minded.


Back To The Future (for teaching and learning)

I don’t normally go out of my way to praise Senior Management. This is partly because they seem aloof and often irrelevant to the day to day activities that consume me. And, also because they really don’t need me to blow their trumpet – they manage to do that quite well on their own!
But, two events at the Open University this week inspired me. On the basis, that I am sometimes too quick to criticise, I also think I should be quick to praise.
The first event was the announcement by our Vice Chancellor, Martin Bean about the appointment of Martha Lane-Fox as our new Chancellor. This was handled particularly well with a message sent round encouraging staff to log on to this You Tube video. I just thought this was very well handled, and it reminded me that the Open University can be a very slick organisation.
The bigger event for me however was organised by Belinda Tynan, our Pro-Vice Chancellor (Learning and Teaching). This was a 2-day residential which brought together around 50 people from across the OU to discuss future learning and teaching.
I was impressed by Belinda’s open and inclusive approach but also her passion for teaching and learning. We ought to be able to take these things for granted, but as she pointed out senior management often operate at a level of strategy that is divorced from what actually happens on the ground. It was great to see Belinda simply being one of the participants, listening to what people had to say, making useful and practical suggestions and never pulling rank to get her own agenda accepted. I’m not sure I’d be that self-disciplined!
With this culture of openness established the event allowed the rest of us to articulate our passion for learning (and it was learning rather than teaching that people seemed passionate about). Through a series of increasingly focussed group activities we thought about where we are now, where we fit in the wider socio-economic system and where we might be in the future.
Of course, crystal ball gazing is always fraught with danger, but I have to say I was impressed with how practical most of the future thinking actually was. A commitment to capture what the OU is in terms of its shared values and to use those values to orient us in our journey into the future. Naturally, 50 people in a room many of whom have never met previously and from a variety of backgrounds could never hope to agree on every finer point. What was noticeable was that even where disagreement emerged there seemed to be a desire to find common ground.
The event was interesting as well because it brought together academics, technicians and administrators on an equal footing. It gave me pause to think as I had a debate with another delegate over breakfast about how hopeless our IT systems were, when he introduced himself as a member of the IT department! More importantly, after our discussion I realised that it was not the people in IT who are the problem, nor the systems but the fact that whilst we all believe, at the strategic level, that we are committed to enriching the student experience; at the practical level we are often overly focussed on what we personally require in the here and now. Presenting other departments as the culprits of everything that doesn’t work is a way of ensuring that we never work together to overcome the challenges we sometimes have to solve (note: I was going to write problems, but changed my mind).
It is always easier to be critical of others than to work with them to find solutions to what is, after all, a shared commitment to our students. In future, I certainly will be less quick to criticise and much quicker to open a dialogue.
Another observation was that as we discussed our vision of teaching and learning, there was a strong sense amongst many of the educational technologists present that any improvement would involve building something. For many of the academics improvement was about improving processes (for which the ed techs wanted to build a new app!) In all this, however, something else became apparent and that was something almost everybody agreed on: at some level education is about relationships. There are relationships that students have with their institution, with their tutors and with each other. Of course, technology can assist and processes can help mediate those relationships but education is all about people connecting, and supporting each other. Whilst individual motivation can help, it is important to have a supportive network of friends, tutors, administrators etc. In some way creating an environment where students can feel confident, where they can overcome personal and educational challenges and where they can obtain their personal goals remains integral to the Open University. That is an exciting challenge and it is taking us back to the future.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

In last week’s blog I was talking about how people learn and pointing out that we don’t know as much as we might think about this. My friend Lindsay Wright posted a comment quoting Timothy Galway which suggested that learning involved either changing the way we think or the way we act.
At one level, this seems self-evidently correct. Nobody learns in a social vacuum. We tend to learn for a purpose. For example, if I sign up for dance lessons it is, presumably, because I’d like to improve my dance steps. This is clearly a case of changing the way I act. If, on the other hand, I sign up for a course in philosophy, it is to change the way I think.
Now, of course, whilst all this seems self-evident, I have to ask: is it? For a start there are all sorts of reasons people take educational courses. If people go to dance or gym classes, they may well want to learn something that changes the way they act, or their motivation may be nothing to do with learning to dance, but rather a way of meeting other people. Far from changing the way we act, that learning might simply be reinforcing a pre-existing pattern of behaviour.
And, if we extend this to the example of philosophy, and sorry to disappoint all my philosopher friends, but whilst students of philosophy may be motivated by a desire to change the way they think, many will simply continue to believe and think as they did before. They may know a bit more about Aristotle, Kant, Marx or Rawls, but their fundamental mode of thinking may not alter at all.
I think what this provides an example of is what the sociologist Robert Merton called ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions. The manifest function of learning is the learning itself, what we learn; but, the latent functions of learning can be many things, including social acceptance, higher esteem, relationship formation etc. In defining learning in a formal sense as an activity likely to result in a change in thinking or doing, we exclude many learning activities that do neither of these things. Indeed, the majority of education, including higher education, which purports to be about learning is indeed about teaching – not quite the happy bedfellows we might have imagined.
Which brings us back to an earlier point concerning the relationship between teaching and learning. Teachers might like to think that they change the way people act and/or think, and in some instances they might do so, but should that be their aim? Is it my goal when confronting a group of students to change the way they act or the way they think? Should I consider it a failure if I fail to do so?
So much teaching is concerned mainly with passing exams, that we have slid into a lethargic acceptance of results as the only measure of success. Many HE teachers will claim that their students only really care about their mark, but who can blame them? If learning is no longer about thinking or acting, but merely acquiring, then it is inevitable that students will only take part in activities that seem to increase their chance of success. For the teacher with a passion for their subject this raises a dilemma: how to convey that passion?
Perhaps an answer is to be found by subverting a quote which I think came from sociologist Stanley Cohen. Our job is not to tell our students what to think, but rather to give them an idea what to think about. If we can do that successfully then it is possible that the latent side-effect of our teaching will, indeed, be a change in the way they act or think.

Think (about your pedagogy)

“What is your pedagogical viewpoint?” might sound like the World’s worst chat-up line, but it is a question worth considering. Most people go into teaching with some sort of ideal about what they want to achieve. Nobody enters teaching for the financial rewards, which is not to say the pay is awful. Compared to many workers university teachers are both well paid and well looked after. But not to the extent that somebody who was money-mad would be interested.
Neither is teaching likely, in most cases, to result in public adulation. Sure, students can be grateful and a handful of academics develop lucrative TV careers. But, on the whole teachers, even good teachers, remain under-valued. We are not rock stars, that’s for sure.
So, what drives us to teach? What values underpin our teaching? What do we think about when we think about teaching? Here, I shall make a confession. When I was first employed in a higher education institution, I had no teaching qualification, at the time I didn’t even have a Ph.D., generally considered the minimum entry requirement for a career in H.E.
It never occurred to me that I needed a teaching qualification. I had an idea that being a “lecturer” was simply an extension of “careers” I had had in the past. I was a confident public speaker, both from years spent working as a club DJ and from my involvement in politics. I thought this and a commitment to my students was enough to get me through. My poor students! How they suffered as I learned my art.
If you had asked me back in those heady days about my pedagogy I would not have had a clue what you were talking about. If I had worked out that it was something to with my philosophy of teaching, I might have muttered something about being ‘student centred’. Looking back, I’m rather relieved nobody asked me, its never pleasant making yourself look an arse is it?
One reason I wasn’t asked, of course, was that the question never occurred to any of my colleagues, nor to my interview panel. But, shouldn’t that question be asked of anybody who wants to make a living teaching? Would we be happy with a pilot who had no experience of flying being employed to fly a 747? Or, a surgeon, who had some vague idea that he might like to use a scalpel, being let loose on real patients? Yet, to some extent that is exactly what we do with teachers in higher education.
As teachers we can improve through practice, through professional development and by watching others. But, students only get one chance at their education. They are not there to meet the new improved you the next time. Don’t we owe it to them to try to get it right from the start? Of course, there is something to be said for learning from experience, but that is only true if we are reflexive in the first place.
Come on, anybody who works or studies in a university can name staff who despite being high profile researchers are a disaster in front of students. They get away with it because it remains the case that research is more highly valued by academics than teaching. If you are a lecturer, what would you rather do: teach or do research? If you are a student who would you rather be taught by: the professor with the string of book titles to their name or the recently appointed, enthusiastic young lecturer with commitment and energy?
If you are a lecturer the answer is not pedagogic, but strategic. Do you want a career or not? For students, I suggest you think carefully about what you wish for. So, when asked about my pedagogical outlook I find it difficult to answer mainly because it is not a question I have spent anything like enough time thinking about.

Don’t leave me this way

It’s always interesting listening to my academic colleagues discuss what they think goes on inside the heads of students. Not that we sit in the Senior Common Room discussing such things. I would but where I work we don’t have a common room – senior or otherwise. But in team meetings (yes, we have such things) we speculate on our inability to retain students.
In most conventional universities retention rates of 98% or more are common amongst full-time undergraduates. Very few full-time students quit their courses. For part-time students (and I do appreciate that many so-called full-time students are working to support themselves these days) the pressures of fitting in study around often complex lives make academic success that much harder to achieve. As a result failure to complete rises.
Now add to that the problems faced by my own institution, The Open University, in having students studying at a distance and you can see why we might be exercised by retention. In my own Faculty, Social Sciences, our retention rates remain stubbornly resolute at around 67%. To put that in simple terms 1 in 3 students who start a course of study with us, don’t complete it.
It’s not as if we are unaware of the problem. Every year around this time we get a spreadsheet which compares modules. We have various University and local committees whose sole function is to dream up new and innovative ways of retaining students. Much of this work falls upon our legions of part-time Associate Lecturers ( or, as they are sometimes called, tutors).
And, it is these tutors who form part of my team. And, they are not shy about expressing what they think are the problems. Some students are not really interested in study, they certainly don’t give a jot for feedback only worrying about their mark, they don’t want to attend tutorials preferring to sit at home and read their course books. Students, it is often said, are more instrumental these days only concentrating on things with a mark attached. And, the answer to these problems seems often to be more compulsion. If tutorials were compulsory students would turn up, wouldn’t they? If they had to read all the materials, if there were marks attached to every single paragraph, they’d read them, wouldn’t they?
To be fair, tutors are as diverse as their students and whilst I have heard these sentiments expressed I have also heard them contested by other tutors. The point is that we desperately want to understand what the problem is so that we can apply the situation. We are, it must be said, led into this way of thinking by “managers” who seem to be in a constant search for the magical intervention that will improve retention.
I sometimes wonder if our failure to find “the answer” is more a symptom of asking the wrong questions than of any failing on the part of students. Students, it seems, are to be on the receiving end of education, rather than an integral part of a process that includes staff and students. What, for example, would our courses look like if students were involved in their production? How would our (teaching staff) thinking have to change if at every stage of the planning of a course we had to justify it to students who will take it? How would our teaching methods change if students were seen as partners in an educational process rather than passive recipients?
There are arguments against this. Students do not have the knowledge of their tutors being a key one. It is undoubtedly true that students lack the subject specialism that is the stock in trade of lecturing staff, but that does not mean they aretabula rasa, empty vessels waiting to be filled. Their knowledge, especially in social science, could be part of the curriculum. It could bring them into the knowledge community and place their experiences at the heart of our teaching.
Or, is this just another fanciful idea?